There is an ancient Jewish parable about Rabbi Joshua ben Levi, a sage of the third century CE, praying at the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. Suddenly the prophet Elijah appeared before Rabbi Joshua, and Joshua, being the holy man he was, asked, “When will the Messiah come?”
“Ask him yourself,” replied Elijah, “for he is at the gates of Rome, sitting with the poor, the sick and the wretched. He changes the bindings of his wounds, but does so one wound at the time, in order to be ready at a moment’s notice.”
Heeding these words, Rabbi Joshua traveled to Rome and, incredibly, met the Messiah, sitting exactly where Elijah had told him.
“Peace upon you, Master and Teacher” said Joshua.
“Peace upon you, O son of Levi,” said the Messiah.”
Joshua asked, “When will you be coming?”
Since Creation, God has continued to retract control of the world (being metzamtzem) so that people can grow in their human responsibilities. The traditional Jewish belief in a Messianic Era should neither compel fanatical action, nor should it engender pious passivity. Rather the very notion of the Messiah is to empower moral responsibility and provide spiritual fuel for human progress. Jewish belief isn’t cognitive but behavioral and ethical monotheism is a way of life, not merely a statement of conviction. So too, belief in Moshiach is not merely a declaration of belief, but measurement by how one lives. One who truly believes in yetziat mitzrayim (the Exodus from Egypt) doesn’t merely declare it, but fights modern struggles. One who truly believes in the Messiah, doesn’t merely declare their pious convictions but fights hunger, heals the sick, builds the modern state of Israel (the land of our redemption), improves their community, and fiercely protects the legacy of justice that Judaism so beautifully embodies.
“Belief-in” Moshiach is not merely asserting a fact statement (“belief-that” there will be a personal messiah) but is about a spiritual relationship, a trust in G-d, a living animation of an abstract idea. To believe in the messiah is a way of shaping one’s worldview that translates to action.
The approach to understanding Messianic aspirations for Jews is nuanced, and the sacred task of calling for peace and justice is messy. In 2012, I wrote in the Jewish Week about my own messianic yearnings. Since writing that article, some of my colleagues pointed out that my views on the traditional belief in a Messiah were left unclear; I wish to clarify my position.
In that particular piece, I wrote about the importance of the messianic impulse but also but about the potential danger:
More and more, we see messianism leading to extremism and also to the watering down of core Jewish values; the notion of the coming of Moshiach not only becomes disproportionately important in Jewish thought, but also a justification for lack of responsibility. The concept of Moshiach becomes a religious excuse, a crutch, a shortcut. When it is our collective version of the Tooth Fairy, Easter Bunny, or Santa Claus, we risk religiously remaining children, constantly expecting a supernatural intervention that will instantaneously change all of nature
I wrote in a way that could have been clearer:
At the end of the day, I would like to suggest that we are Moshiach—we are the ones we have been waiting for.
Certainly I believe in the traditional messianic individual. I view this figure as a humble healer, a teacher of the soul as described earlier (Sanhedrin 98a). When I say, “We are Moshiach,” I mean that we are absolutely crucial to the messianic redemption. We are the ones that God charges with healing the world. We cannot shirk our duties to provide great care to those who need our help the most. We must act and there isn’t a second to lose.
Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai asked: if you are planting a tree and the Messiah comes, what do you do? You keep planting your tree! (Avot d’Rebbe Natan). Perhaps if one stops planting, the Moshiach will actually leave. Our roles are interdependent. Without human striving, a Moshiach is irrelevant. Without a Moshiach, God’s spiritual emissary, our capabilities cannot be actualized.
Today we can go forth and help heal the world. Without our toil, our plight, how do we have the audacity to ask for a Moshiach to arrive and fulfill the final redemption? We don’t passively pray for redemption but build the world we are praying for. We must take moral and spiritual responsibility for this world as if we are Moshiach. The rest is up to God.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of seven books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”