Waiting game

Waiting game

The messiah" is very much a presence as Pesach winds down and we head toward the end of the month of Nisan and the beginning of Iyar.

To begin with, there are those who see the final day of Pesach — the add-on eighth day of the diaspora — as being dedicated, at least in part, to "mashiach" and the coming redemption "he" will inaugurate. Indeed, following a custom that appears to have originated with Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, aka the Ba’al Shem Tov, some chasidic communities turn their final meal of Pesach into a "se’udat ha’mashiach," a festive meal to honor "the messiah" and pray for "his" near-term arrival.

Then there are the events of the two weeks that follow, specifically Yom HaShoah (Monday, April 16) and Yom Ha’Atzmaut (Monday, April ‘3), both of which are filled with messianic vision.

Surely, the Shoah transcends the worst apocalyptic conceptions of the Bible. Those horrifying images, however, always come with the promise of redemption, a theme much elaborated on by the prophets.

Then there is Isaiah 66:18-‘0. God will "gather all the nations and tongues" and "out of all the nations, said the Lord, they shall bring all your brothers … to Jerusalem, My holy mountain…."

There are those who insist that this came to pass on Nov. ‘9, 1947, when "all nations and tongues" gathered as the United Nations to sanction the resurrection of 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. As it turns out, that was five years to the day after the Warsaw Ghetto fell.

To many (including me), all of this amounts to a sign of the "atchalta d’geula," the beginning of Redemption, the period of gestation and labor before the birth of the messianic age. To others, the State of Israel is a heresy precisely because it precedes "the messiah," whose coming, they insist, is a God-declared prerequisite.

Belief in "the messiah," of course, is basic to Judaism. Maimonides, for example, made it his 13th Principle of Faith. The only real question is who — or what — is "the messiah"?

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. Some think he could be an ignorant itinerant; others insist he must be a great Torah scholar.

To all, he will rule the earth, establishing God’s kingdom and turning the planet into a virtual Garden of Eden. This is, after all, just what the Bible says he will do.

However, the Tanakh says nothing of the sort, at least not in any direct reference. Not only does it have no concept whatever of this superman, it has no concept of "the messiah" as that term has come to be understood.

To be sure, the word "mashiach" and its cognates do appear in biblical texts, but in every instance the word means nothing more than "anointed one," as in the "kohen ha’mashiach" that we read about in the two Torah portions leading up to Pesach.

Yes, the Tanakh contains horrifying visions of apocalypse and, yes, it contains glorious visions of redemption. Throughout, however, it is God who wields the fiery sword and it is He who is the redeemer. Not even the two apocalyptic chapters of Ezekiel (‘8 and ‘9) that are so often cited as the prime reference to the war "the messiah" will fight contain a reference to anyone other than God Himself.

To "find" such references requires mental handstands. Numbers ‘4:17, for example, has the alien seer Bilaam stating: "I shall see him, but not now; I shall behold him, but not near; there shall come a star out of Jacob and a scepter shall rise out of Israel, and shall strike the corners of Moab, and destroy all the sons of Seth."

There is not a word here about "the messiah," but the text nevertheless serves as proof to those who would find proof in the Torah itself. As Maimonides argues in Mishneh Torah, The Laws of Kings and Their Wars, 11:1, "I shall see him, but not now," refers to King David, "but I shall behold him, but not near" refers to "the messiah." It is David who will be the "star out of Jacob," but it will be "the messiah" who shall be the "scepter [that] shall rise out of Israel." David strikes Moab; "the messiah" destroys Seth.

In only one instance, Isaiah 45:1, does the Tanakh equate "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 even a believer in the One True God, and he died ‘,500 years ago. His name was Cyrus, king of Persia.

Many of the leading Sages of the Mishnah also clearly did not have such a vision of "the messiah," even though by then such a vision was long established among the people (the birth of Christianity, for example, would have been impossible without it). Maimonides himself notes this when he warns against expecting "the anointed king [melech ha’mashiach]" to "do signs and wonders, or change things in the world, or raise the dead, or things like that." (See MT The Laws of Kings, 11:3.)

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. It matters little by whose hand the ge’ulah is achieved, only that it finally arrives.

That day will come, but only if we do our job as God’s kingdom of priests by nudging ourselves and the world onto a path that makes it and us worthy of redemption.

Actually, maybe we collectively are "the messiah," which is how we are apparently referred to in Habakkuk 3:13, although this is open to interpretation. Maybe, just maybe, rather than waiting around 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 our own souls.

Maybe, if we really do want to see the messianic age, all we need to do is to behave as if we do.