Waiting for the Messiah


Waiting for the Messiah


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To Wait or Not To Wait?

By Yisrael Rutman

It is the year 2001, and the "Jerusalem Syndrome" is with us. Just recently, the Jerusalem Post reported that another person claiming to be the Messiah appeared in the vicinity of the Temple Mount, this time arrayed in a white robe and riding a donkey. Police took him away for questioning.

For some Christians, the year 2000 was thought to be the year of the Second Coming. Others have placed it somewhat later in the first century of the millenium. So there should be no surprise at the "Jerusalem Syndrome." Much worse phenomena associated with the apocalypse was feared.

Messianic thought began with Judaism, and is still an integral part of it; but Jewish tradition does not assign any specific date for the advent of the messianic era. On the contrary, we are cautioned not to attempt the calculation of the end of days. Attempts to predict or prompt the coming of history's culmination have all too often led to disastrous results. The most tragic episode in Jewish history in this connection was that of Shabbetai Tsvi, in the 1600s.

He and his visionary accomplice, Nathan of Gaza, succeeded in convincing much of the Jewish world that he was indeed the Messiah, the king who will preside over the ingathering of the exiles, the re-building of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, and usher in a reign of peace and harmony among nations. (Literally, the Hebrew word Messiah means "the anointed," the manner in which Jewish kings are coronated.) When his notoriety attracted the disapproval of the Turkish Sultan, he was coerced to convert to Islam. Shabbetai Tsvi's apostasy betrayed the pure and fervent hopes of thousands of Jews; and for many it was a crushing blow to their faith. Since then, any candidate for messianic leadership has been looked upon with the utmost skepticism.

"Three things come unexpectedly," the Talmud declares---"Messiah, a lost article and a scorpion." The advent of the Messiah is not to be calculated. He will only come when we are not expecting him.

This Talmudic statement, mysterious enough in itself, seems to be contradicted by other aspects of Judaism. For one thing, we pray three times every day in the Shmoneh Esrei (the "standing prayer" which is the central part of the daily Jewish prayer service) for the swift coming of the Messiah. In addition, included in the 13 Articles of Faith that is found in Jewish prayerbooks is the following affirmation: "I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah; and even though he may delay, I believe that any day he will come."

The great spiritual leaders of every generation have waited fervently for the coming of the Messiah. Rabbi Yisroel Mier Kagan, known as the Chofetz Chaim, had a special coat that he kept just for the occasion of greeting the Messiah, which he felt would be any day. The great Chassidic figure, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, once sent out invitations to his daughter's wedding that read: "The wedding reception will be in Jerusalem, the Holy City...and if the Messiah hasn't come yet, it will be held here in Berditchev." In the bitterest moments of exile and oppression, the hope in the messianic era has sustained our people.

So, on the one hand, we are enjoined to await his arrival, our thoughts and prayers are permeated with messianic anticipation; on the other hand, we are told that he will only come when we are not expecting it. How to resolve the contradiction?

In the Maharsha's commentary on the above-quoted Talmudic statement provides us with a solution to this riddle. He explains that the three things mentioned are connected. The Messiah's unexpected arrival will either be a happy experience, like finding a lost article of great value; or it will be a painful one, like the sting of a scorpion. In other words, if one is prepared spiritually for the Messiah, it will be an experience of incomparable joy; but if not, it may be instead a very painful and difficult trial. Waiting for the Messiah does not mean calculating the date of his arrival or thinking all the time about when he will come. Rather, it means preparing oneself by engaging in spiritual pursuits, such as studying Torah and fulfilling its commandments.

There is a story about a man who was paying his debt to society in an Israeli prison. At a certain point, he began to think seriously about things; how he got into such a terrible situation and what to do now that he found himself as a criminal behind bars. He sincerely regretted his offense. Gradually, he returned to Jewish tradition. He studied, prayed and kept the commandments. In short, he became a new person. The rehabilitation he had undergone was called to the attention of the prison authorities. Eventually, his case for a shortened sentence was brought before a judge. The judge agreed to free him from prison---on one condition. The condition was that he must remain on probation, engaged in full-time religious studies in a religous school for the duration of his sentence. The man agreed to the condition of his release and happily continued his religious development outside the prison walls until the end of his probation.

Word of what happened got around, and one of the other inmates had an idea. If he could do it, why not me? So he went through the motions of being religeous, putting on a convincing show for the prison authorities and the judge. He, too, was awarded a release on the same condition as the first prisoner. Naturally, he was overjoyed. His ruse had succeeded. He was practically a free man. All he had to do now would be to sit around in the religious school for a while, until his probation was over. What could be easier?

Life in the religious school was not as easy as he had expected, though. He found the day-long schedule of religious studies and prayer to be burdonsomely tedious. For he really had no interest in it. After all, it had all been an act he had put on in order to get out of prison. But he was discovering that, for him, this was even worse than prison. After a few days, he requested that he be allowed to return to prison, and his request was granted.

This is similar to the situation that we find ourselves in as we approach the messianic era. The world we live in at present---"this vale of tears"---is like a prison-house of physical and emotional suffering. We long for a better life. If, however, we are not prepared for it, if we are hoping and praying for the wrong things, for the wrong reasons, we, too, may be bitterly disappointed.

There is an allusion to this in a verse of the prophet Isaiah: "And on that day, the knowledge of God will cover the earth like the waters cover the ocean bed." The prophet compares the future knowledge of G-d to the ocean waters. When we look out over the surface of the ocean, the ocean floor is totally covered, all is water as far as the eye can see. Below the surface, however, the depth varies. In some places the bottom is just underneath the surface; elsewhere it's very deep.

So it will be in the messianic era. The depth of pleasure that people will then experience will vary. Those who have prepared themselves, who have worked toward spiritual goals, and dug down deep into themselves to discover their spiritual potential, will experience unimaginable pleasure. They will be like deeply hollowed-out vessels, able to contain the vast knowledge that will be poured into them. Those who haven't, will nevertheless perceive something of the knowledge of G-d, because it will be so much more accessible. But it will be a shallow, superficial thing compared to what others have. Who knows but that they may even long for the good old days…


from the July 2001 Edition of the Jewish Magazine




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