How to Bring Mashiach Now
- Rabbi Shira Stutman
Quick show of hands. How many of you have traveled to any of the following cities: Kinshasa, Baku (Azerbijan), Phnom Penh, Lagos (Nigeria), Zagreb (Croatia), Aukland, Guayaquil (Ecuador), Tokyo, La Paz? Keep your hands up if, while there, you stopped in at your local Chabad house. Mistake if you didn’t. Thirteen years ago, in Kathmandu for Yom Kippur, my husband and I met the local Chabad rabbi, who had personally shechted over 1,000 chickens in preparation for serving pre- and post-Yom Kippur meals to travelers who found themselves in Kathmandu for the holiday. Chabad emissaries move all around the world to bring Jews back to Judaism, practicing a form of “extreme welcoming” because they believe that with every mitzvah, we are inching closer toward messianic times.
But this sermon is not about Chabad. This sermon is about messiah.
Before I jump in, let me just acknowledge that for Jews, talking about Messiah can feel awkward or even downright heretical. The concept of “Messiah”, like angels, immersing in a body of water to commit yourself to your religion, or even God’s love, may read as Christian. For the sake of time, you’ll have to trust me here: the concept of Messiah is very Jewish. We had it first. We just believe that he hasn’t come yet. Instead, ancient rabbis argue that one day, a figure will “redeem” humanity and bring in the “messianic age”. In these texts, the Messiah, is sometimes a military or political figure, other times a despised, impoverished person already on earth, just waiting for Jewish kindness or teshuva, repentance. Some texts report that in the lead-up to the Messiah’s arrival, the world will be in chaos, while others say he won’t come until the world is at peace. I must admit that some texts read a little bit uncomfortable to the contemporary sensibility. I’m okay with that. Judaism is vast and ancient, and we sometimes have to choose teachings that are meaningful while disposing of those that reflect a world-view that no longer makes sense.
If you find yourself unable to believe that one day a personal Messiah will somehow arrive, you are not freed from the conversation. Say not “Messiah” but “Messianic times,” which is what the Reform and Reconstructionist movements do. It’s an idea, a state of being, a future time of peace and justice toward which we are striving. Otherwise, you risk missing the forest for the trees. And our forests are these incredible, ancient teachings about the wonder of the messianic era, a time when the great yeshivas will flourish with study, warfare will be abolished, the lion will lie down with the lamb, and so on.
One of the most well-known statements about Messiah teaches that he will come when the whole Jewish community observes two shabbats in a row (Shabbat 118b). Does the following not sound like a true taste of a better time?
One who wants to enter the holiness of [Shabbat] must first lay down the profanity of clattering commerce, of being yoked to toil. He must go away from the screech of dissonant days, from the nervousness and fury of acquisitiveness and the betrayal embezzling his own life. He must say farewell to manual work and learn to understand that the world has already been created and will survive without the help of [humans].
This passage by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel draws a picture of a time without the pressures of materialism and toil. Shabbat is seen as “me’en olam ha’ba”, a taste of the world to come, the Messianic era. But you already know this. Convincing a group of overstressed and over-Tweeted DCers that it’s worth it to observe some sort of Sabbath is not difficult. Actually doing it is the problem. The excuses are too real—the work deadline, the bachelorette party, errands. When I first moved to DC, my phone was off on Shabbat. Then I kept it turned on, “just in case”. (Just in case what I don’t know.) Then I started texting, but only with kids’ friends’ parents about upcoming play-dates or carpools. Then I started texting with everyone. And I’m a rabbi. To keep a Shabbat—even in your own way—is incredibly difficult in a world that doesn’t understand it, and especially doesn’t understand it for the non-Orthodox. We feint at change but go quickly back to the easy way. But today I’m saying that I’m going to bring the Messanic age one step closer by turning off the texts. The Jewish tradition only requires two witnesses for a business deal to be sealed. I have 700.
The most beautiful thing about Shabbat, though, is that it’s not all about me. In an interview, writer Judith Shulevitz argues that Shabbat was a first moment in history when “everyone, not just the upper classes…have the right to rest in a regular way one day a week….[I]t was so radically progressive that it even mandated that you had to give your animals the day off….In its time the Sabbath was an enormously radical idea…..” When we have a Sabbath moment (not the full 25-hours, but part of it), when we turn off the phone, or desist from engaging in commerce, or walk instead of driving, or go to services, or going to synagogue but never make it inside for services, or have an at-home meal with friends, or turn off the computer, or pray/meditate/hike, we deepen our spiritual practice; that’s a given. But not only ours; we deepen others, as well, whether the “other” is the family member with whom you’re reconnecting or the oppressed who you now know, because of your personal experience, deserve their own Shabbat, too. Observing Shabbat, purportedly about self-care, thus becomes about community care. We were slaves, we were freed so that we could celebrate Shabbat. This holds true for Jews in ancient times, Jews in contemporary times, and all of humanity. I know that the labor movement likes to take credit for the weekend, but that too was us. Shabbat is a political act. We are owned by no one. Not out boss or clients, not by commerce. And it brings messianic times one step closer.
Although it may feel insurmountable, observing a Sabbath is within our reach. Other ways of bringing Messanic times, like world peace, feel much farther away. Isaiah’s description of a future time in which “the nations...shall beat their swords into plowshares...[and] shall never again know war” (Isaiah 2.4)? Far, far away. But here’s the crazy part: that’s not factually accurate. In his 2011 book The Better Angels of our Nature, Steven Pinker
argued that violence has decreased over multiple scales of time and magnitude, including tribal warfare, homicide, cruel punishments, child abuse, animal cruelty, domestic violence, lynching, pogroms, and international and civil wars. He tried to explain these declines as a change in the interaction between violent impulses (such as dominance, sadism and revenge) and peaceful impulses (such as self-control, empathy and reason) brought on by historical forces such as government, trade and literacy.
Today, argues Pinker and other scholars, we most likely are living in the most peaceful era in the existence of our species. One step closer.
Fortunately or unfortunately, 1,000 years ago there was no 24-hour news cycle to alert us to every massacre or murder the world over, not many people traveling too far from their home village. Now we get information immediately, and it is quite awful. This past summer, traveling in Israel with members of the Jewish Welcome Workshop, we spent a day in the Golan Heights. For much of that day, while discussing politics, white-water rafting, or sitting outside having lunch, we heard the repeated sound of bombs landing in Syria. Even though our guide reminded us that we were “at least 9 kilometers away from the bombing, so totally safe”, the war felt very close. We sat on our picnic benches with our pita and labaneh, imagining civilians injured or killed.
If Syria feels too far, consider that roughly 24,000 people have died from guns in the US since the Newtown shootings in December, 2012. I am on the treadmill at the gym: two of the tv screens show footage of small children, dying from poison gas in Syria. A third shows footage from the funeral of 1-year-old Antiq Hennis, killed in New York last week while being pushed in a stroller by his parents. "Remorseful doesn't even describe what I feel," said suspect Daquan Breland, after he was arrested for the Antiq’s murder. “I love kids, I wanted to be a father. Now there’s no time. I think about my present, my past, my future. I would’ve changed things beginning in elementary school. I would’ve taken a different path.”
The Talmud teaches (Sanhedrin 98a) that Rabbi Joshua ben Levi found Elijah the prophet sitting, disguised as a beggar, at the gates of Rome. He asked, “When will you come to proclaim the messiah?” Elijah replied, “hayom, today, if you will only hear his voice.” The Jewish tradition does not give us permission to stand down, not in Syria, and not when children and adults die every day on the street or by committing suicide in their homes.
We are indeed closer to the messianic era. The world is more peaceful. But this arc is really long. We may not know whether missile strikes against the Assad regime will bring an end to the violence, but we can know that donating to Syrian refugee relief, with organizations like Oxfam or Doctors without Borders, will make a drop of difference. And I’m not interested in getting into a policy argument over gun control but, people—let’s get up off the couch and act. Do it for baby Antiq and work to get guns off the street. Or do it for Daquan and work to make our elementary schools places where kids thrive, whether they’re in Cleveland Park or in Anacostia. Consider volunteering for Reading Partners, an organization that sends people like you into schools all over the city to spend time reading with kids so they can stay at grade level. When we act on our impulse to bring justice, we are healing not only for the other but also the most basic part of ourselves that knows that the more you give, the more you receive in return.
There are many Jewish texts on Messiah. They come to teach us that we are a small but critical part of the whole. Judaism make no distinction between what is good for the self and what is good for the universe; both are equally important for the individual and for the community; both will bring Messiah. Think of the Chinese yin/yang symbol, “used to describe how seemingly opposite or contrary forces are interconnected and interdependent in the natural world; and, how they give rise to each other as they interrelate to one another.” We cannot lift up the other without lifting up ourselves and vice versa. We think Shabbat is about our own self, but it is also about community. Shabbat is important for our own souls and for the souls of our loved ones, the poor who we don’t know, our animals. We think that peace is about the world community, but it is also about our own selves. Something has shifted in history, and we are closer than ever to the metaphorical lion and the lamb taking up residence together. We can do it.
I want to tell you a story that I’ve told some of you before, about a man named Mendel, went to the Baal Shem Tov and said: “Rebbe, I want to see Elijah the Prophet.” “It’s simple,” the rabbi said. “Fill a box with food. Then before Rosh HaShanah travel to Minsk. On the outskirts of town is a dilapidated house. Find that house, and shortly before candle-lighting time at sunset, knock on the door and ask for hospitality.”
So he went and did as the rabbi told him. He filled the parcels with food and went to Minsk, where he found the broken-down house. Inside he heard children crying, “Mommy, we’re hungry.” He heard the mother answer, “Children, trust in God. He’ll send Elijah the prophet to bring you everything you need.”
Then the hassid knocked on the door. When the woman opened it, he asked if he could stay with them for the holiday. “Don’t worry,” he said, “I have enough food for all of us.” He came in, opened the box, and they ate. He was there for two days, waiting to see Elijah the prophet but no one came.
So he returned to the rabbi and said, “Rabbi, I did not see Elijah the Prophet!” “Did you do everything I told you?” said the Baal Shem Tov. “I did!” he said. “Are you sure?” “Yes Rebbe! I didn’t see him!” “Then you’ll have to return for Yom Kippur,” said the rabbi. “Go back before Yom Kippur, with a box of food to the same house. So he went back to Minsk before Yom Kippur.
Inside he heard children crying, “Mommy, we’re hungry! We haven’t eaten the whole day!” “Children!” said the mother. “Do you remember you were crying before Rosh HaShanah and that you had no food? And I told you, “God will send Elijah the prophet who will bring you what you need! Didn’t Elijah come and bring you food? Elijah will come now, too, and bring you food.” Now the chassid understood. He was Elijah. So he knocked on the door.
As we gather together as a community this Yom Kippur, each of us is Elijah, capable of bringing the messianic times one step closer. We can make Messiah Now! our manta, our clarion call, for all of us who believe strongly that you cannot have love without justice, that we have within us all we need to do good, that the world as it is is not the world as it could be. Rabbi Arthur Green teaches that “The actual work of redeeming the world is turned to us in history, and is done by all of us, day by day. Messiah has been waiting in the wings, as it were, since the very beginning of history, ready to come forth when the time is right.” The messiah is coming, one step at a time—with our help.
Gmar tov—may we all be signed and sealed for a sweet and justice-filled new year.
 This title is cribbed from The First Jewish Catalog: A Do-it-Yourself Kit, a back-to-the-earth approach to Jewish living.
 I first heard this story from my colleague Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann.