14 Tevet 5775
Who is the Messiah?
By Rabbi Aryeh Carmell
The Messianic Process
It is a cardinal tenet of Jewish faith that the events of history are all foreshadowed in the several layers of meaning that lie behind the surface words of our Tanach. For Tanach is not merely a book of history or legislation on how to live our lives. It is also a book of prophecy whose subtle messages are not only found in the formal prophetic texts, but throughout the Tanach and the Oral Tradition, which accompanies it.
What of the momentous events of the end of the twentieth century: the establishment of a Jewish state, its dramatic victories and conquests, and the apparently irrevocable retreats and withdrawals that we have witnessed in recent years? Where are these alluded to in our sacred sources?
1. The Zohar predicts that "at the end of days G-d will return Israel to the Holyland and gather them in from the exile," emphasizing that at the same time that "the end of days" refers here not to the messianic era but to the closing years of the exile - the era which will have seen terrible and devastating blows dealt to the Jewish people.
But the first to predict the rise of a secular Jewish state as prelude to the coming of the Messiah is Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel of Prague (1525-1609) known as "Maharal", in his discussion of the rise of "the Kingdom of the Messiah".
Maharal affirms that the coming of the Messiah is not, as often thought a sudden event; it is a process. The "Holy kingdom of Israel" - Maharal's term for the reign of the Messiah will emerge from an earlier, non-holy kingdom.
The Midrash states: Just as Moshe, who was destined to break the power of Pharaoh, was brought up in Pharaoh's palace, so the Messiah, who is destined to settle accounts with Edom, will live with them in their city. The ultimate failure of the empire of Edom will give rise to a new and different kingdom- the Kingdom of the Messiah...
This is why Yaacov was born holding on to the heel of Esav (Bereshit 25:26).
Now, "the kingdom of Edom" refers to the last of the four empires of the world foreseen by Daniel (chapters 4-5): Babylonia, Media, Greece, and Rome. Rome, as world power, is long since dead and gone. But its heritage, Western Civilization, rules the world. Our Rabbis indicate that the kingdom of the Messiah will grow up in the context of Western civilization. Indeed, the parable of "the heel of Esav" signifies that the spiritual failure and moral bankruptcy of that civilization will be the catalyst for the coming of the Messiah.
2. So far Maharal - properly understood - has described how the kingdom of the Messiah emerges from the break down of Western civilization.
But this is not all. Maharal's vision is guided by veiled hints in the Midrash: the "Kingdom of Israel" itself undergoes development. In its immature stage it forms part of the Fourth Empire, and only when it reaches maturity does it throw off this attachment and emerge as "the holy kingdom of the Messiah". (Kingdom is, of course synonymous with "state".)
So long as the kingdom of the Messiah has not yet reached perfection, the kingdom of the Messiah is attached to Edom (nigar el Edom) ...The holy kingdom of Israel... must grow out of the non-holy kingdom that preceded it.
Maharal, in a telling parable, describes the relationship between the embryonic "kingdom of Israel" and its "Edomite" environment: Fruit grows within a husk; when the fruit ripens the husks falls off... So it is with Israel. Their kingdom emerges and grows from within the kingdom of the nations i.e., from the existential power of the kingdom of the nations, and from their level, it raises itself to a higher level. And when the kingdom of Israel reaches complete maturity the kingdom of nations is removed, just as the husk is removed, and falls off when the fruit reaches its perfection.
The Messianic Revolution
The Messianic revolution will take place in the hearts and minds of the people. The "falling off of the husk" does not refer to a political or military event, nor does "kingdom of the nations" refer to a political entity. The husk refers to the value system of the Western world. The falling off of the husk signifies the victory of spirituality over materialism, faith in G-d over unbounded trust in one's own power, and awareness of divine providence over belief in blind chance.
Yet it appears that the "kingdom of Israel" in its infancy (and here "kingdom" means both state and cultural entity) is still definitely "attached to Edom". Could Maharal, from his 16th century vantage point, be referring to the reality of the State of Israel today?
But why does the Messiah have to "sit at the gates of Rome"? Why does the holy have to "grow out of the unholy"?
Maharal here touches upon a principle of universal import. According to an idea enunciated by Rabbi E.E. Dessler, one of the foremost exponents of Mussar in the 20th century, the highest levels of holiness can be reached only as a reaction to a situation which is steeped in the very opposite of holiness. Avraham Avinu became the spiritual pioneer that he was only because he grew up in the house of Terah the idol maker. This spurred him to rebel against Nimrod and the ten generations of idolators who preceeded him. Moshe Rabbenu only became the greatest of all prophets because he was brought up in the palace of Pharaoh. His revolution against the evil he saw in the palace propelled him to heights that no other human being ever achieved. Similarly, the Messiah grows to full stature only because he "dwells at the gates of Rome". He must be challenged by the value system of the West, rebel against it and overcome it. It is thus fair to say that the "Messianic Kingdom" must begin its career as part of Western civilization, but can reach its full potential only by rejecting those aspects of that civilization which are destructive to Torah life. This husk must fall off for the Messianic ideal to be revealed in all its purity.
3. But what of the fruit which is silently reaching maturity within its husk? And how does the husk eventually fall off?
Maharal is silent on these processes.
For further enlightenment, we must turn to a passage in the Talmud, in Sanhedrin, (Perek Helek 97b-98a). The sugya - part of a wide-ranging discussion of the coming of the Messiah consists of two beraitot.
The first beraita is relatively brief:
The Rabbi taught: Rabbi Eliezer states that if Israel repent they will be redeemed, and if not, they will not be redeemed. Said to him Rabbi Yehoshua: And if they fail to repent, they will not be redeemed? [Surely Jewish history must culminate in redemption?] But the Holy One blessed be He, will raise up against them a king whose decrees will be as harsh as those of Haman [i.e. G-d forbid, the utter destruction of the Jewish nation, men, women and children] and they will repent and so He will restore them to the path of goodness.
According to this source, it appears that Rabbi Eliezer's view wins the day. Repentance will be the outcome, even if the repentance is in a sense forced upon the people. But the sugya continues:
Another beraita: Rabbi Eliezer states that if Israel repent, they will be redeemed, as it says [citing a biblical verse implying this]. Rabbi Yehoshua said to him, but does it not say [citing another verse implying the opposite]?
Three times Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua exchange verses without reaching any resolution of the dispute. But in the fourth round Rabbi Yehoshua cites a verse in Daniel which is clearly conclusive, and in fact the beraita ends: "Rabbi Eliezer was silent." What is the verse with which Daniel concludes the argument?
In Daniel 12:6 the question raised: when is the end of wonders? [i.e. when is the end of the exile?]. And the reply is given in dramatic terms in the following verse (12:7), which is the one finally cited by Rabbi Yehoshua:
"I heard the man attired in white linen [the angel Gabriel] above the waters of the River and he raised his right hand and left hand to the heavens and swore by the Life of the World, that by a season, seasons and a half, and at the conclusion of the extension of power of the nation of holiness, all these things shall cease".
On which Rashi comments as follows (Sanhedrin 98a):
That 'by a season, seasons': So we see there is an "end" involved [although the precise meaning is obscure, it certainly refers to a date, and it can therefore not be dependent on repentance]? And at the conclusion of the extension of power of the nation of holiness. When an end comes to their tekuma [national revival] and the power of their [military] might, which had previously spread further and further, [with] power and efficiency to advance this way and that - after their might shall end, so that they become very low - [All these things] shall cease. All the troubles [shall cease] and the Messiah will come; as it says [Devarim 32:36]: "...and He will see their power is gone..."
Is Rashi here reading Daniel as referring to the emergence of a Jewish state at the end of the Exile, but before the coming of the Messiah? Certainly the "military might" and "territorial conquest," which Rashi deduces on the basis of the verse in Daniel, can be predicated only on an independent state. Rashi also points to this as a harbinger of the Messiah: they will become "shefalah me'od" ("very low"). As Deut. 32:36 puts it; "their power is gone". At that point their troubles will cease and the Messiah will come.
This reading of Rashi, on it face, is surprising. How do retreat and failing military might lead to the Messiah? Are these the "husks" of Maharal - the attachment to Western values - which must fall off before the Messiah can be revealed?
One cannot be certain in such matters, of course, but Rashi's reading of the verse in Daniel does suggest a fresh perspective on contemporary events. For example, must the power and might of a secular state be deflated before G-d can reveal Himself eschatologically? Are the bitterness of withdrawal and the sense of helplessness in the face of suicide bombers an integral step in the process which Rashi calls "shefalah me'od"?
"A Generation Either Wholly Meritorious, or Wholly Guilty"
Later on in the same folio of Sanhedrin to which we have already referred (98a) we find the well-known statement of Rabbi Yochanan: "The son of David (theMessiah) will come either in a generation, which is wholly meritorious, or in one that is wholly guilty". Much thought has been given to the question why a wholly guilty generation should be more likely to bring the Messiah than a mediocre one.
In fact, whatever the reason may be, we recall that Rabbi Yehoshua (in the sugya cited above) insisted that repentance is not always a necessary prerequisite for redemption to come in such circumstances.
In the two beraitot in which his views are expressed as Rabbi Yehoshua proposes two different solutions: (1) "a king whose decrees resemble Haman's"; (2) "The end of power of the nation of holiness. It may well be that these two solutions represent two different scenarios, which have actually occurred, or are actually occurring in our time.
Some 50-60 years ago we felt on our own flesh the cruel harshness of the "decree like Haman's", in which we lost a third of our nation including 90% of its Torah adherents. But neither the threat nor the execution resulted in a mass movement of teshuva on the lines of Megilat Esther (4:3) as interpreted by our Sages. True, a few years later we encountered a new phenomenon, unique in our history. Young Jewish people, all over the world, began searching for their roots and avidly studying Torah at yeshivot of a new type, specially created for them, and then applying what they learned to their own lives. Yet however significant and full of portent this ongoing "teshuva movement" may be, it has not taken on the proportions of a mass movement and therefore does not seem likely to fulfill the requirements of Rabbi Yehoshua.
Since the potential of the first scenario does not appear to have been fully realized, the second scenario is put in operation. Divine providence uses the wills and purposes of human agents to foster the rise ("tekuma") of a Jewish state. The state operates within the framework of the "Fourth Empire" (Western civilization) and sets itself to resist the messianic, spiritual goals of the Torah. Is it this attachment to the Western civilization that Maharal considers a "husk" which must "fall off" if the true messianic "fruit" is to be revealed? Could this be the question, which Rashi is addressing? The "fall off" will be initiated; it seems, by a series of retreats from previous military conquests, until the state is "brought very low".
It is still not clear however how the revolutionaries' switch from Western ideology to messianic idealism will be made. The old question still confronts us. How can a generation of the guilty (even if the majority is "guilty" only as a result of biased education and media manipulation) be brought to accept, and even yearn for the messianic redemption?
"The Lights of the Messiah"
Rabbi E.E. Dessler raises the question. He suggests that divine providence will "cause the light of the Messiah to shine before the coming of the Messiah and draw the hearts of the people towards truth". What this means has to do with the most basic differences between Western beliefs and the Torah outlook. The West is convinced of the randomness and undirectedness of life and history, while Torah thought recognizes the reality, however unobtrusive, of divine providence. Sometimes events occur which cannot be explained by chance. The odds against there being random coincidences are simply too great, and the recognition of a guiding hand becomes inevitable. These are "the lights of the Messiah". We experienced hidden miracles of this sort in 1967 during the Six-Day War and in 1991 during the Gulf War. During the latter episode 39 Scud missiles exploded in the heavily built up Tel Aviv area. In the Iran-Iraq war every such explosion outside Israel cost an average of 29 lives, but in Israel there was inexplicably virtually no loss of life. But the effects of such isolated events such as these are in most cases only transitory. The amazement and excitement soon die down and realization takes over.
In the case of the "lights of Messiah", what may be envisaged is a series of events of such duration and intensity that it will be very difficult to deny the guiding hand behind them. Difficult, but not impossible. For some people it will always be (for personal reasons) preferable to believe the utterly improbable rather than to accept that there is a crack in the facade of apparently random events which seem to make up our world. And this is all for the good. The fact that some find it possible to accept this option gives merit to all those who opt for the logic of the situation and accept the reality of the crack. Since nothing prevents one seeing the hand of G-d more than a sense of self-importance and self-sufficiency, it is clear why deflation of the national ego is a necessary prelude to the messianic revolution.
We must envisage that all this occurs at a very dramatic and perilous moment. We must imagine ourselves at the "very low point" envisaged by Rashi. As a result of her withdrawals Israel has become very vulnerable and her enemies are poised to strike. It is at this critical juncture that divine providence steps in and the amazing coincidences occur which result in the salvation of Israel. Rashi reminds us that this whole scenario is briefly but dramatically recounted in the Song of Haazinu (Devarim 32: 36-39):
"For He will see that the power is gone,
That there is nothing firm or sound.
And he will say...
See now: it is I - I am the one
I bring death as I bring life;
I strike, and I heal."
The words "see now: it is I..." is G-d's invitation to us to accept the reality of His intervention in history. Once this is accepted, and the intellectual and philosophical underpinnings of Fourth Empire thought are overthrown, the rest of the messianic revolution come into being.
Having suggested what Maharal might have meant by the falling off of the husks, we could now examine his other image: the fruit ripening slowly within the husk - fruit that is revealed when the husk is cast off. This fruit, he claims, is the Messianic kingdom itself, first concealed and then revealed. This requires some elucidation.
Perhaps the fruit represents those lives which are committed to avodat haShem, the service of G-d in the broadest possible sense. They constitute the nascent Messianic period before the kingdom is revealed for all to see, for it is they who, by rejecting the values of the Fourth Empire are casting off its husks and making it possible for the Messiah to become manifest.
Thus there are two processes advancing simultaneously. There is our effort down here to advance the messianic goals, and there is the action of divine providence - in the guise of human political decisions - to weaken the husk... until suddenly, the "end" will be reached, the husk will fall off, the revolution will arrive and theMessiah will be revealed.
What emerges from this discussion is the ripening of the Messianic fruit in our human hand. As the fruit ripens, Divine Providence weakens the husk, and the Kingdom of G-d is poised to make its appearance on the stage of history.
1: Zohar III. 270a
2: Shemot Rabba 1:26
3: Maharal: Gevurot ch.18. In our sources Esav is equated with Edom: Bereshit 25:30)
And Edom, or rather one chieftain of Edom is equated with Rome (Bereshit Rabba 83:4 and Rashi, end of Parshat Vayishlach) and Rome with the Fourth Empire (see below).
1: Gevorot Hashem ibid. Maharal
2: Netzach Yisrael ch. 28
3: Michtav Me-Eliyahu 1,159, Strive For Truth! II, 181-5. E.g. Rabbi E.E. Dessler: Michtav Me-Eliyahu 1,159; II, 87, III, 222; IV, 135; and Strive For Truth! II, 181-5
4: B.T. Shabbat 88a
5: Michtav Me-Eliyahu Vol.V P.295