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The Unifying Hope: Awaiting the Messiah

Editor's comment:
​Tisha B'Av​ ​is the national day of mourning for the Jewish people. Tisha B'Av also contains the seeds of our eternal hope. Our tradition that the Messiah is born of Tisha B'Av is a manifestation of our belief in humankind's historical destiny.

"May the Compassionate One make us worthy of reaching the days of the Messiah and life everlasting" (From the Grace After Meals)

The Days of the Messiah: "A staff will emerge from the stump of Jesse (the father of David), and a shoot will sprout from his roots. The spirit of the Compassionate One will rest upon Him - a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of counsel and strength, a spirit of knowledge and reverence for the Compassionate One. He will be imbued with a spirit of reverence for the Compassionate One; and he will not need to judge by what his eyes see nor decide by what his ears hear. He will judge the destitute with righteousness, and decide with fairness for the humble of the earth. He will strike the world with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked. Righteousness will be the girdle round his loins, and faith will be the girdle round his waist. The wolf will live with the sheep, and the leopard will lie down with the kid; and a calf, a lion whelp and a fatling together, and a young child will lead them. A cow and bear will graze and their young will lie down together; and a lion, like cattle, will eat hay. A suckling will play by a viper's hole; and a newly weaned child will stretch his hand towards an adder's lair. They will neither injure nor destroy in all of My sacred mountain; for the earth will be filled with knowledge of the Compassionate One as water covering the sea bed." (Isaiah 11:1-9)
"He will strike the world with the rod of his mouth" - with the strength of his Torah teachings (Commentary of Rabbi S.R. Hirsch).

Dear Friends,

Maimonides writes that one of the thirteen principles of faith for the Jewish people is the belief in the coming of the Messiah:

"I believe with complete faith in the coming of the Messiah, and even though he may delay, nevertheless I anticipate every day that he will come." (Commentary to Mishna Sanhedrin, chap. 10)

The Prophets teach that the Messiah will be a descendant of King David, the son of Jesse, from the tribe of Judah. He will be a great Torah teacher and sovereign who will inspire Israel and all the peoples to serve the Compassionate One in a spirit of unity. Some people have difficulty imagining that one great person could become the "Messiah" and cause a radical change in the world. A study of history reveals, however, that there have been a number of individuals who helped bring about great changes in the world, whether for good or for bad. And given that we now live in a world with instant, international communication, our world is becoming more and more like a global village. The Messiah would therefore be able to communicate with all the members of this global village. Yes, there is increasing strife and violence in our "village"; but the future Messiah - through the power of his Torah teachings - will develop a spirit of unity and shalom. We should not underestimate the power of ideas, and Rabbi Aryeh Carmell, a noted Torah educator, addresses this issue:

"In modern times, many of the most far-reaching revolutions in thought have been sparked off by Jews: Einstein, Freud, Marx; though all these were far from the Torah tradition. Would it be so far-fetched to think of the coming revolution of the spirit as led by a dynamic personality, steeped, this time, in the spiritual truths of the Torah - with a releasing vision much profounder than Freud's, with revolutionary ideals much more radical than Marx's, and with the means at his disposal to swing the world from the dark nightmare of a polluted planet to a brighter future of spiritual creativity? ("Judaism and the Environment" - an essay in the book "Encounter")

The belief in the coming of the Messiah is deeply embedded within the consciousness of the Jewish people. In his book, "World of Our Fathers," Irving Howe describes the messianic yearnings of an earlier generation of Jewish socialists and progressive activists. Although their ideology was secular, their yearning, hope, and struggle for a better world was rooted in the ancient Jewish belief that the Messiah will eventually come and inaugurate a new age of justice and peace. In one chapter (page 454), Howe quotes from a poem by the Yiddish poet, Aaron Zeitlin, which refers to this belief:

"Being a Jew means running forever to God, even if you are His betrayer. Means expecting to hear any day, even if you are a nay sayer, the blare of Messiah's horn."

The Talmud states that on our individual "Judgement Day" - after the soul departs from the body - one of the questions we will be asked is: "Did you anticipate the redemption?" (Shabbos 31a). Why, however, should this question be asked of us? Is it a mitzvah - Divine mandate - to believe in the coming of the Messiah and the future redemption? An answer can be found in the first of the "Ten Mandates" which were spoken at Mount Sinai:

"I am the Compassionate One, your God, Who has taken you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery. "(Exodus 20:2)

Maimonides, in his classical work, "The Book of Mitzvos," cites this verse as the source for the mitzvah to believe in the Compassionate One. The verse, however, does not speak of the Compassionate One Who created the world; it speaks of the Compassionate One Who is the Redeeming One, Who liberated us from the bondage of Egypt. According to Rabbi Isaac of Corbeil, a noted sage of the 13th century, this verse calls upon us to not only believe that the Compassionate One redeemed us in the past, but to also believe that He will redeem us in the future. In his respected work on the mitzvos, known as "Sefer Mitzvos Katan," Rabbi Isaac states that the obligation to believe in the coming of the Messiah is rooted in the words, "I am the Compassionate One, your God, Who has taken you out of the land of Egypt"; for the Exodus from Egypt is a testimony to the ongoing Divine providence in human history. The verse which calls upon us to believe in the Redeeming One specifically mentions our Exodus from Egypt, because this Divine act of physical and spiritual redemption is to make us aware that Divine providence is leading the People of Israel and all humanity to their ultimate physical and spiritual redemption.

Our faith in the future redemption of Israel and humanity is a "gift of hope" that we can share with the other peoples of the earth. As Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a noted 19th century sage, writes:

"The entire world thirsts for redemption. Grief and misery, reigning in both huts and palaces, arouse messianic longings in every heart. It is not only Israel whose redemption depends upon the rebuilding of Zion; and surely, their confident expectation that the redemption will indeed come about is not the least valuable dowry which the Jew brings with him into the community of nations." ( See "The Hirsch Haggadah" - pages 282-83)

We are therefore awaiting the arrival of the true Messiah who will inaugurate the new age of enlightenment and unity. Even though he may tarry, we are not to lose hope, for when the hour arrives for the birth of the messianic age, he will not delay. As the prophet Habakkuk proclaims:

"For there is yet another hazon - vision - for the appointed time; it will speak of the end and it will not deceive. Though it may tarry, await it, for it will surely come; it will not delay. (Habakkuk 2:3)

The Prophets also indicate, however, that we can hasten the arrival of the messianic age through fulfilling the life-giving and unifying mitzvos of the Torah. Among the mitzvos that they stressed are the various mitzvos of justice which prevent us from hurting and oppressing others, and the various mitzvos of “tzedakah” which enable us to share our resources with those in need. In this spirit, the Prophet proclaimed, "Zion will be redeemed through justice, and those who return to her through tzedakah" (Isaiah 1:27).  

The Prophets also stressed the mitzvos related to "Shabbos" - the Sacred Seventh Day. These mitzvos serve as a reminder that the earth and its resources belong to the Unifying One. On Shabbos, we are to refrain from exerting human mastery over the earth and its creatures, and we are to also refrain from commerce. Through the mitzvos of Shabbos, we remind ourselves that the human being is the "custodian," and not the owner of the earth's resources. And through the mitzvos of tzedakah, we learn how to share these resources with others.

We are therefore not to passively await the salvation of the messianic age, for the Compassionate One desires that we actively prepare for this new era:

"Thus said the Compassionate One: 'Guard justice and perform acts of tzedakah, for My salvation is soon to come, and My righteousness to be revealed. Happy is the person who does this and the person who holds on to this: who guards the Shabbos against desecration, and guards his hand against doing any evil.' " (Isaiah 56:1,2)

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen  (See below)

Related Teachings:
1. The Chafetz Chaim, a leading sage of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, writes: "The coming of the Messiah is literally in our hands, for Zohar Chadash states (Parshas Noach 23:3) that a single congregation can merit to bring about the Final Redemption by internalizing the quality of peace. It is impossible to merit the quality of peace without first ridding oneself of baseless hatred and refraining from speaking in a derogatory way about others. Whoever will strive to rid himself of these sins will have a share in the building of the Third Temple." (Cited in "The Chofetz Chaim - A Lesson a Day" (Art Scroll: . This is a book about the laws of ethical speech.)

2. There are those who wonder how we can merit to experience the coming of the Messiah when previous generations that were more righteous than us did not merit this experience. The Chofetz Chaim responds to this concern: "It is true that we are much smaller than our ancestors, but it is known that Hashem attaches to every individual his own merit and that of his ancestors. We are like a dwarf riding on a giant's back, who sees farther than the giant. So too, our merit joined to that of our ancestors is greater than theirs alone." (Machaneh Yisrael, Last Section, Chapter 20 - cited in "The Chofetz Chaim Looks at Eternity" - Feldheim: )

3. In the age of the Messiah, all our words and deeds will become seeds of new life. We do not have to wait until the arrival of the Messiah, however, to begin planting seeds of new life. In fact, planting these seeds is our highest priority, for they represent the goal of the messianic age. In this spirit, Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai taught: If you have a sapling in your hand, and they tell you the Messiah has just arrived, go and plant the sapling and then go out to welcome the Messiah (Avos D'Rabbi Noson, Nusach 2, chapter 31).

4. In the Books of the Prophets, there are vivid descriptions of the messianic age and the role of the Messiah. One well-known example is Isaiah's vision of the unity and enlightenment of the nations in "the end of days" (Isaiah 2:1-4).  The Books of the Prophets often elaborate on themes which are found in the Five Books of the Torah, and within these Five Books, there are some brief references and allusions to the Messiah and the messianic age. The following can serve as examples:

A. Our father, Jacob, blessed his 12 sons - the founders of the 12 tribes - before he left this world, and he gave Judah the following blessing: "The scepter shall not depart from Judah nor a scholar from among his descendants until Shiloh arrives, and to him will the nations gather" (Genesis 49:10). Rashi and the majority of the commentators explain that "Shiloh" is a name of the Messiah. When the Messiah comes, Judah's blessing will be fully realized, for all the peoples of the earth will gather around the Messiah - the descendant of Judah.

B. "I shall see him, but not now, I shall look at him, but not in the near future. A star has issued from Jacob and a scepter-bearer has arisen from Israel" (Numbers 24:17). According to the classical biblical commentator, Ramban (Nachmanides), this verse is a prophecy concerning the future Messiah. Maimonides also interprets this verse in a similar manner (The Laws of Kings 11:1).

C. "Then the Compassionate One, your God, will bring back your captivity and have mercy on you, and He will gather you in from all the peoples to which the Compassionate One, your God, has scattered you. If your dispersed will be at the ends of heaven, from there the Compassionate One, your God, will gather you in and from there He will take you. The Compassionate One, your God, will bring you to the Land that your ancestors possessed and you shall possess it; He will do good to you and make you more numerous than your ancestors" (Deuteronomy 30: 3-5). According to Maimonides, these verses are referring to the age of the Messiah. (The Laws of Kings 11:1)

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