He is mentioned hundreds of thousands of times each day, all over the world, yet no one actually knows his name or very much about him. What he looks like, when he will arrive or where he will come from is a mystery, debated and deliberated for centuries. He is not referred to directly in any of the scriptural books – at least not by Jewish reckoning – and the oblique allusions to him in the prophecies of Balaam, Isaiah and Daniel, among others, are exceedingly difficult to decipher. Yet despite his ephemeral and elusive character, he remains one of Judaism’s most powerful personalities: the Moshiach.
The most authoritative source we have concerning the Moshiach comes from Maimonides, the great rabbinic codifier born in 1135 in Cordoba, Spain. In his commentary on the 10th chapter of the talmudic tractate Sanhedrin, he lists his 13 fundamental principles of Jewish faith. The 12th of those principles states as follows: “I believe, with a perfect faith, in the coming of the Messiah. And although he may delay, I will nevertheless wait for him, with each day that comes.”
The concept of a heroic savior, a liberator, a Moshiach – like the other fundamentals of belief, in God, Moses, the prophets and the Torah – was meant to be a unifying force in Jewish life, something we could all agree upon, aspire to and pray for. Yet tragically, this, too, has become a major bone of contention, engendering countless arguments and antagonism among various segments of our people. The rhetoric and rancor is particularly intense as it relates to the State of Israel.
In the national religious camp, the Moshiach – if he is a single figure at all – is seen as the culmination of a process, a “Messianic Age” that begins with Jewish independence and sovereignty.
Maimonides himself, quoting numerous Talmudic sources, affirms that “there is no difference between this world and the Messianic Age, except with regard to our subjugation by other governments.” The era of Moshiach – while it ultimately includes an end to poverty, war and bloodshed – is initially characterized by a return to Israel, the ingathering of the exiles, the rejuvenation of Israeli soil, increased prosperity among Jews and a marked increase in Torah study.
Each and every one of these ancient prophesies is coming true before our eyes, if we only deign to see it. And so the prayer for the State of Israel that we recite in our synagogues fittingly reflects this phenomenon and openly praises God for “the beginning of the flowering of our Redemption.”
YET IN other circles, ironically, an ever-growing segment of our population is using Moshiach to restrict and retard the return to Israel and participation in the national Jewish movement.
“When Moshiach arrives on the scene and leads us to the Holy Land – then and only then will I, too, leave the Diaspora and move to Israel!” That is the mantra heard from Boro Park to Buenos Aires, from Manchester to Melbourne.
The singular miracles of the last century in Israel are dismissed out of hand – as if they occurred purely by coincidence – and life goes on, as it has for the last 2,000 years, in the countries of our dispersion.
While certainly there are those who cling to a theological excuse not to make aliya – flimsy and faulty as I believe it to be – I am convinced that the vast majority of Jews, when pressed to make a change, have another reason for activating their “Messiah complex.”
Back when I was a teacher in America at a religious day school, we once brought a well known Jewish children’s band to perform. At the end of the concert, the band members gathered all the kids in a large circle and danced with them, singing, “Am Yisrael, have no fear, Moshiach will be here this year!” The school principal, obviously perturbed, suddenly entered the circle and changed the song to a different tune.
Afterward, the band’s leader asked him why he had done that.
“What right do you have,” demanded the principal, “to promise these children that Moshiach is coming this year? What if a year passes and he does not come, what will you say to them then?” The band leader was shocked by this outburst, especially as it came from a deeply observant Jew.
“Do you not believe in Maimonides’s principle?” he shot back at him. “Is a Jew not required to believe that Moshiach is coming any day? Did not our Sages, in anticipation of his arrival, keep a packed suitcase under their beds so that they might leave with him at a moment’s notice?” Some weeks later, I saw the band leader at another function and reminded him of the incident.
He said to me, “I have thought long and hard about what happened at that school. I am convinced that the principal stopped our singing for one simple reason: He is not at all anxious for Moshiach to come. Yes, he mouths the mantra, and in principle, he supports it. But in reality, when push comes to shove, he is not ready to reorder his life. He likes his position, his perks, the prestige and kavod [honor] he gets under the present circumstances. Today, he is a big fish in a little pond, the lord of his manor.
But he knows that when Moshiach arrives, all that will change. When we are all gathered in Israel, and Jewish scholarship proliferates, he will no longer stand out so prominently in the crowd. He will be – as Moses once described himself – ‘one of the people.’ And that will be a bitter pill for him to swallow. So he prays – but not too hard – for Moshiach to arrive – but only someday.”
THE GREAT Torah leader of the fledgling Yishuv, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, made many trips abroad to encourage his coreligionists to move to Israel. He was often confronted by Diaspora Jews who angrily questioned how an observant Jew could live in a Jewish state that was not governed strictly by Halacha. He had a standard reply: “If you, and people like you, would stop waiting for Moshiach and actually come to Israel, you could help turn it into the spiritual paradise that you think it ought to be!” When it comes to hastening the Redemption, no less than in the culinary arts, the Kooks are clearly superior to the waiters.
There is a big difference between dreaming of Moshiach’s coming to liberate us, and actively participating in our own liberation. There is nothing wrong in believing in miracles; indeed, for those of us living in Israel, we are surrounded by them every day. But waiting for a Moshiach to ride in on a white donkey, it seems to me, is a lot less convenient than boarding a blue and white jet with the Star of David and landing smoothly in that long-awaited field of dreams.
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana and a Ra’anana city councilman.www.rabbistewartweiss.com.