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Do We Want Mashiach Now?

Chukat-Balak (Numbers 19:1-25:9 )

by Rabbi Noson Weisz

Many people observe the custom of reciting the thirteen principles of faith following their morning prayers. These principles are excerpted from Maimonedes' introduction to the tenth chapter of the Tractate Sanhedrin. The twelfth principle concerns the Mashiach, the Messiah:

"I believe with complete faith in the coming of the Mashiach, and even though he may delay, nevertheless I anticipate every day that he will come."

In his aforementioned introduction, Maimonedes cites Bila'am's final prophecy as one of the main sources for this particular article of faith:

"I shall see him, but not now, I shall look at him but it is not near. A star has issued from Jacob and a scepter-bearer has risen from Israel, and he shall pierce the nobles of Moab and undermine the children of Seth...." (Bamidbar 24:17-24)


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The commentators are in unanimous agreement with Maimonedes regarding the meaning of this prophecy; they all interpret this passage as a reference to the Mashiach. But the fact that his coming was the subject of a prophesy doesn't automatically elevate the belief in the coming of Mashiach into a basic axiom of Jewish faith. Why does Maimonedes consider this belief so fundamental to Judaism?

We need a little background to fully appreciate the oddity of considering the coming of Mashiach fundamental to Jewish faith. Judaism does not subscribe to the belief that man can be redeemed or 'saved' by anyone, including God. God put us in this world to redeem ourselves by exercising our own free will and choosing the good and rejecting the evil. The whole point of our existence in this world is that the conditions prevailing here make it a suitable environment for human independence. God's Presence is not manifest here; consequently, we are able to choose freely without being overwhelmed by its oppressive weight and earn our reward in the World to Come by perfecting ourselves through our own efforts.


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By the way, according to Jewish thought the arrival of the Mashiach has nothing to do with the World to Come or with the concept of reward. The maxim "Mitzvot cannot be rewarded in this world" (Kiddushin 39b) applies to the days of the Mashiach as it applies to any other historical era in this world. Maimonedes [Laws of Kings, ch. 11-12] explains at length that the world will continue as normal into post-Messianic times except for one particular: it will be entirely united under the rule of the Messianic King. In fact, the only noticeable change from the way things operate in our present day world will be the absence of the struggle between good and evil. It is this fact, that the post-Messianic world as envisioned by Judaism constitutes a segment of the ordinary reality we are used to, that gives rise to the conceptual difficulties regarding the Mashiach.

For the post-Messianic world as described in the prophets and in Jewish literature seems ill-suited to the exercise of free will that is the sole point of living in this world. The last Halacha in the Book of Kings, the very last book of the entire Yad Hachazaka reads:

" that time there shall be no famine or war, no jealousy or competition - all goods will be available in abundance, and everything dear and sweet will be common as dust; there will be nothing to keep anyone busy other than seeking knowledge of God; therefore Israel will grow exceedingly wise, learn all the secrets and attain the maximum knowledge of God humanly possible as it is written, 'For the earth will be as filled with the knowledge of God as water covering the sea bed.' (Isaiah 11:9)" (Kings 12,5)


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But if the historic period ushered in by the Mashiach does not provide a suitable environment for the continuing struggle between good and evil which is the purpose of life in this world, why is it tacked on to human history at all? When the task of exercising human free will has been performed to a sufficient degree to meet God's purpose, why doesn't He simply usher in the World to Come instead of prolonging earthly existence for the duration of the Messianic era when the possibility of free choice is at least diminished and there is no potential for profit?

The path to the answer requires an understanding of a concept that is very basic to Judaism called Tikun Olam, or literally, fixing the world. We shall attempt to explain this concept in light of the guidance offered by Rabbi Dessler. [Michtav Me'Eliyahu,3]


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Before he sinned, Adam was self-conscious as a soul. This means that he perceived physicality as the extreme external appendage of spiritual reality and that he related to his body as a suit of clothing to be worn and discarded as needed. Adam's sense of himself as a living being was different than ours.

A large part of our sensation of being alive derives from the awareness of our bodies functioning physically; we are conscious of our hearts beating, our lungs sucking in oxygen and exhaling carbon dioxide, our stomachs digesting food, our arms reaching out for things our legs taking us places. The results of experiments where people are sense deprived for extended periods of time indicate that the human sense of self disintegrates in the absence of physical stimuli. Our sense of ourselves is physically centered.

Before his sin, Adam felt himself alive spiritually. He was conscious of his soul manning and operating the controls that caused his body to function. His awareness of his body resembled our awareness of our clothing. His body was a layer of concealment on top of the being he perceived as himself and not part of his core identity. This sort of self-awareness is called living in the Garden of Eden.

The upside of such spiritual self-consciousness is that there is no need to expend any physical effort on the acquisition of the inputs of life. The soul obtains its sustenance from spiritual endeavors such as learning Torah or performing Mitzvot and passes on some of the spiritual energy thus acquired to power the operations of the body. Spiritual effort was required even in the Garden of Eden:

"YHVH God took the man and placed him in the Garden of Eden, to work it and to guard it." (Genesis 2,15)

The Midrash explains that the work referred to is the study of Torah and the performance of Mitzvot (Yalkut, 22)

The downside of this type of self-awareness is that it is indivisible from a sense of dependency. Life clearly emanates from God; existence is not in our control and man must reconcile himself to a state of permanent dependency.


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Adam's sin was prompted by the rejection of such dependent self-awareness. The sin of eating from the Tree of Knowledge testifies to a belief that physical creations have the power to increase the human life force. Man can become more intelligent by imbibing the fruit of a physical entity such as a tree. If physicality is merely the outermost layer of reality this is clearly an absurd proposition. There can be no potential in physical things that does not flow into them through the spiritual medium of the soul. The soul can never increase its spiritual powers through the medium of a physical input.

Eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge with the expectation of increasing some capacity of human intelligence thereby amounts to a redefinition of man's essential self-awareness. Obviously man must be primarily a physical being. His physical self must be the source of his life force and of his intelligence if he can increase his capacity by simply ingesting a part of the physical world. Only if reality is physically based can it be conceivable that there may be hidden potentials in plants and herbs that have the capacity of improving human intelligence.


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Self-awareness as a physical being also has an upside and a downside. The downside is stated in the Torah.

"Accursed is the ground because of you; through suffering shall you eat of it all the days of your life. Thorns and thistles shall it sprout for you, and you shall eat the herb of the field. By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread... (Ibid. 3:17-19)

The physical world considered as a separate reality falls under the dominance of the laws of nature. If physicality is to serve as the source of life, then one must labor physically to extract the necessary inputs of life by force from the reluctant soil.

But this need to struggle for one's own sustenance physically is also the upside of this type of self-awareness. Man is now dependent only on his own strength and ability to extract the inputs of life he requires. He is no one's dependant and stands on his own two feet and proclaims, "My strength and the might of my hand made me all this wealth." (Devarim 8:17)

Needless to say, this new self-awareness has a major effect on man's original self-consciousness. Man's awareness of himself as a soul is readjusted. His sense of having a soul is no longer knowledge; it becomes reduced to the parameters of belief. As he is no longer self-conscious as a spiritual being, he can no longer live in the Garden of Eden. It is the drive for independence that drove man out of the Garden of Eden and forced him into his present existence.

Let us sum up: Man was originally placed in the Garden of Eden, which is a physical place and is a part of this world in which we live but where man is a spiritual being; he is self conscious as a living spirit rather than a living body. His placement in the Garden amounts to a test that he has to pass, exercising his free will in order to attain his reward in the World to Come. Passing the test means acceptance of the perception of himself as a living spirit, which necessitates the surrender of his desire for self-assertion, and the acceptance of his status as God's dependant.


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The fact that man failed the test did not alter the definition of his task. Reaching the World to Come still involves passing this same original test and reconciling himself to an eternity as God's dependant. But Adam's sin created a major obstacle. In order to face this test man must first return to the sort of self-awareness he had in the Garden of Eden before his sin. It is the achievement of this sort of self-awareness that is the function of the Messianic age. The awareness of God, that was the hallmark of human consciousness in the Garden of Eden before Adam's sin, is precisely equivalent to the clarity of man's vision of God in the post-Messianic era:

"For the earth will be as filled with the knowledge of God as water covering the sea bed." (Isaiah 11:9) (Kings 12,5)

But there is an important change. The destination may be the same, i.e. the clear perception that God is the source of all being and the recognition that man himself is primarily a spirit, but the route to the destination has changed. The road back to the state of consciousness we enjoyed in the Garden of Eden leads through logic not feeling. Having partaken of the tree of knowledge and become conscious of ourselves as physical creatures in order to gain our independence, it is only when we logically conclude that this perception of independence is an illusion which is demonstrably inaccurate that we can reproduce in our own fashion the pristine consciousness of Adam. Become self-aware as souls by simply altering our perception of ourselves and transforming ourselves back to Adam before the sin once again is beyond our present capacity.


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We now have sufficient information to understand the concept of Tikun Olam. To fix the world we must somehow manage to disabuse ourselves of the notion that there is any sort of reality in which we are fully independent of God and in full control of our own destiny. We must recognize that the choice to define ourselves as physical creatures failed in its object. The historic process of the Four Diasporas, also referred to in the prophetic vision of Bila'am was designed to accomplish this.

The first Diaspora, Babylon, was about the power of conquest. Babylon conquered the civilized world through force of arms. When this power simply rotted away, it became clear that simple military strength cannot suffice to make man independent.

The next Diaspora was Persia. The Persians attempted to achieve world hegemony through the power of wealth. Ever increasing the size of the social pie would make man independent. When this empire fell to Greek conquest, the power of wealth was exposed as insufficient. When the Greek empire collapsed in turn, the power of culture was also recognized as limited.

Finally we come to our present Diaspora, the Roman Empire and its offshoots. This Diaspora is about the power of technology. Man the problem solver is endlessly creative. There is no problem that is beyond his capacity to solve. If we combine the strengths of every portion of the human race, the advances we will attain through ever increasing development in the areas of the humanities and the sciences cannot fail to bring us to full independence and thus to Utopia. Our job is to set up a world environment that allows for the free flow and interchange of ideas. The exposure of the fallacy of this final hope for human independence will usher in the Mashiach.


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But the lessons taught by the historic process have a spiritual counterpart. There has always been a stream of resistance that has flowed against the mighty current of the belief in human supremacy and helped to stem its tide. Whenever man has raised his head and proclaimed his independence of God, the Jewish people has been there, stubbornly clinging to its belief that man is a spiritual creature ever dependent on the mercy of the creator. By continually rejecting the trend to follow Adam's decision to choose independence of God in all the various forms this choice has assumed through world history, the Jewish people has been constantly correcting Adam's sin and driving human consciousness back to its point of origin.

The ultimate stage in this historic process brings us to our present era, called Ikvoso Demeshicha, the heels of the Mashiach. Let us trace the parallel paths to human submission described above through our own troubled era.

First let us follow the Jewish people. We are currently repatriated in Israel, occupying our own secular state. This modern Israel perfectly encapsulates the drive toward independence; it was founded largely on the idea of "Never again." Never again will we allow ourselves to fall into the helplessness that made us vulnerable to the excess cruelties of anti-Semitism during our two thousand year exile from our homeland following the destruction of the Temple. Never again will we allow ourselves to be placed in the position where we can be led meekly to our deaths in Nazi concentration camps. We have our own modern state and our own mighty army. We are finally in charge of our own destiny.

These fundamental ideas of the secular originators have foundered as a result of the confrontation with Palestinian terrorism. Despite our considerable military might and sophisticated development we are unable to come up with a successful solution to the low-tech problem presented by the primitive suicide bomber who straps himself with the crudest of explosives and blows himself up on our peaceful streets. We walk around in a state of terror in our own country; our great military superiority cannot provide us with a sense of safety and security. We have lost the feeling of being in control of our own future.


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The Jewish people in Israel are divided into three segments. Twenty percent of us are Torah observant and thoroughly convinced that only God can provide us with security. The secular dream of attaining peace and security through our own physical power has been exposed as bankrupt. The solution to our problem: we must all turn to God and throw ourselves on his mercy.

Twenty percent of us are firmly ensconced in the humanistic secular vision of the world. We can and must solve our own problems by employing our ingenuity to reach creative solutions to our security problems. The road ahead is fraught with risks but we have the power, talent and capability to overcome the dangers and problems on the road to peace and security without the aid of Divine intervention.

The rest of us are stuck in the middle and are torn in two directions. At times we are hopeful and at other moments we fully realize the futility of our own efforts and the impossibility of solving our problems on our own. Some people are discouraged and leave the country, some are turning back to their Torah roots in search of a solution, and many are simply attempting to endure and are wandering around confused.

The internal battle rages. The crucible of terrorism is forcing us in the direction of Tikun Olom, preparing us to meet the Mashiach.


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The second track is quite similar. Western man has risen to a remarkable stage of development. We have attained an amazingly high standard of living in the developed world, and have finally internalized the advantages of talking out our problems instead of going to war. We are on the frontiers of a world of science fiction; extending the human life span, space travel, development of artificial intelligence.

The events of September 11 shattered our rosy picture of the future. What good are all the comforts and benefits provided by the advances in technology if we are walking around terrorized? Our lives are controlled by the decisions of some bearded savage hiding out somewhere in the caves of Afghanistan or Pakistan who seems to have the ability to massacre us anywhere in any setting. The anxiety level of Western society is being ratcheted steadily upward. What price our feeling of being in charge and in control of our own destiny, given this?


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Judaism teaches that the arrival of Mashiach is accompanied by birth pangs, Chevlei Mashiach. As we have explained, the road to Meshiach is the realization that we can never be totally independent and in control of our destiny no matter what level of development we reach. What more ingenious way to drive home this lesson than terrorism.

God invented terrorism to expose the futility of the dream of human independence. It is not the world of nature that prevents us from attaining total control over our own destinies. It is the savagery in the human heart that has destroyed our vision of the future. We can manage the universe just fine, it is ourselves that we cannot control.

But that is really the message of Mashiach. The true struggle of history is internal. It is our own characters that we are attempting to fix. The realization of the futility of driving toward achieving the projections of science fiction without having solved the primitive low-tech problem of terrorism should force us to be able to confront and face down our own sense of superiority and finally bring us to Mashiach.

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