Looking for the Messiah

Remember Sallah Shabbati, the irrepressible Yemenite immigrant immortalized by Ephraim Kishon, the satirist of yesteryear?

Remember Sallah Shabbati, the irrepressible Yemenite immigrant immortalized by Ephraim Kishon, the satirist of yesteryear? Sallah was a fervent believer in the Messiah. When he and his family were brought to the infant State of Israel, he believed that he was coming to the Land of Israel of his prayers and dreams. He learned very quickly, however, that the State of Israel was far from messianic; that if Jewish tradition envisioned the Messiah riding in on an ass, Sallah was probably the ass. In the sometimes Chelm-like universe that is our state, we often feel like Sallah Shabbati. We expected the Zionist return to independence and sovereignty in our homeland to mark the fulfillment of all our hopes and visions: peace and security, spiritual and moral harmony. Instead, we often find ourselves lamenting our collective condition as jarringly pre-messianic. How does Sallah put it in his memorable song: "The Messiah hasn't come; only I came!" Is it possible that when Sallah said, "I came," he hit upon a central truth of modern Jewish history - a truth that was first shared with the Children of Israel at Mount Sinai that first Shavuot long ago. They were informed in revelatory terms that they were in a new sociopolitical situation. No longer were they to think of themselves as dependent upon the whims and wishes of others, particularly oppressive others. Henceforth they were to consider themselves as "anointed" for independent living. Each member of the House of Israel was to think and behave as one "anointed" to serve God and his people in freedom. Need we remind ourselves that the Hebrew word for "anointed one" is mashiah (Messiah)? In short, every one among those Children of Israel was to consider himself Messiah. Not only was the first of the Ten Commandments an eloquent reminder to the Children of Israel that they were henceforth free and independent! Moses would instruct them regarding the words of an invocation that they were to recite when celebrating the offering of the bikkurim ("the first fruits") following their first harvest in the Land of Israel: "The Lord freed us from Egypt… He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey…" At this first opportunity, and at every celebration afterwards, the Children of Israel were to proclaim that "Exile" was over, that they were building a free and independent society. Many centuries after Sinai, living under the Roman yoke, the rabbinic compilers of the Pessah Haggada wrote a midrashic commentary on that same invocation to be given when offering the first fruits. These teachers were yearning for a restoration of political independence and sovereignty. Their choice of the first fruits invocation for midrashic treatment at the Seder stressed the unbreakable connection between the Exodus from enslavement and Zionist fulfillment in Israel. Each Jew at every succeeding Seder during the long exile was reminded that he was to see himself as one who personally went out of Egypt. But he was also meant to see himself as messianically anointed to carry on with a personal Zionist commitment to restore the Land of Israel to Jewish sovereignty. The cruelties of human history would delay the restoration. But finally our contemporary era, while suffering the curse of the Shoah, witnessed the glory and sacrifice that created our blessed State of Israel. By now we all know that if there is a mysterious messianic presence in our Jewish world, it has been the force for redemption within each Zionist Jew that has enabled us to come this far in building our restored homeland. And so here we are. Are we disappointed that the prophet Micah's dream that "nation shall not take up sword against nation… and every man shall sit under his grapevine or fig tree with no one to disturb him" is far from being fulfilled? Were we really expecting the literal incarnation of the prophet Zechariah's lowly messianic king to arrive on his ass? Like Sallah Shabbati we have learned that whether or not each of us thinks of himself as Messiah, we may be the ass. We can accept this rather piquant description of ourselves in one of two ways. At times each of us feels like an ass in the pejorative sense, carrying a burden we feel is unfair. On the other hand, there are times when our joy at being privileged to help shoulder the weight of Jewish resurrection as a nation in our own land is exhilarating, mind-blowing, indeed messianic. Shavuot is an appropriate occasion for revealing to ourselves - again - what Sallah Shabbati had always known, but would have to relearn upon arriving in Israel, namely, the rules and techniques for surviving at the game of life in a pre-messianic world. An essential part of his education was realizing that to see first fruits in this promised land of milk and honey, it would be he who would have to do the planting and the harvesting. How do we cope spiritually and psychologically with the disappointments and frustrations that doggedly accompany the Zionist enterprise? How do we maintain our morale in the face of relentless enemies from the outside and less than ideal political stewardship from the inside? What may help is to turn, as we traditionally do on Shavuot, to the Book of Ruth. It tells a story of return, restoration, love, and grace. Yet if we look at the opening and closing words of the book, we are reminded of the sinister background to the idyllic tale. The opening words are "In the days when the Shoftim [chieftains] ruled." Anyone who has studied the Book of Judges knows that it records a period of unremitting danger to Israel from the outside and perennial chaos inside, where, as that book concludes, "everyone did as he pleased." The concluding words of the Book of Ruth, following upon the marriage of Ruth and Boaz, is a listing of their immediate progeny: "Boaz begot Obed, Obed begot Jesse, and Jesse begot David." Again, a review of the story of David's rise to the throne of Israel as recorded in the books of Samuel and Chronicles will also bring us into a world of Machiavellian intrigue and moral corruption. Yet, David, King of Israel, in his achievements as leader, warrior, and sweet singer of psalms, has inspired us, his people, to dream of a messianic era connected somehow to his grandeur. Tradition has David as "father of the Messiah." Our task is to concretize those values expressed in the Book of Ruth - return, restoration, love and grace - without ever forgetting, however, that we live in a world of Machiavellian turmoil. Will the Messiah come to such a world? In a sense, he is already here as we show our determination to make the State of Israel survive and flourish. Let us remind ourselves that despite the frustrations, we are at "the beginning of redemption," and that everyone who shares in this Zionist enterprise is Messiah, or, at the very least, as Sallah Shabbati puts it - his ass. The writer is rabbi emeritus of Moreshet Yisrael, a Masorti congregation in Jerusalem.