Monday, July 27, 2015

The Messiah is Born on Tisha B”Av

The Messiah is Born on Tisha B”Av

            Today is the Ninth of Av, Tisha B”Av, but since it is Shabbat, we postpone the observance of this date to this evening and tomorrow, so as not to mar the sanctity of Shabbat with our fasting. Note that we never postpone Yom Kippur, which is also a fast day, to Sunday. Yom Kippur maybe a day without food, but it is far from a day of tragedy; it is instead, a day of joyful expectation leading to “At-one-ment.”.
            One day, too, Tisha B Av will be a joyful day as well. It was already stated by the prophet Zechariah: This is what the Lord Almighty says: "The fasts of the fourth, fifth, seventh and tenth months will become joyful and glad occasions and happy festivals for Judah. "( 8:19). The fast of the fourth month, counting from Pesach forward, is the 17th of Tammuz, when the walls of the Temple were breached. The fast of the fifth month is Tisha B Av, when the Temple itself fell. The fast of the seventh month, the day after Rosh Hashanah, mourns the murder of Gedaliah, the High Commissioner appointed by the Babylonian overlords, which marked the beginning of the disastrous rebellion that led to the destruction. The fast of the tenth day, The Tenth of Tevet, marks the start of the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem.
            In other words, the Jewish exiles, sitting in Babylonia had already established this series of memorials. When, two generations later, they were allowed back to Israel, this practice of fasting had been deeply ingrained. The prophet Zechariah, looking at this return, looks forward to a time when these fast days would be transformed into days of rejoicing, because the Sacred Temple and the Kingdom of Judah would once again be established. History would come to an end.
            However, we know that Zechariah was premature. The Temple was rebuilt, bigger and better and new kings were established on the throne of Israel, but it seems that the mourning, in one sense or another, continued. Things were not yet perfect.
            And then—the Temple was destroyed again, on Tisha B’ Av, 600 years after it was reestablished. Again, on Tisha B’Av, the great Bar Kochba rebellion was put down at Betar and the remains of Jerusalem were plowed under. We would have to learn to live without a Temple, without a society under our own leadership, and eventually, without our land. For some 1900 years, we would live at the tolerance of other peoples and rulers, and often, we would not live. Tisha B’ Av became a day of even greater mourning as other events were associated with that date in history- the expulsion of the  Jews from medieval France and England, and then the expulsion of the largest and most prosperous Jewish community of its day, the Jewish community of Spain, in 1492. Even in modern times, it became associated with the date of the official start of the Final Solution, when  Himmler received Nazi Party authorization to begin and with the date of the start of the deportations from the Warsaw ghetto to Treblinka and death.
            We can see, then, why Zechariah’s prophecy would be so very important for us. We would have been lost as a people in permanent depression had it not been for the words of Zechariah and the prophets that preceded and followed him.
            What kept us going, even before the Temple was destroyed the first time, was a concept that we call in Hebrew “ Yemot Hamashiach”, the Days of the Messiah, or Messianic expectation.  Messiah itself comes from the Hebrew word “ mashiach” for anointed with oil, a ceremony in which one was designated for high office, as a priest or king. Even a pagan king, Cyrus of Persia, would be called God’s Messiah by the Prophet Isaiah for opening the gates of the land of Israel to the exiles from Babylonia. It soon became a term to designate the rightful heir to the throne of King David.
This concept appears in the sense of destruction and restoration in the text of the Torah itself, long before there is a Temple to destroy, long before there is a king or Davidic lineage.
            At a time when both Kingdoms, Israel and Judah, were powerful and prosperous, the Prophet Amos preached of a “ Day of the Lord”, when the wicked would be judged and overthrown. When the Northern kingdom fell, the Prophet Isaiah already envisioned an heir to the throne of King David who would usher in a period of great peace, when” the lion shall dwell with the lamb”. In short, to paraphrase a rabbinic comment, God creates a cure before he brings the illness. A later Jewish legend would say that the Messiah was born on Tisha B Av itself. From the depth of destruction would come the redemption. (Yerushalmi Berakhot 2:4)
            In the intervening years, before the destruction of the Second Temple, every generation saw itself as the last, as being on the verge of the end of days, as being participants on the war of the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness, as we find in the writings of the dead Sea sects and the Apocrypha (books from the close of the Biblical, period that were never included in the Jewish canon).    
            Jesus may have been a member or leader of such a movement and  may have seen himself as a precursor to the Messiah or have been seen by his followers as the Messiah. He promulgated his famous ethical statements towards one’s enemies, “Turn the other cheek” ,” Give your cloak.” (These statements themselves are adapted quotes from earlier Biblical verses). Many Christian scholars see these not as ethical directives for all ages but as a conditional statement of faith because the end is nigh. Why fight and why hold on to possessions when it would all be swept away overnight and the wicked would get their comeuppance and the righteous would be rewarded.
            It was this great anticipation of a dramatic end of all that is that gave rise to the disastrous rebellions against Rome; from this moment on the concept of a Messianic kingdom was dramatically changed.
            For the early community of followers of Jesus, as the dead Jesus failed to return to overthrow Rome, a new explanation was needed. Thus  Paul would find end of days not in the future, but in the present, a salvation of the individual souil, not the nation. This was the great radical departure of the new religion of Christianity, a split from all notions of redemption in history that were essential to Judaism. The fall of the Temple a few decades later was the catalyst that forced the separation of Christianity from Judaism and sealed this version of the new religion. Christianity never shook its Jewish roots completely and would, in time, come right back to the Jewish concept of the Messianic era, but as an afterthought. The idea of a future redeemer would find its place in Islam as well in the figure of a Mahdi  who would defeat evil at the end of days..
            Jews, in turn, were devastated; the longing for a Messiah had given rise to horror of war and internal division. The Sages now gave this future vision a critical revision. The Messiah would come, in and of his own time, as God would determine, still within the framework of the nation and world history, but in God’s own good time. At best, it could be achieved only by personal and communal perfection, not by war. Thus, a tale arose, that the Messiah could be found sitting at the gates of Rome, symbol of the children of Darkness. He would be disguised as a sickly beggar who is constantly bandaging his wounds.
“R. Joshua b. Levi met Elijah, , , ‘When will the Messiah come?’ — ‘Go and ask him himself,’ was his reply. ‘Where is he sitting?’  ‘At the entrance.’ And by what sign may I recognize him?’  ‘He is sitting among the poor lepers: all of them untie the ir bandages all at once, and retire them all at once, whereas he unwraps and rebandages each separately, thinking,’ should I be wanted, I must not be delayed.’  
 So he went to him and greeted him, saying, ‘peace upon you, Master and Teacher.’ ‘Peace upon you, O son of Levi,’ he replied. ‘When will you come Master?’ asked he, ‘Today’, was his answer.
On his returning to Elijah,.he complained: ‘He spoke falsely to me, stating that he would come to-day, but he has not!’ Elijah answered him, ‘This is what he said to you, the first word. ‘Today’ (of a quotation from Psalms 95:7),’ Today, if you will listen to his voice.’( Sanhedrin 98a).
In other words, the coming of a Davidic savior would be depend on the merits of the Jewish people. It could not be forced by violent armed rebellion.
Of course, the odds of all Jews being so pious are slim, so other sages suggested the Messiah will come when all is Jews have fallen so low in morality and behavior that he will have no choice but to step in.
Finally, the accepted position was” Ayn Dohakin et Haketz.” Don’t try to force the end of days.” It is all in God’s hands.
            Thus the Rabbis claimed that God made  three oaths with the people of Israel and the nations: One, that Israel shall not go up as in a military siege to reconquer the land of Israel; the second,  Israel would not rebel against the nations of the world; and the third that the idolaters would not oppress Israel too much’.  To this was added the comment that the prophets would not reveal the secret of the end of days and  the people would not force the end.” ( Talmud Ketuboth 110-111
            Thus the speculation and the drive to obtain an end of oppression by force were pushed off into the future and left to the hands of God. In classical Rabbinic thinking, the idea of the Messiah would not be a cataclysmic end of days, but an era of social and political peace for the Jewish people.  Thus, the Rambam gave what may be the classical formulation of the Messianic concept:
Do not presume that in the Messianic age any facet of the world's nature will change or there will be innovations in the work of creation. Rather, the world will continue according to its pattern. . . .
Our Sages taught: "There will be no difference between the current age and the Messianic era except the emancipation from our subjugation to the gentile kingdoms."
The Sages and the prophets did not yearn for the Messianic era in order to have dominion over the entire world, to rule over the gentiles, to be exalted by the nations, or to eat, drink, and celebrate. Rather, they desired to be free to involve themselves in Torah and wisdom without any pressures or disturbances, so that they would merit the world to come . . .
In that era, there will be neither famine or war, envy or competition for good will flow in abundance and all the delights will be freely available as dust. The occupation of the entire world will be solely to know God.
Therefore, the Jews will be great sages and know the hidden matters, grasping the knowledge of their Creator according to the full extent of human potential, 'The world will be filled with the knowledge of God as the waters cover the ocean bed.( Isaiah 11:9)" ( Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Melachim, Chapter 12)
            Note his insistence on awaiting and not pushing for an end of all; we may consider this the basic Jewish understanding of the ages before and after. We will know that the Messiah has come-after the fact, the Rambam assured his readers ( Ch. 11). That kind of viewpoint enabled Jews to establish communities and prosper in Babylonia and North Africa and the Rhineland and Spain. More or less, we would accommodate ourselves to the gentiles, they would not overly oppress us, and we would be fine until the Messiah would come. With this outlook, it would be easy for us to resist the blandishments of the Christian missionaries, as it would be easy to refute their claim that the Messiah had come in the form of Jesus. It would be easy for us to resist the subjugation under Islam and the extortion protection money we had to pay , the jizzya, because we could assure ourselves that these religions, as burdensome as their believers were upon us, were still a stepping stone for the nations of the world to attain the knowledge of God It would all be straightened out at the end
Thus, as Maimonides could declare, among his 13 principles of faith:
“Ani Maamin: I believe with perfect faith, in the coming of the Messiah. And even though he delay, nevertheless, I wait for him.”

Now, I will leave for another Shabbat, the quandary of what happens to our belief in the Messiah when the nations of the world have violated their oath not to oppress us too harshly. 

No comments:

Post a Comment