What is Messiah -- and When? #594

Thu, 10/24/2019 - 1:25pm -- Rabbi Huberman

Haftarah Ki Tavoh: Isaiah 60: 22

 “I, the Lord, will speed it in its due time.

What is Messiah and When?

Perhaps no Jewish themed text has been more quoted in recent times than the 1971 theater production, Fiddler on the Roof.

In one of Fiddler’s closing scenes, as residents of the fictional town of Anatevka continue packing their belongings, one of the local characters, Mottel the Tailor, turns to the community’s rabbi and asks:

‘Rabbi, we’ve been waiting for the Messiah all our lives. Wouldn’t now be a good time for him to come?’

To which the Rabbi replies: ‘I guess we’ll have to wait someplace else.’

The idea of a great national savior to either facilitate or preside over a perfected world has captured the imagination of Jews, among others, for centuries.

Allusions to this character appear in many prophetic books, most notably Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Micah, Hosea, Zachariah and Daniel.

As hardships continued to besiege the Jewish people over the millennia, a simple but heartfelt question repeatedly emerged. ‘When will the Messiah come?’ Or, in the words of the Mottel, ‘Wouldn’t now be a good time?’

This idea of the Messiah’s arrival is addressed in part at the end of this week’s Haftarah, taken from the Book of Isaiah, as we conclude this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo. (‘When you enter the Land.’)

In the Haftarah’s final sentence, Isaiah envisions a more equitable world where those who have previously been belittled, will rise in influence and power.

Isaiah prophesizes: ‘The smallest shall become a thousand, and the least, a mighty nation. (Isaiah 60:22). And when will this time come?’

Isaiah answers as he concludes this verse with a contradiction. ‘I, the Lord, will speed it in its due time (B’ita Ahishena).’

Throughout the generations, our Sages have debated this two-edged sentence, attempting to read between the lines.

On one hand, the Talmud notes with hope ‘I, the Lord will speed it,’ but the words ‘in its time’ implies ‘later than sooner.’ So which one is it—sooner or later?’

And the answer, according to one Sage, is that the time and speed of the Messiah’s arrival will depend largely on the behavior of the Jewish people.

Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi notes ‘If (the Jews) are deserving, the Messiah will arrive with the clouds of heaven, and if they are not deserving, he will come as a humble man riding on a donkey.’ (Sanhedrin 98a)

In an amazing resolution to this apparent contradiction, Rabbi Yehoshua advances the idea that preconditions for the speedy arrival of the Messiah rest upon humanity—perhaps even making the need for the Messiah’s arrival less urgent.

In short, it will be through the free choice of human beings, the communities they form, and the decisions they make which will play a part in the coming of the Messiah.

Noted the late Israeli novelist, journalist and author, Amos Oz, in a March 2012 Moment Magazine article titled ‘What Does the Concept of the Messiah Mean Today?’

‘In the Jewish tradition we have to act, every day, every hour. We have to make moral decisions almost every minute. Sitting idly waiting for the Messiah is a sin.’

In the same article, Ruth Messinger, former CEO of the American Jewish World Services similarly noted:

‘It won’t happen because someone drops out of the sky. If more people believe in the possibility of improvement and understand themselves as agents to bring about change, then that in a way is messianic work.’

The idea of ‘I, the Lord will speed it in its due time,’ (B’ita Ahishena) has fascinated me for years—largely because it concludes the Haftarah, which I chanted fifty three years ago this week at my bar mitzvah.

Did I appreciate at the time what it meant? Likely not. Like many bar and bat mitzvah students, I was eager to conclude my marathon of preparation.

But over time, as I began to reflect upon those words, I began to ponder their intense and powerful meaning. And over the years, I’ve come to interpret them to mean, ‘God will propel our lives, when we move forward in partnership.’

How many times have we looked to the heavens and asked God, ‘Wouldn’t this be a good time?’ A change of career, place of residence or relationship status. And how often has change occurred following a bold personal decision—or in the aftermath of a setback or tragedy?

As we approach the High Holidays, there is much to think about. But at the forefront of our thoughts, perhaps we can find inspiration from the prophetic verse that concludes this week’s Haftarah.

Through the words B’ita Ahishena—and their interpretation- we can take some inspiration from the idea that in many cases, we are partial authors of the future.

When will God jettison us toward a perfect, more equitable world? The answer may lay, as Rabbi Yehoshua alluded to—in our choice of vehicle. Will it arrive with the speed of clouds or through the clumsy steps of a donkey?

Indeed, life can be challenging. Sometimes we feel mired. But positive change and personal repair can occur when we dedicate ourselves toward the active process of change and perfection.

As we enter the High Holidays, we can take some inspiration from the wisdom of our tradition, which concludes, that, in spite of the sense of stagnation and imperfection we sometimes feel—and while much of life remains out of our control—often the speed of change rests with us.

Fifty three years ago, my mother, encouraging me as I studied endlessly for my bar mitzvah said, ‘The hard today will be easy tomorrow.’

Or more simply stated by Isaiah more thousands of years ago — B’ita Ahishena, ‘God will speed everything in its time.’

Indeed, the coming of the Messiah and the repair of the world involves a partnership with God. Are we doing our part?

If not, what we can we do, as individuals and communities, to hasten that time?

Shabbat Shalom, v’kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman