The news flash came early Sunday morning, June 12, 1994, the third of Tammuz on the Jewish calendar. The rebbe was dead. The man they called the Messiah had passed away from the effects of his long illness. It was front page news, even in the secular world.

And beyond all the stirring eulogies and tributes, all deserved, an uneasy question hovered wherever Jews gathered: What happens to the whole messiah thing now? Can it possibly be sustained? How will the Lubavitch alter their thinking to adjust to a painful new reality?

One thing about Habad: unlike messianic sects that have done great damage to Judaism over the centuries, they have always considered themselves to be bound strictly to Jewish practice. This seemed to make it impossible for them to continue to believe that the newly deceased Menachem Mendel Schneerson was the Messiah. In the nine centuries since the great philosopher Maimonides, any concept of a messiah as a person had meant explicitly a living person. But in the early hours of their grief, some Lubavitchers did speak of the rebbe’s imminent return as the Messiah, a second coming if you will, which harks back to another influential Jewish messianic movement, the big one from the first century.

Back in 1994, despite the frenzy, it seemed that the movement was too tied to Jewish tradition to take the dead rebbe’s messianism seriously. Now, twenty years later, it’s hard to say. To my knowledge there are no accurate surveys as to what percentage of Lubavitch leaders believe Schneerson will return as the Messiah, but there are undoubtedly many.

To be fair, Schneerson never did call himself the Messiah, and earlier in his life, he actively discouraged the speculation. But during the two years between his stroke and his passing, he was either unable or unwilling to control the escalating fervor. Meanwhile, worldly events like the fall of the Soviet Union and the Gulf War (and the “miracle” of only one Israeli dying from 39 Iraqi Scuds), were combed for supernatural meaning.

After months of rumor and speculation following the death, we learned that the rebbe had a will. The supposed Messiah expected to die all along. At least he was hedging his bets. And the will was the most modest and mundane document you’d ever want to see, not even an ethical will, exhorting his followers to continue on the path. It just stated to whom his modest earthly belongings would go. In allowing the fervor to escalate, whether intentionally or not, the rebbe proved himself to be most human after all.

As human as, well, Moses.

This week’s portion of Hukkat reveals the great leader at his weakest. The people quarreled with Moses after Miriam’s death. The guy was still mourning over his sister and the people kvetched about being thirsty. Moses and Aaron didn’t rebuke them; rather they fled from them and asked God what to do. God instructed Moses to assemble the people in front of a rock and talk to it, thereupon it would give water. Now you might recall that this was not the first time Moses got water from a rock. In the previous incident, he was told to hit the rock with his staff, which he did, and water came forth. So here again, he hit the rock. Whether it was out of force of habit, lack of faith, lack of listening closely, or just the mere fact of grieving for his sister, he made a small mistake.

So sue him. He’s not perfect. No one is.

And for that sin, Moses was denied entry into the Promised Land. Nachmanides, citing Rabbenu Hananel, teaches that Moses’ fatal mistake was not the act of striking the rock, but the words he spoke just beforehand. He assembled the people and said to them, “Listen you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?”

For other miracles, at other times, Moses would have said, “Shall God get water for you from this rock.” Not this time. The hitting wasn’t the crime, it was what Moses said that was the sin, and it was more than mere disobedience. It was self-deification.

If Moses had not been punished, the people might have been misled into thinking that Moses the magician, Moses the Messiah, had provided them water. Moses, the vehicle of authority, would have been seen as the source of authority. Whether intentionally or not, Moses would have laid the seeds of a personality cult that would have destroyed the fundamental teachings of the Jewish people. It would have been the ultimate idolatry.

While Reb Schneerson lived, the messianic cult on his behalf treaded that same fine line. That these messianic expectations were sold to the public as authentic Judaism was an even greater transgression. Once he died, though, the expansion of those messianic proclamations, within at least a large segment of his followers, strayed unthinkably far from normative Jewish belief, far exceeding assertions made while he was alive, or those regarding other charismatic leaders like Nachman of Bratzlav. A thousand Orthodox rabbis signed a statement explicitly rejected the messianic claims.

In Hukkat, God told Moses that he could not enter the land “because you didn’t trust Me.” What does it mean to trust in God? Not that every prayer will magically bring about financial security and world peace. Not that our good deeds will make us live longer and cause us to be rescued from some insidious disease or natural calamity. Bad things will happen to us, even if we do have faith.

Trust in God means opening ourselves to a Reality greater than any person, greater than all who have ever lived, and beginning a dialogue with that infinite, eternal presence that can help us to live more fulfilling lives. Trust means waiting for the Messiah, and working in partnership with an ineffable presence, that life force that connects us to the universe, to forge a new world. Trust is the hard work that, when completed, by a generation many eons from now, might bring about the perfect world.

There are no shortcuts to the Messiah. And no human being can claim that title, or allow others to claim it on his behalf. In the bathroom stalls of my university library, there was etched on the walls a quote and a response.

The quote: “God is dead.” – Nietzsche.

The response: “Nietzsche is dead.” – God.

The rebbe, far more saintly than Nietzsche and Generalissimo Francisco Franco, is still dead. May his name and may his teachings live forever. He has joined Moses in that Jewish pantheon of great ones. But those who clothe him in messianic majesty, and the many, many others who tacitly accept this deification, are doing a major disservice to his memory and to the future of the Jewish people.

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