Ancient Syrian synagogue hit by looting, shelling

Theft and shelling have damaged a 2,000 year-old synagogue in Damascus, one of the oldest in the world, Syrian government and opposition activist sources said on Monday.

Syria's historic monuments have increasingly become a casualty of the civil war has killed more than 70,000 people. Parts of Aleppo's medieval stone-vaulted souk have been reduced to rubble, and many ancient markets, mosques and churches across the country are threatened with destruction.

The damage has so far been light at the Jobar Synagogue, built in honour of the biblical prophet Elijah, according to Mamoun Abdulkarim, the head of Syria's antiquities department.

“Local community officials say the place's sanctity has been violated and there were thefts but I cannot verify the nature of the thefts without investigation,” Abdulkarim told Reuters by telephone.

“Four months earlier they (Jewish authorities) tried to go in and were prevented from entering due to the presence of fighters.”

He said that authorities believed looters have mostly stolen gold chandeliers and icons dating back 70 to 100 years.

But Abdulkarim said he doubted that thousands of priceless manuscripts had been stolen from the synagogue as most of them, including Torahs in filigreed silver cases, had already been moved to the synagogue inside Damascus's Old City, a UNESCO world heritage site.

The Jobar Synagogue is inside a run-down outer district of Damascus called Jobar, which was home to a large Jewish community for hundreds of years until the 1800s.

Rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad began moving into Jobar last July and the area has suffered heavy shelling from government air strikes and artillery since then.

Pro-Assad groups blame rebels for damage to Syria's heritage, while the opposition blames the government. Video has shown both sides destroying ancient castles and shrines with shelling, gun battles and targeted explosions.


“Jobar has been shelled by Assad's forces for more than 60 days … There is no building that has been spared by the shelling in Jobar, whether it is holy or not,” said opposition activist Mohammed al-Shami, who lives in the area.

“But luckily many artefacts from the synagogue were removed by a local council in Jobar and are now being stored for safety,” he said, speaking by Skype.

Other Jewish sites remained unharmed and in government hands, according to the Syrian official Abdulkarim.

“We deal with these (synagogues) in their archaeological value as we are dealing with a mosque or church, no differently. It is part of our heritage. Jewish culture is preserved,” he said.

Abdulkarim said Jews still living in Damascus were storing Jewish artefacts in the Old City's Jewish Quarter at a synagogue that dates back to the Ottoman era and where Syria's tiny Jewish community, only a few dozen, still prays.

The Jobar site, built atop a cave where the prophet Elijah was believed to have hidden from persecution, has been a place of pilgrimage for Syrian and Arab Jews.

Activists said at least six mortars had hit the synagogue, but that damage was still minimal.

Video published by opposition groups in early March showed damage to the concrete outer walls surrounding the synagogue and a pile of rubble next to the entrance, which is marked with an inscription in Arabic, Hebrew in English.

Reporting by Erika Solomon and Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Jon Hemming

Historic Damascus synagogue looted and burned

The 2,000-year-old Jobar Synagogue in the Syrian capital of Damascus was looted and burned to the ground.

The Syrian army loyal to President Bashar Assad and rebel forces are blaming each other for the destruction of the historic synagogue, according to reports on Sunday.

The synagogue is said to be built on the site where the prophet Elijah anointed his successor, Elisha, as a prophet. It had been damaged earlier this month by mortars reportedly fired by Syrian government forces.

The rebels said the Syrian government looted the synagogue before burning it to the ground, Israel Radio reported Sunday.

The government said the rebels burned the synagogue and that so-called Zionist agents stole its historic religious items in an operation that had been planned for several weeks, the Arabic Al-Manar Television reported, citing the Arabic Syria Truth website.

Four questions of Miriam

The name “Miriam” stems from the Hebrew word for “bitter” (mar), and Miriam has every right to feel that way. 

“Miriam who?” you might ask?

My point exactly.

I’m talking about the biblical Israelite heroine and prophetess, without whom Moses never would have been born and the Israelites would not have escaped Egypt, nor would they have survived 40 years in the desert. Miriam played an integral role in the story of Exodus, yet she’s all but ignored during Passover, the holiday that commemorates the Exodus. It’s not surprising, in a way; while Miriam’s feats, as depicted in the Torah and the Talmud, make her a woman worth celebrating, she is slighted, punished, ignored and underestimated for much of her life.   

In keeping with Passover’s emphasis on groupings of fours, I have compiled four questions (and answers) about Miriam’s life that reveal her courage, her spirit and her central role in the Exodus. You are encouraged to drink four glasses of Manischewitz as you read them. Or, better yet, ask a child (or four) to chant them aloud.

Did Miriam really save the Jewish people? 

Yes, and at the age of 6, no less. 

While one root of Miriam’s name is “bitter,” the other is the Hebrew word for “rebellion” (“meri”), and Miriam more than lived up to her name. According to the Talmud, Miriam was about 6 years old when Pharaoh commanded that all Israelite baby boys be killed at birth. In response to Pharaoh’s decree, Miriam’s father, Amram, divorced his wife, Yocheved, because he couldn’t bear the possibility of having a son who would be killed. Amram was the gadol hador — the most learned Jew of his generation in Egypt — and all of the Israelite men followed his lead and divorced their wives as well.

Miriam boldly rebuked her father for this action, saying: “Your act is worse than Pharaoh’s! He decreed that only male children not be permitted to live, but you decreed the same fate for both male and female children! … It is uncertain whether or not Pharaoh’s decree will be fulfilled. However, there is no doubt that your decree will indeed be fulfilled.” Amram’s decree that men divorce their wives would have led to the extinction of the Jewish people. Further, Miriam revealed a prophecy: that her mother would give birth to a son who would redeem the Israelites from bondage and lead them to freedom.

And Amram, the most learned and respected Jew of his generation, accepted his young daughter’s advice and acted accordingly. He remarried Yocheved, and all the other Israelite men remarried their respective wives. A little while later, a son was born: Moses.

When Yocheved could conceal Moses no longer, it was Miriam who kept watch as Moses was set adrift on the Nile in his basket. And when Pharaoh’s daughter retrieved Moses from the water, it was Miriam who boldly and cleverly offered to arrange for a Hebrew wet nurse to take care of the infant. In this way, Miriam arranged for Moses to be brought back to his mother, Yocheved, who nursed and raised her son.

And so, at the young age of 6, Miriam saved the Jewish people.

Did Miriam really choose music over food?

Yes. Who needs leavened bread when you’ve got tambourines?

We are told that we eat matzah on Passover because the Israelites were in such a hurry to leave Egypt that they didn’t even have time to let their bread rise before they departed. This might suggest that they were all caught unawares, but really, leavened bread was less of a priority than a full percussion band. Miriam knew the Exodus was coming — she had prophesied it — and she prepared for it not by telling the Israelites to stockpile bread, but rather by telling them to make tambourines and drums. Then, after the Israelites successfully crossed the Red Sea, she took out her tambourine and led the women in song and dance — a song you might recognize as the “Mi Chamocha.”

This is the first time Miriam is identified by name in the Torah. The story of Miriam’s rebellion against her father comes from the Talmud; up until this point in Exodus, we’ve heard only of an unnamed sister who kept watch over Moses on the Nile. Even here, however, Miriam’s relationship to Moses is not made explicit, and she is not connected to or identified as the unnamed sister who kept watch over Moses on the Nile. The Torah relates, “Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and then all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels.”

Aaron’s sister? Why not Aaron and Moses’ sister? Why, especially now, in the moments after  Moses’ greatest triumph as leader of the Jewish people? The Talmud contends that it is because Miriam’s major prophesy — that her mother would give birth to a son who would redeem Israel — took place before Moses’ birth, when she was the sister of only Aaron.  

Miriam’s song is notable not only because it provides the occasion for naming her, but also because the very activity she engaged in — singing and dancing in public — came to be banned by Orthodox Jews. Today, Orthodox women are not allowed to sing the “Mi Chamocha” — in synagogue or on the seashore or anywhere men might hear them, because Orthodox Judaism prohibits women from singing (and dancing, and wearing clothing that reveals their skin) in public because it might arouse men and distract them from their religious pursuits. It’s a distressingly contemporary issue: In January, an Israeli teenage girl was suspended from school because she appeared — and sang — on Israel’s version of the American TV show “The Voice.” 


What did Miriam do to deserve being struck with leprosy? 

She stood up to Moses, and was a woman.

In Deuteronomy, Miriam speaks out again, but this time she’s punished for it. 

This time, the object of her criticism is not her father, but her brother Moses. Still, the subject is the same: wives and conjugal obligations. 

Miriam learns that Moses has been neglecting his wife Zipporah: He has not had relations with her since he began communicating with God, and is behaving as though being a prophet means that the only person he’s beholden to is God. Miriam discusses the issue with Aaron, and they are in agreement: They reason that although they, too, are prophets, they haven’t distanced themselves from interpersonal relationships the way Moses has, and perhaps Moses ought to take a lesson from them.

The Torah relates that Miriam and Aaron questioned, “Is it but through Moses alone that the Lord has spoken? Has He not spoken to us as well?” God reacts swiftly: He calls a meeting with the three siblings, during which he chastises Miriam and Aaron for thinking that they are as important or close to God as Moses is, and informs them that he favors Moses over them. And, as punishment, Miriam is struck with leprosy.

Only Miriam. Not Aaron. Why is Miriam the one punished, when both Aaron and Miriam issued the same criticism? Some rabbis reasoned that it’s because Miriam initiated the conversation. Others reason that it’s because Aaron was the high priest, and a physical affliction would prevent him from doing his job. Either way, Miriam gets the short end of the stick.

Interestingly, although Miriam advocates the importance of conjugal and familial responsibilities and speaks out on behalf of wives and mothers, in the Torah, she is neither a wife nor a mother herself — a striking act of nonconformity. In the Talmud, the rabbis “fix” that “problem.” The Talmud claims that Miriam was married to Caleb, and with him, she gave birth to Hur, who valiantly tried to prevent the building of the Golden Calf. Later generation descendants of Miriam include Bezalel, the chief artisan of the Tabernacle, and King David. But Caleb and Miriam’s names never appear together in the Torah. Multiple women are identified as Caleb’s wife — none of them named Miriam. In one passage, Caleb’s wife is identified as being named Ephrath. In another passage, his wife is named Azubah. The Talmud says that Ephrath and Azubah are other names for Miriam. And, in yet another passage, someone named Ashur is said to have had two wives, Helah and Naarah. The Talmud identifies Ashur as Caleb and says that Helah and Naarah are both Miriam. 

Did anyone appreciate her gifts? 

Yes, but mostly after she died. Figures. 

During their 40 years of wandering in the desert, the Israelites were sustained by manna and water from a rock well that accompanied them on their travels. The Talmud identifies it as “Miriam’s Well.” 

Its water is said to have the taste of milk, wine and honey, the same flavors attributed in the Torah, therefore connecting the well not just with physical nourishment but also with spiritual nourishment.

When Miriam dies in the Book of Numbers, at the start of the 40th year of wandering, the water from the well dries up, and the Israelites are left without water. It is only after her death that the Israelites fully understand that Miriam is to thank for keeping them alive — for providing them with the water necessary for their survival in the desert. They rally together and plead with Moses and Aaron to renew the well’s waters — otherwise they will die. Moses and Aaron pray to God for guidance, and God tells Moses to take his rod, gather the Israelites into an assembly and speak to the rock to request its waters. But Moses does not heed God’s orders: Instead of using words (as Miriam, the gifted linguist, did), Moses takes his rod and strikes the rock. Nothing happens. So what does Moses do? He again strikes the rock with his rod. This time, water comes gushing forth, and the Israelites are able to quench their thirst. But directly afterward, Moses and Aaron receive the ultimate punishment: God rebukes them for not heeding his orders (he said speak to the rock, not hit it with your stick!) and informs them that because they have not been sufficiently faithful, after all this wandering, they will not be permitted to enter the Promised Land after all. 

In the late 1980s, a Boston Rosh Chodesh group inaugurated a new Passover seder ritual to honor Miriam: Miriam’s Cup, a cup of water, intended to symbolize the life-giving waters of Miriam’s Well.

Although I appreciate the sentiment, I have to ask: Really? A cup of water? Miriam deserves more than that. Elijah gets a glass of wine and a ceremonial opening of the door — and he hasn’t shown up to a seder yet! 

In the context of an evening when we are each commanded to drink four glasses of wine, and we enjoy a large spread of foods, a single cup of water pales in comparative significance. 

As opposed to setting aside and designating a cup of water in her honor, why not discuss how water is the primary component of absolutely everything on the seder table? Without water, there would be no food. There would be no people, no us. Similarly, without Miriam, there would be no Moses, and there would be no free Jews. There would be no us.

So it stands to reason that Miriam deserves a central role in the Passover seder. A role more central, and more vocal, than a cup of water.

To start with, how about a song?  

Pretty for Passover

Quickly approaching are those festive spring nights marked by a plethora of matzah, reclining comfortably in your chair and — just maybe — hitting your neighbor over the head with stalks of green onion during the “Dayenu” (an Afghani and Iranian Passover tradition). Whether you’re hosting a Passover seder this year or joining one, you won’t want to be without these beautiful essentials that are sure to remind you and the rest of your table that those once enslaved have now become like kings.

The hand-painted enamel and metal of this gold and burgundy Elijah cup ($300) says royalty all around. Set out a glass of wine for that last elusive guest in something truly regal.

None of your gorgeous seder plates or dishes will hold your guests’ attention if they stay empty. Get cooking with the fifth cookbook in the Kosher by Design series: Susie Fishbein’s “Passover by Design” ($29.99). The varied recipes are accompanied by appetizing color photos, and more than 130 are gluten-free! Mitzvahland, 16733 Ventura Blvd., Encino, or

Despite the plainness of its name, the Simplicity Seder Plate ($350) shines with Swarovski crystals and pewter detailing atop silvery frosted glass. The 13-inch seder-table focal point features six removable bowls and manages to strike an elegant balance of beautiful and understated. Gallery Judaica, 1312 Westwood Blvd., Los Angeles or

Over the years, your paperback haggadahs will be replaced as they wear down (or finally succumb to maror-throwing toddlers). Keep one special copy of this essential text as a beautiful yearly addition to the table and as something to be handed down to future generations. The Silver Heirloom Edition Elias Haggadah ($135.89) includes the commentary of Rabbi Joseph Elias and both Hebrew and English text. The silver-plated cover can be personalized with your family name.

If your seders are more funky than formal, you’ll love the feel of this Blue Wave Swirl Matza Plate ($48). The handcrafted fused glass and imperfect edges make for beautiful asymmetry, giving this plate the look and feel of a casual and intimate family gathering.


Madeleine Adler died April 13 at 83. She is survived by her daughter, Jackie (Doug) Bristol; son, Robert (Maxine); two grandchildren; and sister, Vera Adler. Malinow and Silverman

Mollye Polin Aranoff died April 24 at 96. She is survived by her daughter, Leslie (Robert) Aranoff-Hirschman; grandchildren Halley Hirschman and Stacey (Michael) Woodhart; and great-grandchildren, Kaleigh and Alex Woodhart. Hillside Memorial Park

Abe Aronow died April 22 at 61. He is survived by his brohter, Sam (Elizabeth); and sister, Greta. Mount Sinai

Jane Axel died April 22 at 90. She is survived by her son, Robert (Linda); daughter, Karin (John Hondershot) Honigberg; four grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren. Mount Sinai

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Shelly Bear died April 14 at 62. She is survived by her daughter, Michelle; son, Michael; and brother, Tony (Christine) Rose. Mount Sinai

George Harvey Blum died April 14 at 92. He is survived by his daughter, Marta (Shahpoor Ashorzadeh) Blum; and son, Matthew. Mount Sinai

Jennie Candiotti died April 25 at 98. She is survived by her son, Ruben; daughter, Molly; three grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren. Groman

Miriam Ellis died April 20 at 89. She is survived by her daughter, Jacqueline Dermer; and grandchildren. Malinow and Silverman

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Zelda Siteman Freeberger died April 26 at 93; she is survived by her daughter, Michelle Siteman Shwartz; son, Frank; three grandchildren; nieces; and nephews. Malinow and Silverman

Frances Freeman died April 23 at 97. She is survived by her sons, Michael and Alan (Alice); three grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Miles Gardner died April 18 at 76. He is survived by his wife, Beverly; children, Jonathan (Lori), Audrey (William Schumacher) and Jeffrey (Nancy); and three grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Gustave “Gus” Hermes died April 24 at 77. He is survived by his daughters, Rhonda Lipnicki, Rosalin (Marty) Mandelberg and Tamar (Matt Earl Beesley); son, Russell (Kat) Rosen; seven grandchildren; and brother, Jerry. Mount Sinai

Sadie Ruth Jaro died April 19 at 94. She is survived by her sons, Robert (Laurie) and Larry (Sara); daughter, Barbara (Gershon) Waintraub; four grandchildren; and great-grandchild. Mount Sinai

Lillian Kaiser died April 23 at 96. She is survived by her son, Ronald; and by grandchildren, Jennifer and Daniel. Mount Sinai

Charlene Kaplan died April 22 at 70. She is survived by her friends. Groman

Estelle Klein died April 14 at 99. She is survived by her son, Laurence (Betsy); daughters, Barbara (Ronald Mitchell) and Judy; 10 grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Beulah Kraveitz died April 23 at 94. She is survived by her son, Mark; and two grandchildren. Groman

Michael Kreinman died April 23 at 76. He is survived by his wife, Lynn; daughters, Diana (Jonathan) Rodgers and Karen (William Basore); grandson, Bram Elijah Rodgers; nieces; and nephews. Malinow and Silverman

Estelle Kreitzer died April 28 at 86. She is survived by her son, Philip. Malinow and Silverman

Dr. Irvin Jack Leven died April 13 at 83. He is survived by his wife, Evelyn; sons, Paul (Saralyn)and Steven (Susan); five grandchildren; and sister, Phyllis Heft. Eden

Dr. Eileen Levine died April 15 at 57. She is survived by her husband, Michael. Malinow and Silverman

David Massoth died April 13 at 86. He is survived by his wife, Roberta; daughters, Donna (Leo) Santiago and Susan (Gil) Abrams; son, Richard (Lise LaFlamme); six grandchildren; sisters, Lillian (Warren) Neidenberg and Leanna Berlin; and brother-in-law, Jack Berlin. Malinow and Silverman

Shirley Mastin died April 24 at 86. She is survived by her daughter, Helene Cohen. Malinow and Silverman

Edward Merkow died April 15 at 75. He is survived by his daughter, Jan (David) Fryman; sons, Michael (Elena), Todd (Lisa) and Eric (Dawn); eight grandchildren; and sister, Esther Shapiro. Malinow and Silverman

Esther Meshul died April 26 at 94. She is survived by her husband, Sol; daughters, Myna (Rabbi Uri) Herscher and Renee (Tom Klitcher); son, Cary (Roxanne Sylvester); six grandchildren; two great-grandchildren; sister, Sylvia Greene; and brothers, Bernard Kliska and Beie. Mount Sinai

Freda Mesnik died April 12 at 93. She is survived by her son, Stuart (Barbara); six grandchildren; and great-grandchild. Mount Sinai

Carol Nash died April 16 at 86. She is survived by her sons, Anthony and Robert. Malinow and Silverman

Sylvia Novak died April 19 at 84. She is survived by her sons, Jonathan and David (Isabelle); and grandson, Yitzhak (Aviva). Mount Sinai

Marilyn Orzeck died April 22 at 74. She is survived by her daughter, Elise; son, Toren (Jill); grandson, Alexander; sister, Sally (Sheldon) Goldman; and brother, Harold (Elaine) Adelman. Mount Sinai

Grusha Paterson-Mills died April 15 at 97. She is survived by her husband, Alvin Mills; daughter, Judy (Dr Emanuel) Baker; son, Richard Marcus; stepsons, Robert and Steven Mills; stepdaughters, Maria Mills, Elaine (Eric) Eaydian and Janette (William) Grigg; grandchildren, David (Marissa) Marcus and Ellen Cuningham; five great-grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Ivan Phillips died April 12 at 89. He is survived by his daughter, Shirlee (Ken) Frost; sons, Randy (Beth) and Gary (Vicki); and grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Betty Polachek died April 28 at 91. She is survived by her son, Michael (Jane); daughter, Joanne (Colin) Lennard; eight grandchildren; eight great-grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Sylvia Prager died April 20 at 98. She is survived by her daughter, Karen Strauss. Malinow and Silverman

Estelle Rosenberg died April 25 at 87. She is survived by her son, Mark (Sona); and two grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Richard Rosett died April 19 at 65. He is survived by his wife, Sharon; daughter, Ilene (David) Tucker; son, Michael (Mya); and four grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Enter Elijah, designated drinker

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In a video on his Web site, Jaffe demonstrates his invention to a friend. Because he wanted a genuine reaction, he had a set-up that sitcom writers seldom encounter: “I had to do it in one take.” (Thus Jaffe mentions in the video that it sells for $29.95, when it’s actually priced at $34.95 plus shipping on the

Dira6 ‘Eliyahu ha Navi’ music video

When you least expect it, he’s selected



As the seder evening proceeds, my son wants to know one thing: "When will Elijah get here?"

From earliest childhood, he captures our imagination. We wait for him and wonder about him. We invite Elijah the prophet to visit us at our seder table, drink from his cup, and then move on, to visit the next seder, down the street or across the world.

But who is this magical, mysterious visitor — and what is he doing at our seder?

The biblical Elijah was a defender of God, a champion of monotheism who battled monarchs and religious leaders for the sake of God’s name. But it is his death — more than his life — that intrigues. The story, as told in the biblical book of Kings, tells us that Elijah does not pass away in the normal sense; instead, he is somehow "taken" by God, swooped up into heaven "in a whirlwind." After that, there is no mention of Elijah again until the very last words of the very last prophet, Malachi, which will be chanted in synagogues this Shabbat. That text tells us that Elijah will come and "reconcile parents with children and children with their parents" (Malachi 3:24).

The unifier of generations. The reconciler of parents and children. With such a near-impossible task in his portfolio, Elijah becomes something more than mortal, something larger than life. The prophet who will accomplish the miracle of warming the hearts of the generations to each other becomes endowed with even more qualities, with a range of universal to very personal implications. The figure of Elijah transforms into an invitation — to ultimate redemption, to peace and reconciliation in this pained world.

He is seen as the front-runner of the Messiah, the one who will announce that better days are coming for all of us. But his powers are not limited to that vast application. In talmudic literature, we see a figure who appears, inexplicably, in all variety of situations: a synagogue, a study hall, a rabbinic discussion. Always, Elijah acts as a wise man, a counselor to the rabbis, a dispenser of special insights.

But Elijah’s mysterious appearances do not stop there. Throughout our literature and lore, the prophet has been known to show up even in unlearned circles, in the streets, homes and businesses of the common man. Stories abound, granting him numerous cameo roles as mystery guest, miracle worker, guardian angel, agent of God. For thousands of years, mortals have encountered Elijah, realizing only after the fact that the quiet visitor, the beggar at the door, the magical man — often lining up help for the poor and suffering — was Elijah himself.

He is a richly textured and multidimensional character. Bringer of the Messiah and guardian of orphans. Many parts of a complex whole. But what’s he doing at our seder?

Jewish tradition imbues Elijah with the job of heralding the ultimate, worldly redemption. And Passover night, with all its sights, sounds, words and images, is a celebration of redemption. But there is even another reason for Elijah’s nocturnal visitation.

In the Talmud, when there are matters of debate that cannot be solved by mortals, Elijah is invoked: the Rabbis declare "Teiku," an acronym for words which mean "Elijah will someday come and resolve all difficulties and problems." Through Elijah, stalemates will end. Impossible questions will be answered. And the darkest recesses will be illuminated.

On Pesach, the night of redemption also is a night of questions. From "Ma Nishtana" through the song "Echad Mi Yodeia," the act of questioning, of pointing out problems and inconsistencies, defines the seder ritual. Questioning and redemption are two sides of the same coin. A sense of Israelite redemption can be experienced only through a process of rigorous asking, through hours of seeking.

"Where is he?" my son wants to know. "When is Elijah coming?" Perhaps he is here already, happy to fulfill his many tasks as long as we seek him with our questions.