Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan
Belief in the Messiah is one of the basic tenets of Judaism. We believe that the Messiah will yet come, and hopefully anticipate the Messianic Age. But what sort of person will the Messiah be? What sort of age will he usher in?
What is the future bringing?
There are some pessimists who say that mankind is approaching its end. They predict that we will either pollute ourselves off the face of this planet or overpopulate to the barest marginal existence. Others see man doing the job more quickly, bringing his civilization crashing down on his head in a nuclear war.
On the other hand, there are optimists who predict a utopian ire for mankind. They see unlimited energy being generated by thermo-nuclear furnaces, the conquest of man’s most dread diseases, and the solution of all our social problems, leading to a world beyond our fondest present dreams.
Never before has mankind been faced with such a wide range of possibilities. Never before has it had such tremendous power at its disposal, to use for good or evil.
We live in an accelerated age. A man of 2000 years ago would not find the world of two hundred years ago very different. But the man of two hundred years ago, if transported today’s society, would find himself in a world beyond his wildest imagination.
He would find himself in a world where reaching for the moon is not a metaphor for the impossible, but a well-financed government project; where atoms are smashed and the secrets of life are being exposed; where the dread plagues that decimated entire civilizations no longer exist; where man communicates instantaneously with all parts of the world, and flies in hours to the most distant lands; where beasts of burden are virtually a thing of the past, and man is waited upon by a host of electrical servants.
We need not belabor the point, but the past hundred years or so have brought about an increase in knowledge unsurpassed in all human history. Whether we use it wisely or not, these accomplishments are truly amazing.
What does it all mean?
Why is all this happening now? In all the thousands of years of human civilization, there were many great men of genius. Why could they not bring about the revolution of knowledge that we are now experiencing? Why did it have to wait until this century? And what is it all leading to?
And in the midst of this, why do we suddenly find a generation that will no longer tolerate war, injustice, inequality, the poisoning of our environment, or any of the other evils that we once felt were inevitable? Why this sudden global change of conscience that seems to be shaking the very roots of our civilization? Why are more and more people coming to the conclusion that the evils of society are not merely the natural consequences of civilization, but are diseases that call for a cure?
Is there any relationship between the information explosion and man’s increased awareness of social justice?
We might seek sociological reasons connecting the two. We might dismiss it as mere coincidence. However, there is a third ingredient, one that already affects the entire world, but is uniquely related to us as Jews.
After 2000 years of suffering and prayer, we are once again in control of our ancient homeland. Again, the relationship between this and the other two could be dismissed as mere coincidence except for one thing.
It has already been foretold.
If one looks with an unprejudiced eye at the world today, he will see that we are living in an age where almost all the Jewish prophecies regarding the prelude to the Messianic Age are coming to pass. Even the most doubtful skeptic cannot help wondering how this could be mere coincidence. The man with clear vision can truly see the hand of G-d at work.
We who believe in G-d know that He controls the final destiny of mankind. Although each individual has free will, G-d guides the general course of history towards His ends. (1) The collective wills of societies are therefore often determined by G-d. Inventions and discoveries come about as a result of the divine will. (2)
Governments are guided by G-d to work toward his ends. This is what the scripture means when it says (Prov. 1), “The king’s heart is in the hand of G-d . . . He turns it wherever He wills.”(3) The ultimate goal of the historic process is the perfection of society. Since everything was created by G-d, all must eventually be perfected.(4) This is even true of man’s mundane world, which was created as an arena for our service toward G-d.(5) This ultimate goal is what we call the Messianic Age. It is the focus of the entire historical process. The coming of the Messiah is a basic belief of Judaism.(6) This yearning and expectation gives Jews great optimism concerning the ultimate future of mankind.
However, if you have ever gone through the many passages in the Bible, the Talmud; the Midrash, and the Zohar that speaks of this Messianic Age, you might become somewhat confused. Some traditions seem to contradict others, while the line between prediction and allegory often seems very thin. For many of us, any attempt to find rhyme or reason in these teachings seems fraught with frustration.
One of the basic points of contradiction is whether or not the onset of the Messianic age will come through miracles. Many things seem to support the view of the miraculous, such as(Dan. 7:13), “Behold, one like the son of man came with the clouds of heaven.” On the other hand, others seem to support a more prosaic view, such as (Zech. 9:9), “Behold, your king comes to you . . . lowly, and riding on a donkey.”
The Talmud was aware of this contradiction, and answered it by stating that there are two basic ways that the Messianic age can commence. If we are worthy of miracles, it will indeed be miraculous. If we are not, the Messianic Age will arrive in a natural manner.
Whether or not we are worthy of miracles, G-d will guide the forces of history to eventually bring about the Messianic Age. If, however, we merit miracles, we can bring it about before the historical process has paved the way.(8)
Miracles are not something to be taken lightly. Man’s free will is one of the prime ingredients of creation. If man would lose his free will to act or believe then he obviously could not be held responsible for his actions or beliefs. That responsibility is the vital human ingredient of man and it is essential that his free will be at all times preserved.
Witnessing a miracle can destroy one’s freedom to believe. Therefore, miracles almost always occur under such circumstances where faith is so strong that they do not affect it at all.(9) In order to merit a miracle, man must have such great faith in G-d that it will in no way be affected by witnessing the miracle.
Although some of our sages tried to bring about the miraculous coming of the Messiah,(10) many were resigned to wait for G-d’s own time, when the forces of history would bring about this Age without recourse to miracles. Thus, the Amorah Sh’muel taught, “There is no difference between now and the time of the Messiah, except with respect to our servitude.”(11) We also find many places where our sages teach us that the redemption will not come all at once, but gradually, in a natural manner.(12)
Of course, many of the traditions that we find regarding the Messianic Age are either allegorical or contingent on factors known only to G-d. Therefore, not all are necessary conditions for the redemption.” For this reason, the Messiah can come at any time, totally without warning.”
In order for a perfect society to exist, such things as disease will have to be eliminated. Thus, it has been predicted (Isa. 35:5), “The eyes of the blind will be opened, the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped; then shall the lame man leap as a hart, and the tongue of the dumb shall sing.”(15)
Similarly, other forms of work will be eliminated in order that man devote himself totally toward his ultimate goal.(16) Many such miracles are predicted, such as grapes as large as hen’s eggs, and grains of wheat as big as a fist.(17) As we now know, all this can be possible with a technology not too far moved from that of today. Indeed, when Rabban Gamliel spoke of these predicted miracles, he stated that they would not involve any change in the laws of nature, but are allusions to a highly advanced technology. Thus, so little labor will be needed to process agricultural products, that clothing and loaves of bread will seem to grow on trees.
Similarly, as we learn the secrets of life processes, it will become possible to make trees bear fruit continually.(18)
When we think of the miracles of the Messianic Age as being technological rather than manifest, then we have no trouble understanding traditions that predict such things as space flight (19) and interstellar colonization (20) in the Messianic Age, even according to those who believe that it will not be a time of manifest miracles.
Of course all of this would be mere conjecture and even forced interpretation if it were not for the fact that our present technological revolution has also been predicted, with an approximate date as to its inception.
Almost 2000 years ago, the Zohar (21) predicted, “In the 600th year of the year sixth thousand, the gates of wisdom on high and a wellsprings of lower wisdom will be opened. This will prepare the world to enter the seventh millenium, just as a man prepares himself toward sunset on Friday for the Sabbath. It is the same here. And a mnemonic for this is (Gen. 7:11), the 600th year . . . all the foundations of the great deep were split.’
Here we see a clear prediction that in the Jewish year 5600 (or 1840), the wellsprings of lower wisdom would be opened and there would be a sudden expansion of secular knowledge. Although the year 1840 did not yield any major scientific breakthrough, the date corresponds with almost uncanny accuracy to the onset of our present scientific revolution.
The tradition may have even anticipated the tremendous destructive powers of our modern technology. Thus, we have the teaching of Rabbi Elazar that the Messianic Age will begin in a generation with the power to destroy itself.(22)
If the technological miracles of the Messianic Age will be dramatic, the social revolution will be all the more profound. On an international scale, it will mean the total end of all war, as the prophet Isaiah predicted (Isa. 2:4), “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they practice war anymore.”(23) According to many commentaries, the allegory (ibid. 11:6), “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid,” also refers to the peace and harmony between nations.(24) Rabbi Nachman of Breslov states that man will realize the foolishness of war, just as he has already realized that of pagan idolatry.(25)
On an individual level, the changes will be even greater. When nations “beat their swords into plowshares,” the hundreds of billions of dollars now used for war and “defense” will be diverted to the perfection of society. There will be a standard of social justice exemplified by the prophecy (Isa. 62:8), “The Lord has sworn . . . Surely I will no more give your corn to be food for your enemies, and strangers will not drink your wine for which they have not labored.”(26) This is also the spirit of the prophecy (ibid. 61:1), “To bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and untie those who are bound.”(27).
Some of the most radical changes will be a result of the nullification of the curse of Adam.(28) The technological revolution will largely eliminate the curse (Gen. 3:19), “With the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread . . .” But this change will be even more far reaching with respect to woman. Many of woman’s disadvantages are a result of Eve’s curse (ibid. 3:16), “In pain you shall bear children, and you shall desire your man, and he shall rule over you.”(29) Woman’s status will change profoundly when this curse is eliminated, and this may well be the meaning of the prophecy (Jer. 31:21), “For G-d will create a new thing, a woman shall court a man.”(30)
The rapid changes on both a technological and sociological level will result in great social upheaval. The cataclysmic changes will result in considerable suffering, often referred to as the Chevley Moshiach or Birth pangs of the Messiah.(31)
If Messiah comes with miracles, these may be avoided, but the great changes involved in his coming in a natural manner may make these birth pangs inevitable.(32)
Since in a period of such accelerated change, parents and children will grow up in literally different worlds, traditions handed from father to son will be among the major casualties. This will be especially true of the values of religion – in such a rapidly changing world, people will naturally be enamored with the new and dissatisfied with the old. Thus, our sages teach us that neither parents nor the aged will be respected, the old will have to seek favors from the young, and a man’s household will become his enemies. Insolence will increase, people will no longer have respect, and none will offer reproof. Religious studies will be despised and used by nonbelievers to strengthen their cause; the government will become godless, academies places of immorality, and the religious will be denigrated.(33)
Judaism will suffer greatly because of these upheavals. There is a tradition that the Jews will split up into various groups, each laying claim to the truth, making it almost possible to discern true Judaism from the false. This is the meaning of the prophecy (Isa. 59:15), “truth will fail.”(34)
It has also been predicted that many will leave the fold of Judaism completely. This is how our sages interpret the prophecy (Dan. 12:10), “The wicked shall do wickedly, and not understand.”(35)
Of course, there will be some Jews who remain true to their traditions. They will realize that they are witnessing the death throes of a degenerate old order and will not be drawn into it. But they will suffer all the more for this, and be dubbed fools not conforming to the debased ways of the pre-Messianic Age. This is the meaning of the prophecy (lsaih 59:15), “He who departs from evil will be considered a fool.” (36)
One of the most important traditions regarding the Messianic Age concerns the ingathering of the Diaspora and the resettlement of the Land of Israel. It will begin with a measure of political independence,(37) and, according to some, with the permission of the other nations.(38) There are numerous traditions that Jews will begin to return to the Land of Israel as a prelude to the Messiah.(39)
There is also a tradition that the land will be cultivated at that time, based on the prophecy (Ezekiel 36:8), “But you mountains of Israel, you shall shoot forth your branches and yield your fruit to My people of Israel, for they are at hand to come.”(40) There is also a tradition that the Messiah will reveal himself in the Land of Israel.(41)
There is even evidence that the majority of the Jews will have to return to their homeland before the Messiah comes in a non-miraculous manner. One of our important traditions regarding the advent of the Messiah is that it will mark the return of prophecy.(42) Furthermore, according to many tradi-tions, the Messiah will be preceded by the prophet Elijah,(43) and furthermore, he himself will be a prophet.(44) However, there is a basic teaching that prophecy can only exist in the Land of Israel,(45) and then, only when the majority of Jews live there.(46) Thus, unless we assume that this rule is to be broken, the majority of Jews will have to live in the Land of Israel before the Messianic Age commences.
Another important consideration is the tradition that the Bais HaMikdash or Holy Temple will be rebuilt before the onset of the Messianic Age.(47) However, there is also a tradition that Jerusalem cannot be rebuilt before the ingathering of the diaspora.(48) This would also seem to indicate that Israel will be settled before the Messianic Age. However, it is possible that the Messiah himself will accomplish these things before he is actually recognized for what he is.(49) We will discuss this point later.(50)
Into a world prepared to receive him, the Messiah will then be born.
He will be a mortal human being, born normally of human parents.(51) Tradition states that he will be a direct descendant of King David,(52) and indeed, there are numerous Jewish families today that can claim such lineage.(53)We all know of leaders who have literally changed the course of history. We have seen, for example, how an evil genius like Hitler literally hypnotized an entire nation, bringing it to do things that normally would be unthinkable in a civilized society. If such power exists for evil, it must certainly exist for good.
Now, imagine a charismatic leader greater than any other in man’s history. Imagine a political genius surpassing all others. The vast communication networks now at our disposal, he could spread his message to the entire world and change the very fabric of our society.
Now imagine that he is a religious Jew, a Tzaddik. It may have once seemed far-fetched for a Tzadik to assume a role in world leadership, but the world is becoming increasingly more accustomed to accepting leaders of all races, religions, and ethnic groups. We may soon have reached the stage where it is a not far-fetched to picture a Tzaddik in such a role.
One possible scenario could involve the Middle East situation. This is a problem that involves all the world powers. Now imagine a Jew, a Tzaddik, solving this thorny problem.(54) It would not be inconceivable that such a demonstration of statesmanship and political genius would place him in a position of world leadership. The major powers would listen to such an individual.
Let us go a step further. With peace established in the Land of Israel, he could induce many more Jews to immigrate to Israel. Perhaps he would negotiate with the Russian government to allow all of its Jews to leave. Things might by then have become uncomfortable enough for American Jews to induce them to emigrate as well. Witness the decay of the large cities where the majority of Jews live and work. In such an unassuming manner, the ingathering of the exiles could take place.
The Jewish people have always had a profound respect for those who assume roles of world leadership. This Tzaddik would naturally be a most respected leader in all Jewish circles. He might even make religion respectable.
It is just possible that all Jewish leaders would agree to name him their leader and confer upon him the Mosaic ordination.(55) The chain of this ordination was broken some sixteen hundred years ago (56) and must be renewed before the Sanhedrin, the religious supreme court and legislature of the Jews, can be re-established.(57) If this Tzaddik was so ordained by the entire community, he could then re-establish the Sanhedrin. This is a necessary condition for the rebuilding of the Temple, as we find (Isa. 1:26), “And I will restore your judges as at first, and your counselors as at the beginning, afterward you shall be called the city of righteousness, the faithful city.”(58) Such a Sanhedrin would also be able to formally recognize the Messiah.(59)
In his position of leadership, through direct negotiation and perhaps with the concurrence of the world powers,(60) this Tzaddik might just be able to regain the Temple Mount for the Jewish people. With a Sanhedrin to iron out the many halachic questions, it might then be possible to rebuild the Bais HaMikdash, the Holy Temple.
However, if this is accomplished, we will already have fulfilled the essential part of the Messianic promise.
Thus, the Rambam (Maimonides) writes, “If there arises a ruler from the House of David, who is immersed in Torah and Mitzvos like David his ancestor, following both the Written and Oral Law, who leads Israel back to the Torah, strengthening its laws and fighting G-d’s battles, then we may assume that he is the Messiah. If he is further successful in rebuilding the Temple on its original site and gathering the dispersed of Israel, then his identity as the Messiah is a certainty.”(61)
It is very important to note that these accomplishments are a minimum for our acceptance of an individual as the Messiah, There have been numerous people who have claimed to be the Messiah, but the fact that they did not achieve these minimal goals proved them to be false.
Of course, none of this precludes a miraculous advent of the Messiah or any other scenario. It is a foundation of our faith that the Messianic Age can miraculously begin any day,'” When Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi asked Elijah when would the Messiah come, he answered with the verse (Ps. 95:7), “Today – if you hearken to His voice.”(63)
As both a genius and Tzaddik, the Messiah will see through the sham and hypocrisy of this world. Thus, the prophet foretold (Isa. 11:3), “He will sense the fear of the Lord, and he shall not judge after the sight of his eyes, nor decide after the hearing of his ears.”(64)
As the Messiah’s powers develop, so will his fame, The world will begin to recognize his profound wisdom and come to seek his advice. As a Tzaddik, he will teach all mankind to live in peace and follow G-d’s teachings. Thus the prophet foretold (1sa. 2:2-4):
And it shall come to pass in the end of days
that the mountain of G-d’s house
shall be set over all other mountains
and lifted high above the hills
and all nations shall come streaming to it.
And many people shall come and say:
Come let us go up to the mountain of G-d
to the house of the G-d of Jacob
and He (the Messiah) will teach us His ways
and we will walk in His paths.
For out of Zion shall go forth the Torah
and G-d’s word from Jerusalem.
And He (the Messiah) will judge between nations
and decide between peoples.
And they shall beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks;
Nation shall not lift up sword against nation
neither shall they practice war any more. (65)
Although the Messiah will influence and teach all mankind, his main mission will be to bring the Jews back to G-d. Thus, the prophet said (Hosea 3:4-5), “For the children of Israel shall sit many days without king or prince… Afterward shall the children of Israel return and seek the L-rd their G-d and David their king . . . in the end of days.” Similarly (Ezek. 37:24), “And my servant David shall be king over them, and they shall have one shepherd, and they shall also walk in My ordinances and observe My laws.”
As society reaches toward perfection and the world becomes increasingly G-dly, men will begin to explore the transcendental more and more. As the prophet said (Isa. 11:9), “For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of G-d, as the waters cover the sea.” More and more people will achieve the mystical union of prophecy, as foretold (Joel 3:1), “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out My spirit on all flesh and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy . . .”(66]
Although man will still have free will in the Messianic Age, he will have every inducement to do good and follow G-d’s teachings. It will be as if the power of evil were totally annihilated.(67) And as man approaches this lofty level, he will also become worthy of a divine providence not limited by the laws of nature. What is now manifestly miraculous will ultimately become part of the nature of things.(68) This, wedded to man’s newly gained powers to bring forth the best that untainted nature has to offer, will bring man to his ultimate destiny, which is the World to Come.(69)
Living on the threshold of the Messianic age as we do should be a most exciting experience for any Jew. Other generations have expected the Messiah’s imminent appearance on the basis of the forced interpretation of one or two prophecies, whereas we are living through the entire range of Messianic tradition, often coming to pass with uncanny literalness. If you keep your eyes open, you can almost see every headline bringing us a step closer to this goal.
But as also predicted, it is a time of great challenge. We live in a time of snares and temptations lying in wait for the unwary, drawing them away from the Truth. As one great Rebbe said, “It is very easy to be a Jew, but difficult to want to be a true Jew.”
But imagine a time during which the Messiah has already come. The truth has been revealed. The entire world recognizes what Judaism really is, and the Torah is acknowledged as G-d’s true teaching to the world. Those who have followed G-d’s way are now the teachers and leaders of a generation desperately trying to make up for lives wasted on vanity end foolishness.
There are two groups. Those who have lived by the truth of Torah, and those who have not, now desperately wishing to become a part of it.
To which group will you belong?