Dear Jew in the City-
Moshiach hasn’t come for thousands of Tisha b’Avs so far. How do we not lose hope?
Thanks for your question. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head.
Before I explain what I mean by that, a quick refresher on moshiach, culled from the Rambam’s introduction to the chapter of Mishna called “Cheilek” (Sanhedrin chapter 10). “Cheilek” means “a portion,” as in “all Jews have a portion in the Next World.” In his introduction to this chapter, the Rambam elucidates us on such matters as moshiach, the future world and the ultimate revival of the dead. At the end, he enumerates what are nearly-universally accepted as the basic tenets of our faith.
The time of the moshiach, the Rambam tells us, will be a time of Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel. Moshiach himself will be our righteous ruler, based in Jerusalem. All the other nations will make peace with him and any antagonists will be conquered because God will deliver those opponents into moshiach’s hands. However, don’t expect unicorns or other fanciful elements. Aside from Jewish sovereignty in Israel, the world will be pretty much the same as it is now. Regarding this point, the Sages taught: “There is no difference between this world and the time of moshiach except for our subjugation by other nations” (Brachos 34b). There will still be rich people and poor people, strong people and weak people, though earning a living will be much easier than it is now.
Many people conflate the arrival of moshiach with the revival of the dead but they are in fact two separate events, possibly millennia apart. The Rambam tells us that even moshiach will die, to be succeeded by his son and grandson, as is the normal state of things with mortal kings. Human life, however, will be longer than it is now and moshiach’s reign is expected to be a lengthy one. (The Rambam cites Biblical sources as support for each of these assertions.)
The reason we eagerly anticipate moshiach’s coming, Rambam says, is not to enjoy material wealth (which may actually be the case), nor to party all day long (which only people who are confused about moshiach expect). Rather, it’s because we long to live in the era of unprecedented righteousness, justice, wisdom and holiness.
All this brings us to the Rambam’s thirteen “principles of faith,” the twelfth of which is about moshiach. It says: “We are to believe and accept that moshiach will come, and not to consider him late. Habakkuk 2:3 says ‘if he tarries, wait for him,’ meaning that we may not set a timetable for moshiach’s arrival, nor may we try to extrapolate the time of his arrival by interpreting Biblical verses. The Sages cursed those who try to calculate moshiach’s arrival (Sanhedrin 97b)….”
So what did I mean when I said that you hit the nail on the head? I mean that you had it exactly right when you asked how we not lose hope when we’ve been waiting so long.
Note the Rambam’s twelfth principle. It’s not just that we believe that moshiach is coming. It’s inherent in this principle of faith that we wait for him and not consider him “late.” We long for him but we don’t give up. The way you’re feeling? It’s the way we’re supposed to feel!
Did you ever hear the story of The Fisherman and the Genie? (“Djinn” is more authentic but I’ll stick with the more familiar term “genie.”) This fable is one of the 1,001 Arabian Nights, so it’s actually a story-within-a-story, told by Scheherazade to the sultan. In the tale, a poor fisherman pulls a brass jar up in his net. Opening it, the fisherman releases a genie. In his 1901 translation, John Payne wrote the genie’s dialogue as follows:
There I remained a hundred years, and I said in my heart, “Whoso releaseth me, I will make him rich for ever.” But the hundred years passed and no one came to release me, and I entered on another century and said, “Whoso releaseth me, I will open to him the treasures of the earth.” But none released me, and other four hundred years passed over me, and I said, “Whoso releaseth me, I will grant him three wishes.” But no one set me free. Then I was exceeding wroth and said to myself, “Henceforth, whoso releaseth me, I will kill him and let him choose what death he will die.” And now, thou hast released me, and I give thee thy choice of deaths.
The genie’s reaction, ironically, is all too human. Waiting that long can be a really off-putting experience. It can be frustrating. It can even turn someone’s attitude around 180 degrees, as it did the genie’s. What the Rambam is telling us is that we can’t afford to let that happen.
Do we want moshiach to come today? Yes. Do we anticipate that he might come today? Yes. Do we demand that he come today or else? Absolutely not.
You shouldn’t give up hope because you’re actually seeing the prophecies unfold exactly as foretold. As we see from the Rambam, the Talmud and the Biblical prophets, what we expect is that it’s going to take a long time for moshiach to arrive. We’re told to expect that and not assume that he’s “late.”
You know who else predicted that moshiach would take a long time? The pagan prophet with the talking donkey, Balaam. In Numbers 24:17, he prophesized to King Balak of Moav about moshiach saying, “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not soon. There will come forth a star out of Jacob and a scepter will rise out of Israel. He will crush the princes of Moav and uproot all the sons of Seth.” When Balaam and Habakkuk – who lived nearly 2,000 apart and played for opposite sides – agree on something, that says a lot.
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi had a problem similar to yours in tractate Sanhedrin (98a). He asked when moshiach was coming and was told “today.” Needless to say, he was chagrined when moshiach did not in fact arrive. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi complained to Eliyahu who said, “You misunderstood. It was a reference to Psalms 95:7. Moshiach would come ‘today, if you would just listen to His (i.e., God’s) voice.’”
So there it is. Moshiach is expected to take a long, long time – everyone from Balaam to the Rambam has told us to expect that. If we want to make it happen sooner, we have that ability. The question is: are we willing to invest the effort to make it happen?
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
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