Awaiting the Messiah
Is there any obligation to await the Messiah’s arrival or to do anything to bring him? Or is the Messiah’s arrival just a general concept – something we know will one day occur but not really relevant to our everyday lives?
The Aish Rabbi Replies
Thank you for raising the important issue. It is clear that the belief in the Messiah (Moshiach or Mashiach – literally, “the anointed one”) must be more than a vague notion to us, not really a part of our everyday experiences. The Talmud writes that one of the first questions a person will be asked after he dies is if he anxiously anticipated the Messiah’s arrival (Shabbat 31a). “Anxiously anticipate” (Heb., “tzipita” – to look forward to) clearly implies that this must be an active, relevant belief to us rather than a vague distant notion. Although there is no specific mitzvah in the Torah to anticipate the Messiah’s arrival, it is clearly fundamental to Judaism. Maimonides (Hil’ Melachim 11:1) writes that one who does not believe that a redeemer will come or who does not await his arrival denies several prophecies in the Torah itself – let alone reams upon reams of verses in the Prophets. The Torah writes explicitly that God will one day return the exiles (Deut. 30:3-5). And the non-Jewish prophet Balaam talked of a future savior who will rule the nations of the world (Numbers 24:17-18).
How does one bring himself to anxiously anticipate the Messiah? It is really a matter of recognizing the terrible lack in the world today – a time in which most of mankind does not truly know or commit itself to God. Man is distant from God; His presence is hidden. There is so much senseless suffering and cruelty in the world today, where man follows the ways of evil. We thus await the day in which God’s honor will be restored and the world will unite in His service. The Jewish people will return to the Holy Land, serve God fully and wholeheartedly, and lead mankind back to God. See this response for more on this, as well as this article on the Messianic Age.
What does this mean in practice? Ironically, not that much. We should feel sadness over the state of the world and hope for God’s return. However, awaiting the Messiah is not so much an active activity as it is following God’s will and making the world more worthy of the Messiah’s arrival. Certainly, even better is to live in the Land of Israel itself, preparing the Land for the return of God’s presence. However, anticipating the Messiah does not entail attempting anything rash to precipitate his arrival – such as trying to take over the Temple Mount or bring on some great showdown between Israel and her enemies. We must just make ourselves and the world ready (which is hardly a “just”). God will decide when the time is right.
In fact, the Talmud writes that the Messiah will arrive only through “hesach ha’da’at” – literally, interruption of mind – when we are not thinking about him (Sanhedrin 97a). We must hope for him and look forward to his arrival, but we must not get ourselves worked up in anticipation – such as by predicting precisely when he will arrive and searching for signs of his coming in every little current event. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 97b) writes strongly that we should not attempt to figure out the future date of the Messiah’s arrival (although admittedly many great rabbis – even in the Talmud itself – attempted just that).
Rather, we must to live our lives normally – and responsibly – as if we will remain in exile for many years to come. Indeed, when the Babylonian Exile began – which they knew would last a mere 70 years – the prophet Jeremiah sent a letter to the exiles admonishing them to settle down, build houses, raise families, and be good citizens in their new country (Jeremiah 29). We must never forget that we are in exile, but there is a time to adjust to its reality as well. Likewise today, as much as we hope the exile will end, we must plan our futures as if life is up to us – without some expected superman figure waiting just around the corner to bail us out of our troubles and pay our bills for us. That will certainly happen in its time, but until then, we must live as if life will go on as it always has been – and plan accordingly.
There were many periods in Jewish history where the Jews were worked up to a frenzied anticipation of the Messiah’s imminent arrival. (The Shabbetzi Tzvi debacle is of course the most notable example. People literally sold everything in expectation of being magically whisked away to the Land of Israel.) Invariably, such anxious anticipation always ended in disaster when such Messianic hopes were dashed.
As a result, the Jewish way has generally been rather low-keyed anticipation. Maimonides describes the Messiah’s arrival as a gradual and natural – almost a prosaic – process. In fact – as the process unfolds, learned Jews will watch patiently and somewhat skeptically – until it is clear that the Messiah’s mission has successfully been completed (Hil’ Melachim 11:3-4). We’ve been burnt before – several times – and now the best policy is to hope dearly in our hearts the Messiah will come soon – but to leave it to our brains to determine when he actually has.
I'll add one important counterpoint. Even though we must accommodate to our lives in exile and plan responsibly, we must never lose that spark of enthusiasm for the Messiah's ultimate arrival. We have to look forward to that day – not recklessly, but with hopeful anticipation. And it should make a difference in our lives. An important classic source instructs people not to build brick houses in the Diaspora – since we should view our stay there as temporary (Tzava'at R' Yehudah HaChasid, cited in Pitchei Teshuvah Y.D. 179:4). (I've heard of people who would likewise refuse to purchase a house in America – but rather rented even for many years – until they made Aliyah to the Land of Israel.) It is also well known that the saintly Chofetz Chaim always had a bag packed – ready for when he would go out to greet the Messiah. We know he's coming and we can't wait for it – although we have to!
May the Messiah come speedily in our days!