Maimonides #12 - The Messianic Era
Waiting for the Messiah means knowing that he will bring the world to the recognition of the Almighty and at last fulfill the national mission of Israel.
Based on a series of lectures by Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, of blessed memory.
We believe and affirm that the Messiah will come. One should not think he is detained. [Rather,] "If he should tarry, await him" (Habakkuk 2:3)
One is not to assign him a specific time of arrival, nor should one use Scripture to deduce when he is coming. For the Sages have said, "The souls of those who calculate the end will be shattered."
[One must also] believe that [the Messiah] will surpass all the kings who have ever ruled in terms of his grandeur, his greatness, and his honor. [Man should] exalt, love, and pray for him according to the prophecies prophesied about him by all the prophets from Moshe Rabbeinu to Malachi.
He who doubts or belittles [the Messiah's arrival] denies [the authority of the Torah, which explicitly promises his arrival] in the story of Bilaam and in Deuteronomy 30.
Included within this Principle is [the idea] that the king of Israel must come from the House of David and the seed of Solomon. Anyone who opposes this dynasty defies the Almighty and the words of His prophets.
-- Maimonides, 13 Principles of Faith
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A WORLD WITHOUT THE MESSIAH
Realization of this Principle is not easy because it involves more than awareness and conviction. It demands feelings and thoughts that can only be the products of a very special way of life.
In his Mishneh Torah (Laws of Kings 11:1), Maimonides says: "Anyone who does not believe in him [the Messiah] or does not await his coming not only denies [the truth of his coming, as stated in] the rest of the prophets, he denies Torah and [the prophecy of] Moshe Rabbeinu."
What is meant by "awaiting his coming"? Must one think that he is going to come today? What if today is Shabbat or Yom Tov? Concerning this Principle, Ani Ma'amin states, "I believe with complete faith in the coming of the Messiah, and even if he should tarry, I nevertheless will wait every day for his coming." Does this "waiting every day" apply to Shabbat and Yom Tov, as one would assume?
Actually, our tradition tells us that the Messiah will not come on Shabbat or Yom Tov (Eiruvin 43b). Therefore, one need not anticipate his coming at every moment. What is more, in his Commentary to the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 10:1), Maimonides states: "Whoever doubts or minimizes his [the Messiah's] importance denies the Torah that attests to it." Instead of the need to await his coming, which Maimonides discussed in Mishneh Torah, here he warns against minimizing the Messiah's importance. It would seem, then, that "awaiting him" should be understood as attributing to him so much importance that one is aware of missing something, of lacking something every moment of one's life. It is not enough to know and believe in his coming; one must also feel and understand what it means not to have him in our world.
A world without the Messiah is a world of exile, where Jews find themselves dispersed amongst many nations. It is a world where even in the Land of Israel, Jews are subjected to the whims and values of other nations. It is a world in which terrible barriers created by spiritual apathy deter man from coming close to the Almighty, and where the opportunities to approach Him and to experience His presence in His Temple are gone.
There is no greater destructiveness for the Jewish soul than to lose the awareness of the bitterness of exile.
Once one appreciates that the meaning of life is determined by how close one comes to the Creator, the loss of His presence becomes an acute, intolerable pain, a cancer, which eats away at man's spiritual core, which can only be anesthetized by distracting ourselves through all kinds of self-delusionary pleasures. In doing so, mankind has become callous and his senses have become dull to the ultimate pleasure this relationship would offer.
A JEW WITHOUT THE MESSIAH
There is no greater destructiveness for the Jewish soul than to lose the awareness of the bitterness of exile. When Jews become too comfortable in the Diaspora with their nice homes, their cars, and yes, even their Yeshivot, they start forgetting what is missing from their lives. They no longer feel the pain of exile. The comfort, leisure and affluence have contributed to the distortion of Torah, resulting in another approach to Judaism, an approach actually found amongst believing Jews who accept the Torah and its mitzvot. Those who adhere to this approach still recognize man's debt to his Creator. They still recognize the need to acknowledge the Almighty as the Source of health and comfort, and even existence itself.
They are willing to pay this debt to the fullest extent. Since this entails heeding God's commandments, they are willing to fulfill this obligation, just as they give a certain required amount of money to taxes, but no more. There is no concern for reaching beyond the letter of the law in order to enhance or safeguard their relationship with God. In questionable situations, lenient interpretations are always sought. The Torah's commandments are burdens that make the pursuit of a Western, hedonistic way of life difficult.
These people do, however, manage to observe the commandments while living this way of life. Yet, unfortunately, it is impossible to discuss with them the bitterness of galut, of exile. They would question: Why should one yearn for the coming of the Messianic era? What is missing now?
This approach is wholly inconsistent with the 12th Principle, that one must await the coming of the Messiah. How different they are from those whose lives are dedicated to coming closer to the Almighty. These Jews know and feel God's existence to the extent that nothing else has meaning in their lives. They exemplify the true approach. They use the resources of an affluent society only insofar as it contributes to this ultimate pleasure of drawing close to God. They can well understand the words of Maimonides, the feeling of eagerly awaiting the coming of the Messiah and the era he will herald.
No observant Jew will question the coming of the Messianic era as a tenet of Judaism. However, as one of the Thirteen Principles, this idea denotes much more. Here, awareness of the coming of the Messiah becomes part of the body of information that makes it possible for a member of the Jewish People to relate to the Almighty. Anyone who lacks this awareness, even if only because he was never taught, cannot be considered a practicing Jew. Why should this tenet be so crucial?
The necessity of consciously accepting the first five Principles, which deal with the existence of God, can be understood easily. No matter how good one's intentions are, if he has a misconception concerning the nature of God, he cannot correctly relate to Him or accept His sovereignty. The significance of the next four Principles, dealing with God's communication to man, is also self-evident. One cannot practice Judaism if he is not aware of the Torah being the Will of God. It has likewise been explained that awareness of reward and punishment is also essential in order to relate to the Almighty because it is impossible to serve an indifferent Creator. But why is it imperative to know that history will culminate in the coming of the Messiah?
THE PROVIDENCE THAT SHAPES HISTORY
Without the Messiah, the Jew would find it impossible to relate to the Almighty as a loving and caring Father.
Man can accept the sovereignty of God only when he is aware of the Almighty's love, concern, and providence. He cannot relate to an indifferent God. Failing to see Divine Providence in history translates into failing to see the Almighty reacting to man's actions. How many perceived the Holocaust as the "death of God," demanding, "Where was God's love for His chosen Nation?" This perception was due to their doubting whether there really was Divine Providence. If the Jews were indeed chosen, how could this happen to them? And not only the Holocaust! There seems to be no end to anti-Semitism. Can one study history, especially the history of the Jewish People, without becoming depressed? Where is the Almighty's guidance?
Without the certainty of the Messianic era, these questions would remain unanswered. Without the Messiah, the Jew would find it impossible to relate to the Almighty as a loving and caring Father. This Principle foretells of the time when the entire world will become aware of God's love for Israel and understand the Providence that shapes history. Not only do these predictions provide hope for Israel during the gloom and despair of persecution, but they prevent the Jew from perceiving the Almighty's Providence as a farce. For thousands of years, the Jew has survived the horrors of a bitter exile, knowing that the fate of his Nation will eventually change and that someday all of mankind will come to know its Creator through his People.
EVERYONE, A MEMBER OF THE KLAL
Another dimension of this Principle is also closely related to man's perception of Divine Providence. One thing that can be said with certainty is that the knowledge of the Messiah is not so crucial because of how the Messianic era will affect all Jews individually. Of the millions of Jews who have lived from Sinai until now, relatively few of them will be touched personally by the coming of the Messiah. For if the Messiah arrives today, only those alive today will be affected.
A Jew must be aware that he is not only an individual, but a cell in the body of a nation.
Therefore, the Jew can only relate to the Messianic era in terms of the Nation of Israel. It is the Nation of Israel that is affected by the Messiah, not the individuals of Israel. Thus, when Maimonides states that the coming of the Messiah is one of the Thirteen Principles, he is saying that each person's awareness of his role as a member of the Jewish People is essential. A Jew must be aware that he is not only an individual, but a cell in the body of a nation. If one has the impression that he relates to God as an individual in his own merit and that the Torah was given to him as an individual, he cannot serve the Almighty. Only as part of the Nation can Jews relate to the Torah and the Almighty.
The Maharal goes to great lengths to show that although Abraham was worthy of receiving the Torah, the Torah could only be given to a nation (Maharal, Tiferes Yisrael, Ch. 17). The Torah is not given to individuals; it must be given to a people. Therefore, this Principle is essential to all Jews, not as individuals but as parts of a nation. The primary justification for the existence of the Jews, then, is as a nation.
This Principle implies that one cannot be a Jew on his own. One can only learn Torah, pray, and perform God's many other commandments as part of the Nation of Israel, a nation which consists of people who together form one unit. The individuals within this nation are like the cells of one organism.
Only with this realization can one appreciate his connection to Torah. For after all, those generations who came after Sinai never said, "We will do and we will understand" (Exodus 19:8 - even though, according to Kabbalah, the souls of all Jews were present at Sinai, the soul is not the individual. Rather, the individual is body and soul together); they never accepted the Torah personally. So what obligates them to fulfill it? What connects them to the experience at Sinai? Since none of them ever entered into a verbal or written covenant of accepting the Torah with the Almighty, as individuals there would seem to be nothing to bind them. They are bound and committed to the Covenant only because they are part of a nation. It was necessary for the entire national commitment, and the unity of the people was critical, as it is written: "'Israel camped at the foot of the mountain [preparing to receive the Torah]' - like one man with one heart" (Rashi on Exodus 19:2, noting that the Hebrew verb used in the verse is singular in order to stress the unity of the people). This is the nation that said at Mount Sinai, "We will do and we will understand."
Today, the Jewish People is still "one man." It exists today as a nation just as it did thousands of years ago. Individuals die, like the cells of an organism, but the organism survives with new cells. Although the cells of the organism are different from the cells it was born with, it is still the same organism. God promised that the Nation will never die. The Nation is eternal, and individuals are Jews only because they are part of this eternal Nation. Their serving and relating to God is dependent upon their being part of this Nation. This Principle above all demands that Jews not isolate themselves from their People. They must share in the pain and joy of their fellow Jews, no matter where they are.
Now that this Principle has been redefined in terms of the importance of the Nation, the prospect of eagerly awaiting the Messiah takes on a new dimension. Waiting for him means knowing that he will bring the world to the recognition of the Almighty and at last fulfill the national mission of Israel. In awaiting him, Jews must always keep in mind their mission as part of the Jewish nation.
THE PURPOSE OF EXISTENCE
The essence of this Principle is that Jews be aware of the purpose of their nation and their existence. In turn, the more one yearns for the Messianic era, the more he commits himself to the fulfillment of this purpose. Without the recognition of this ultimate revelation of God, the Jew would perceive his worship as one-sided and futile. Torah, the covenantal relationship between the Jew and the Almighty, can only be adhered to when man is aware of the reciprocity of that relationship, and the Messiah is that reciprocity. The Messianic era is the Almighty's response to the efforts of the Jewish People. Without the awareness of this response, the Jews would be forced to find other avenues of meaning and purpose. That is why the awareness and acceptance of the Messiah is a Principle.
This article is an excerpt from "Fundamentals and Faith: Insights into the Rambam's 13 Principles" by Rabbi Mordechai Blumenfeld.
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