When the Messiah Fails to Come on Time
We are a people of contradictions and extremes. How so?
Two weeks ago, we had Tisha B’ Ab with its remembrance of past tragedies and its heavy burden of sadness that it placed in the collective Jewish consciousness. Last week we had Tu B’ Av, the 15th of Av. It is the Jewish version of the TV show, The Bachelor! It is said that there were no happier days, for one this day, as well as on Yom Kippur, the maidens of Jerusalem would go out to the vineyards and dance in hopes of being selected by some eligible bachelor.
Our long history of tragedies has made us forget the happiness that should have been the lot of the Jewish people.
We read a series of three Haftaroth before Tisha B Av, whose theme was that of warning of disaster. Now, we have a series of seven Haftaroth whose theme is that of consolation..
After the destruction, there is the promise of rebirth. It is that promise of rebirth that has kept us going as Jews despite the pall of tragedy that hung over us. It is the message of hope, as it was worded in Hatikvah:”Hatikvah bat shnot alpayim”, the Hope of restoration to our land in independence and dignity, the hope of two thousand years.
We have had a basic Jewish understanding that all will be right in its own good time, that the days of the Messiah would essentially be a better, more righteous and more just version of the ancient kingdom of David.
But what happens when you just can’t wait any longer, when the burden of exile becomes unbearable? What happens when the nations of the world deal overly harsh with us? I want to give you some examples from our past and see how it sheds light on the way people behave, not just Jews, but Christians and Moslems as well, because, in truth, not just us Jews await.
When Bar Cochba failed as Messiah, there was a push by Rabbinic scholars to downplay any attempts at speeding on the end of days. Nevertheless, the hope and longing for a solution to the exile and pain of Jewish existence could push us over a cliff-literally.
In the fifth century, there appeared someone who called himself Moses and captivated the hearts of the Jews of the Island of Crete. They gave up all their possessions and gathered at a cliff overlooking the ocean. He assured them that he was, like Moses, able to split the sea so they could march on to the Land of Israel. They had but to start walking—off the cliff and into the ocean, never to be seen again. Jewish lemmings!
Another would be Messiah appeared around the time of the Crusades, when the Moslem world itself was in turmoil. One David Alroi took the opportunity to start an armed rebellion of Jews against the ruling Sultan. The Sultan quickly put down the rebellion and executed the would be redeemer.
Yet another would be Messiah was a renowned and respected Kabbalist, Abraham Aboulafia.at the end of the 13th century.
An inner voice told him that it was time to convert the Pope Nicholas III to Judaism, so he made his way to Rome. The Pope threatened to burn him at the stake but Aboulafia, unafraid of threats of execution, made his way to Pope only to discover that the Pope had died of a stroke the night before he arrived.
The most disturbing event took place as a result of the fall out of the Spanish expulsion and then the massacre of Polish Jewry by the Cossacks under Chmielnicki.
Once again, a new Messiah arose, and this one carried the entire Jewish world, east, West, North, South, along with him, Sabbatai Zwi, of Smyrna. He carried out bizarre acts, marrying a Sefer Torah and then marrying a woman who was well known as a prostitute. He issued a new blessing, “Matir issurim”-“ Who has permitted that which is forbidden” and engaged in “Mitzvah habaah be averah”, committing a sin for the sake of mitzvah.
These acts, he assured his followers, were symbolic of the mystical war that he was waging against the dark Satanic forces. Today, we would escribe his behavior as bi-polar or manic-depressive. He and his followers saw it as a mystical battle of light against darkness. He had an ardent promoter and theologian on his side, Nathan of Gaza, who provided the Kabbalistic and theological justifications for Sabbatai Zwi’s bizarre behavior.
The entire Jewish world, so desperate for an end to its troubles, within a few short years doubled down and bet on him that he was indeed the Messiah. Even the Christian world as far as England was abuzz with speculation.
Then, in 1666, he went into the Ottoman Sultan. The Sultan gave him three choices- be shot with a volley of arrows or be burned at the stake—if he would survive it certainly would be proof that he was the Messiah-- or become a Moslem.
Sabbatai Zwi chose to become a Moslem.
That should have been the end of it but Jews kept on believing in him, believing that this was but the outward symbol of a hidden act of destroying the dark forces. Most remained devout Jews, just waiting for the forces of darkness to explode. Others copied their Messiah by becoming outwardly Moslems, but remaining as secret Jews, Donmeh, repeating what many of their ancestors had done as Marranos.
There remained here and there, into the last century, pockets of followers of Sabbatai Zwi in Turkey. Many of them became prominent in Turkish society and were active in the Young Turks movement that lead to the end of the reign of the Sultan and the rise of Kamal Ataturk, the founder of Modern Turkey—who himself had attended a school run by Donmeh members. Islamists in Turkey still blame the fall of the Sultan on us Jews as a result.
It did not end there however. A century later, Jacob Frank claimed to be his reincarnation, engaged in a bizarre sex cult, and took his community as a whole, to be baptized in Lwow. His daughter, Eva, was declared the reincarnation of the Virgin Mary, and for a while, they were favorites at the court of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Their followers continued on down to the beginning to the Holocaust. Many descendants of Sabbatean believers became prominent in French revolution and modern Jewish movements as well. One such descendent, Luis Dembitz Brandeis, became a Supreme Court Justice here.
This is truly a litany of Jewish oddities and failings.
The basic Jewish response to all of these false Messiahs was to ban or restrict kabbalah. It was to shut down speculation and present ourselves as paragons of logic. We could have either the rigorous Talmudic logic of the Lithuanian Jews, or the logic of enlightened Jews of the modern Reform, Conservative and Orthodox schools. Chasidism was in some ways an approach to water down mystical speculation for the poorer Jews of Poland and Ukraine. For some Jews, the fervor of Messianism was transferred to the political realm, as early as the French revolution. For many Jews, the hopes of Communism drew them as did the earlier Messiahs. The Zionist revolution as well, for sure drew upon the inspiration of a reborn people promised by the Prophets
However, for the majority of Jews, an inner dynamism and creative realm was shut out because of the fear of this wave of irrationality. Something of Judaism was lost in the process.
Now, what we as Jews experienced has been experienced in its variations in the Christian and Moslem world as well.
Christianity had essentially internalized the messianic era into personal salvation, yet the desire for redemption of the world in history never truly disappeared among them either. The Christians were always hoping for a Second Coming.
I recall back in the 70’s when evangelical Christians were expecting the end of days with great expectation. I was Rabbi in Virginia and Pat Robertson, the great televangelist, had his headquarters in our area. My members told me that some of their neighbors had come over to them and told them, out of friendship and love, that they could have the keys to their cars and houses after the “Rapture”. At the rapture, which would mark the end of days, which was just around the corner, the souls of the righteous would be plucked out of their earthly existence and taken straight to heaven. We Jews could have free use of the cars and house in the short time that would follow before the world would be overthrown. This belief gave rise to a successful series of books and movies, so we could say that it was a very benign and harmless form of end of world expectations.
It is only in this light, of expectations of an imminent end of the world as we know it, that we can understand why there is so much turmoil in the Middle East. Islam too shares with Judaism the Messianic expectation. It even uses that word, Masiḥ, when Jesus would return, together with the Mahdi, the Redeemer, who would overthrow the Dajjal, the Anti-Christ, before the Day of Judgement.(In current preaching, Dajjal now mean the great Satan and the Little Satan, America and Israel.) Notice how Islam uses themes that are both Jewish and Christian. Do we wish to understand the long term vision of the Islamic Republic of Iran-- it is a harbinger, a forerunner, in the Shiite version, of the final battle. Hence, the great worry about such a regime getting its hands on a nuclear weapon. We are worried that they really believe what they teach. Hence, the great skepticism about the value of the nuclear arms agreement with Iran.
If we wish to know what is the driving force and inspiration of the Sunni Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, what is the inspiration that draws the disaffected from Europe and even America, it is because this too is a part of the battle of the end of days. The cruelty and brutality is part and parcel of the coming end of days. It is taking an element of Islamic belief and pushing it to its farthest bounds.
This rush to hasten the end of days still gnaws at us Jews. To that extent, the Jewish terrorists who burned the Palestinian baby also sprayed” Long Live the Messiah , the King.” If there is any consolation for us, it is that such a manifestation of end-of-days mania among us Jews is rare and is hunted and shut down.
Here is a question for us—this image, of a final redemption, is one that gives us all hope, yet, it can drive to such disastrous consequences, cross the board. Can we find , in our heritage, a teaching that gives this new meaning that will still bring us hope, without the destruction.
Is there a Messianic vision that can speak to us spiritually, that can give us hope and expectation without derailing us as it has so often in the past?
We as Jews have always recognized that something is amiss in the political and social world. It is expressed in the concept of “ Galut”, Exile. Wrapped up with it is the concept of “Shekhinah be galuta”; God’s presence is in exile with us. The concept was intended to remind us that even while we may suffer as a people God is with us to protect us.
In the thread of Kabbalistic thought, that suppressed underground of Jewish thinking, that concept took on an added meaning, that even God is in exile, that something has inherently gone wrong in the perfect universe from the moment that Adam sinned. This line of thought led to the idea that, in order to create the universe, God had to withdraw from it,”Tzimztum” and that very act of creation had resulted, like the big bang of physicists, in a shattering of the vessels that channel divine power, “shvirat hakelim”. There was a mixing of the “ Nitzatzot hakodesh”,sparks of the divine together with dark forces of matter, the shell, “klipot”. In short, the universe itself is in physical and spiritual disarray.
What then is the purpose of the human being? The human being is created for the purpose of “ tzorech gavohah”, a higher necessity, that of elevating the lost sparks of divinity in the universe. The first Adam failed in this task and it has been given over to the Jewish people to continue. The tool of the Jew is the fulfilling of the mitzvoth.
You must recognize that there resides in this a powerful message:
God needs us to complete the redemption of the world, the “ geulah”, in a process of “tikun”, repair.
It is no longer God destroying us and exiling us, but we ourselves when we fall back and allow the forces of darkness to take over our lives.
The human being is no longer just another creature, nor even just a servant of God. The human being, especially in this Jewish variation, is now the agent of redemption.
Think of this as a way of inspiring ourselves every day.
If I carry out a mitzvah, it’s not just a nice Jewish custom. It is my way of redeeming the world as well as myself
If I care for my neighbor as myself, I am not just being nice or being self-interested, but I am carrying out an act of redemption.
If I strengthen my involvement with my fellow Jews, I can be strengthening our “Salvation Army”.
If we are involved in making physical life on earth better, through science and technology, as well as through fair and just government, we are involved in redeeming the world.
Even our collective explorations of the physics of the sub-atomic world and the explorations of space and the universe, perhaps these too will be part of the redemption of the world.
In this, our lives get renewed vigor and meaning, drawing upon the richness of Jewish thought and spirit. We would have no need for violence or mania to achieve this, no false messiahs and messianic pretenders. Instead, step by step, in our daily deeds, we each and every one of us brings about the unity of God’s name and the redemption, the Geulah, of all.