The messiah” is ever present in these final days of Nisan and the opening days of Iyar.
To begin with, following a custom that appears to have originated with Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, a/k/a the Ba’al Shem Tov, some chasidic communities turned their final meal of Pesach this week into a “s’udat hamashiach,” a festive meal to honor “the messiah” and pray for “his” near-term arrival.
Keeping the faith: One religious perspective on issues of the day Then there are the events that we commemorate in the days that follow Pesach – the Holocaust on Yom HaShoah (Monday, May 2) and Israel’s rebirth on Yom Ha’Atzmaut (which falls on May 9, but is being celebrated this year on May 10) – both of which are filled with messianic vision.
The Shoah transcends the worst apocalyptic visions of the Bible, especially those found in Leviticus 26:14-45 (included in the Torah portion we will read on May 21) and in Deuteronomy 28:15-68.
With each such horrifying vision, however, there is always the promise of redemption, a theme much elaborated on by the prophets. Malachi (3:23-24) refers to a “terrible day of the Lord” that will be preceded by the appearance of Elijah the Prophet (yearning for this day is why we “welcome” Elijah during the seder at the beginning of Pesach). It will be followed, says Ezekiel (Chapter 30), by the restoration of the Temple, thus signifying total redemption.
And then there is Isaiah 66:18-20: “[It] shall come, that I will gather all nations and tongues; and they shall come, and see My glory…. And they shall bring all your brothers for an offering to the Lord from all nations upon horses, and in chariots, and in litters, and upon mules, and upon fleet camels, to My holy mountain Jerusalem, says the Lord….”
There are those who believe (as I do) that this prophecy was fulfilled in part on Nov. 29, 1947, when “all nations and tongues,” meeting in New York’s Flushing Meadows, voted to resurrect the Jewish state in the homeland of the Jewish people. Yom Ha’Atzmaut commemorates the day, less than six months later, when the State of Israel was born – May 15, 1948.
To many (including me), we had entered the “atchalta d’g’ula,” the beginning of Redemption, the period of gestation and labor before the birth of the messianic age. To others, Israel’s rebirth was a heresy (and remains so 63 years later) precisely because it was not brought about by “the messiah.”
The messiah theme is present in the concurrent Christian observance, as well; both the Western and Eastern churches celebrated Easter on the same day this year (April 24).
Christians, of course, believe in a messiah who died and was resurrected, but who has yet to return and establish a “heaven on earth” kingdom. We Jews do not believe in a messiah who lived, died, and will live again; such a belief is considered an absolute heresy. If we take Maimonides’ word for it, the only kingdom the messiah will rule is Israel and the natural order of the world will remain intact (see his Mishneh Torah, The Laws of Kings, Chapter 12, Law 1).
We do believe in “the messiah”; the only real question is what we mean by that.
Nowadays, judging by popular belief, the answer usually falls within the range of the incredible. To some, “the messiah” will descend from heaven on a white donkey, imbued with supernatural powers and eternal life, and wielding a fiery sword of vengeance and justice. To others, “the messiah” will be human-born but supernaturally powerful. Even those who claim not to believe in a “messiah” believe the messiah is supposed to be a miracle-working superman, which is why they reject the whole idea.
To all, “the messiah” will rule the earth, establishing God’s kingdom and turning the planet into a virtual Garden of Eden. This is just what the Bible says he will do, after all.
The only problem is that the Bible, the Tanach, says nothing of the sort. Not only does it have no concept of this superman, it has no concept of “the messiah” as that term is now understood. To be sure, the word “mashiach” and its kin do appear in biblical texts, but in every instance the word means nothing more than “anointed” and refers to the anointed high priest or king (see, for example, Leviticus 4:3 and 5, and 1 Samuel 24:6).
A “messiah” is never involved in the Tanach’s horrifying visions of apocalypse and glorious visions of redemption. It is always God who wields the fiery sword and it is always He who is the redeemer.
To find references to a superman messiah requires doing mental handstands with the biblical text. Ironically, there is only one instance, Isaiah 45:1, in which the Tanach equates “the messiah” with an earthly king chosen by God to lead a holy war to redeem Israel. Only, this deliverer was neither an Israelite nor a believer in the One True God, and he died 2,500 years ago. “Thus says the Lord to His mashiach, to Cyrus [emperor of Persia], whose right hand I have held, to subdue nations before him; and I will loose the loins of kings, to open before him doors and gates; and the gates shall not be closed.”
Who and what “the messiah” will be only God knows. All else is pure speculation, sometimes based on overstretched interpretations of biblical references and more often on wishful thinking.
“The messiah,” however, is less a person and more a concept. What we really pray for when we pray for “the coming of the messiah” is for the redemption God promised us. That day will come, but only if we do our job as God’s kingdom of priests by nudging the world onto a path that makes it worthy of redemption.
Actually, maybe we collectively are “the messiah,” which is how we are referred to in Habakkuk 3:13. “You come forth for the salvation of Your people, for the salvation of Your anointed,” the prophet said, with “anointed” being a reference to our role as God’s kingdom of priests.
Maybe, just maybe, rather than waiting for “the messiah” to come popping out of the skies to solve our problems for us, all we need to do is look for him deep within ourselves.