Covid-19 and the Messiah
No one knows when the final redemption will come, but the only way to be ready is to yearn for that period of peace, harmony, and universal God-consciousness.
The Covid-19 global crisis is a dark tunnel, and humanity is on a train passing through it. According to Judaism, unlike other ancient worldviews, that train does not move in an endless circle. Rather it moves in a line toward a definite destination: The Complete Redemption, also called the Messianic Era.
All of the Biblical prophets described that destination: A world of universal peace, where "Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither will they practice war any more." (Isaiah 2:4) That peace will prevail not only among nations, but also among individuals. People of different dispositions will live together in harmony. As Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan pointed out, the famous passage about concord in the animal kingdom is really an allegory for the end of human exploitation and violence. There will be no more predators and victims. "The wolf will dwell with the lamb; the leopard will lie down with the kid; the calf, the young lion, and the fatling together, will be led by a young child. The cow will graze with the bear; their young will lie down together; the lion will eat straw like the ox" (Isaiah 11:6-7).
How will this state of utopia come about? Through the advent of universal God-consciousness. As Isaiah prophesized, "The earth will be full of the knowledge of God, as the waters cover the sea" (11:9). All human folly and frailty derive from a lack of God-consciousness. As Judaism has been insisting for three and a half millennia, God is one. This means not just that there is only one God rather than a pantheon of many gods, but also that the underlying Truth of reality is oneness. When God created the physical world, He permitted the illusion of multiplicity and separation to mask the spiritual reality of oneness. During the coming period of the Complete Redemption [Geula Shleima], this mask will fall. All human beings will become cognizant of God and of the essential Godliness of other human beings.
This quantum leap in human consciousness will be brought about through the agency of an exceedingly wise and righteous human being called Moshiach [messiah], who will be a descendent of King David. Religious Jews pray thrice daily, "May the shoot of David sprout." One of the “Thirteen Principles of the Faith” delineated by Maimonides is, “I believe with perfect faith in the coming of Moshiach, and even though he tarries, with all that, I await his coming every day.” According to the sages of the Talmud, one of the six questions that all Jews will be asked when their souls come to heavenly judgment is, “Did you anticipate the Redemption?”
Is the World Ready for the Messianic Era?
Will the Messianic Era come soon, or is it shrouded in the mists of a distant future? According to our sages, the Moshiach must reveal himself by the year 6000. We are currently in the year 5780 of the Jewish calendar. However, certain factors can cause Moshiach to come sooner.
Historically, false messiahs have wrought calamity to the Jewish people.
Before discussing those factors and whether the current global crisis feeds into them, we must clarify a crucial issue: Most rabbis are reluctant to talk about Moshiach’s coming, and for good reason. There are historical and philosophical reasons for this aversion.
Historically, false messiahs have wrought calamity to the Jewish people. The best (actually, worst) example is Shabbetai Tzvi, who declared himself the Messiah in 1648. The Chmielnicki massacres of that year had decimated the Jewish population of Poland, leaving the Jews of Europe and the Ottoman Empire desperate for salvation. Over the next two decades, large masses of Jews became convinced that Shabbetai Tzvi was Moshiach. They sold all their property and started to journey to the land of Israel. (Return of the Jewish people to Israel is the first stage of the Messianic Era.)
But in 1666, when the Turkish Sultan offered him the choice of conversion to Islam or death, Shabbetai Tzvi became an apostate, crushing the hopes and spirits of all but his most die-hard followers. The resulting trauma left the Jewish people in a post-traumatic wary-of-Moshiach state that lingers to this day.
Rabbis throughout history have argued about whether it is permissible to calculate the date of the coming of Moshiach. The predominant view is that it is forbidden to calculate the date. Rabbi Pinchas Winston explains why. First of all, if one projects a specific date for Moshiach’s coming, then one will not expect him on all the days prior to that date. The Talmudic sages, however, established that Moshiach should be expected imminently. Additionally, those who project a specific date for Moshiach’s coming may be so deflated if he does not come that day that they will despair of his coming at all.
Nevertheless, the major rabbis of the last several decades have stated that humanity is in the general period of “the birthpangs of Moshiach.” Just as the birth of a baby is preceded by excruciating labor pains, so the wars and terrorism of this past century are the necessary prelude to Moshiach’s emergence.
The main controversy about when the world is ready for the Complete Redemption hinges on whether the pre-condition for Moshiach is that people will be exceptionally good or exceptionally bad. The Torah itself prophesizes a mass return to faith in God and adherence to the mitzvahs: “There will come a time when you will experience all the words of blessing and curse that I have presented to you…. And you will return to the Lord, your God, and obey Him. … Then the Lord your God will return your exiles” (Deut. 30:1-3).
The time leading up to the Messiah's arrival will be characterized by a predominance of chutzpah.
According to the Talmudic sages, however, the period of the “birthpangs of Moshiach” will be a time of decadence and scorn of those who live by Torah. It will be characterized by a predominance of chutzpah. “In the final days before the advent of Moshiach, chutzpah will abound…. Children will shame the elderly, and the elderly will stand before youth; a son will abuse his father, a daughter will rebel against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. A man’s enemies will be the members of his own household. Those who fear sin will become repulsive, and truth will disappear. … The son of David [Moshiach] will not come … until slander proliferates” (Sanhedrin 97a).
Viewing the world through the Torah’s standards, one could say that the present age has hit a moral nadir. The “me-too” movement has revealed sexual assault and harassment of women as widespread as the coronavirus. Adultery rates in America indicate that 20 to 40% of married men and 20 to 25% of married women have engaged in marital infidelity. Close to 500,000 images of child pornography are posted on the internet every week. Anti-Semitism throughout the world has spiked. In such a world, how can the Complete Redemption occur?
The Chafetz Chaim, the great sage of the 20th century, solved the contradiction by declaring in his little-known work written in 1930, “There will be two categories of Jews in the generation of redemption, and both are instrumental in bringing the redemption closer.… The first category of those who hasten the redemption consists of those who vigorously intensify their service of God and that of their children, with all their hearts and souls” (On Awaiting Moshiach1, p. 23). The Chafetz Chaim goes on to describe the “second category of Jews who hasten the redemption”:
This generation will be weak in its religious observance, and each person will do as he sees fit.… Nevertheless, this should not cause us anguish, for this itself is a sign of the redemption! … They rely on their own judgment, which contradicts that of all previous generations. They despise those sages, scholars, and holy men of earlier generations who sacrificed their lives for the sake of each and every law of the Torah. …
Thus, no benefit can result from the continuation of this long exile. Israel’s merits are no longer growing and flourishing, thereby increasing our reward. On the contrary, acceptance of our tradition and compliance therewith continues to decrease and has almost ceased, God forbid. …
Therefore, the Holy One, blessed is He, must hasten the redemption and “open the eyes of the blind” to the true light. The Holy One, blessed is He, will not abandon His dispersed children, God forbid.… This is the meaning of the verse, “Yet, even then, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not abhor them or spurn them so as to destroy them and annul My covenant with them, for I am the Lord, their God” (Lev. 26:44).
… Accordingly, in the final period before the coming of Moshiach, there will be two categories of Jews. Both will hasten the arrival of Moshiach – one through their good deeds and suffering, and the other through unworthy deeds. Obviously, it is preferable to be included in the first category of Jews rather than the second [pp. 26-30].
COVID-19 and the Messiah
When the coronavirus first hit Europe and America, closing down commerce, schools, universities, entertainment, sports, etc., the pundits referred to it as pressing the “pause button” on society. But as of this writing, with nearly two and a half million people infected and 170,883 dead, many commentators are opining that the “pause button” is really a “reset button,” and that the world will never return to its pre-Covid-19 state.
Judaism’s response is always hope, because we are assured that all roads, however rough, lead to the Complete Redemption.
The Department for Strategic Planning within Israel’s Foreign Ministry on April 12, 2020 made public a document composed by twenty diplomats and Foreign Ministry experts. Among its dire predictions were an economic depression rivalling the Great Depression of the 1930s, global destabilization with China and the West locking horns, dwindling health supplies, and additional pandemics.
Rather than such predictions leading us to anxiety and despair, Judaism’s response is always hope, because we are assured that all roads, however rough, lead to the Complete Redemption. This resolute optimism, based on Biblical guarantees, has enabled the Jewish People to weather all the crises of our long and challenging history.
The current global crisis could be a likely scenario for the advent of Moshiach. Spiritual truth cannot sprout in ground crowded with the weeds of false beliefs and tenaciously-held fealty to false gods. The last few years have seen an unprecedented disillusionment with government. With the malls closed and the stock market in seizures, the bastions of materialism and economic security are crumbling. Confusion abounds. Might humanity now be open to hearing the voice of Moshiach?
Some Talmudic sages predicted that the Complete Redemption will come with miracles greater than the miracles of the Exodus from Egypt. Yet others declared that it will be a time of upheaval, of earthquakes and natural disasters, when no one will have any money in his pocket.
The coronavirus pandemic is accelerating the speed of humanity’s train. We, all of us, are barreling toward the Complete Redemption. Whether we will reach the destination next week, next month, next year, or in a decade, no one knows. But the only way to be ready is to yearn for that period of peace, harmony, and universal God-consciousness, so we will recognize it when it – when we – arrive.
Dedicated to psychiatrist and author Kenneth Porter, who asked me about Moshiach.
Photo Credit: Seth Aronstam, www.inspirationalisrael.com
1. The Chofetz Chaim on Awaiting Moshiach rendered into English by Moshe Miller (Targum/Feldheim, 1993)