The old city of Tzfat in the northeastern Galilee hills of Israel was long ago distinguished as a center of Jewish mystical fervor and messianic yearning. Here, Rabbi Isaac Luria, a 16th century Egyptian spice trader, sought union with God. Luria and his circle built upon — but were different from — the kabbalists of Spain and Italy who had come before them in the preceding two centuries. They wanted not only to experience God intimately, but to repair, through ritual and moral behavior, the fragile structure of creation that had been shattered at the beginning of time.
The belief in the coming of the messiah, a descendant of the royal house of King David, who will save the Jews from persecution, reflects the ancient Jewish political longing for redemption from persecution and for our return to the land of Israel. Luria and his community turned the messianic idea on its head by making the Redeemer the one who would come on the heels of the repair of the universe. These mystics sought to end the exile of the Jewish people, of humanity, of nature, and even of God. They believed that this could not be done by God and the messiah alone. Each mystic, and in fact, each run-of-the-mill human being, Jews especially, needs to gather up the dispersed sparks of creative light with which God first sought to bring a perfect world into existence. Through performance of the commandments, you and I return those holy sparks of light to God, Who needs healing as much as the world does.
Whenever I visit Tzfat, I find myself feeling the slightest touch of messiah-fever, as I think about how Luria’s mysterious mythology of redemption and healing has influenced my religious life. Tzfat is generally a stop on tours of Israel that I coordinate every two years from my community in Albany, New York. During each visit, I try to steal away from the other participants, to plunge myself into the mikveh, the ritual bath, that Luria attended centuries ago. The mikveh is a spring inside a small cave at the very edge of the old Tzfat cemetery, at the bottom of a hill which runs along the outskirts of the old city. The water is always freezing and the deep, murky pool of water is lit by a single naked, dim bulb. I have at times looked at the light reflected in the water and imagined myself literally scattering then gathering back up God’s creative light, at the moment that I jump into the water and in its aftermath.
During my most recent visit to Tzfat a few weeks ago, I had no time to go to the mikveh. Pressured by a rushed tour group agenda, I wondered aloud if I could spend even a few minutes doing something more religiously substantive than buying yet another Havdalah candle at the local candle factory. I would not get another chance to come to Tzfat for at least two years, maybe longer.
I suddenly remembered that two years earlier, I had visited Simtat Ha-Mashiach, literally, Messiah’s Alley, located somewhere nearby in the old city. On the advice of our guide, I walked up a staircase that led to a street above the main old city road. There I found the upper entrance to the extraordinarily steep and narrow passageway. The story of Simtat Ha-Mashiach is golden thread finely woven into the mystical, redemption-drunk lore of the place. You have to practically squeeze yourself into that alley as you walk down its staircase. It was at the upper entrance that a long-time Tzfat resident, Savta (“Grandma”) Yocheved Rosenthal, sat daily for decades before her death in the 1970s. She was awaiting the messiah’s arrival, as he would pass through Tzfat from nearby Mount Meron on his triumphant final journey to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The other residents thought she was deranged, but Rosenthal angrily refused to cease sitting at that entrance each day. She would wait there with food, as well as a cup of tea and a cup of coffee, worried that she had no idea which beverage the messiah would prefer. Ultimately, the municipality put guard rails up on both sides of the alleyway to make her daily ascent to the top of the stairs safer as she got older.
Tzfat locals have woven lore around this story, in part to make good-natured fun of it. At some point, the city put up a sign forbidding people to pass through the alley during evening hours, out of respect for the privacy and sleep needs of neighborhood residents. People began to speculate what the Messiah himself would be expected to do if he showed up at just those hours to redeem the cosmos and was informed that municipal code required him to wait until morning. That morning I was there, I questioned a young Hasidic man passing by about where Yocheved Rosenthal’s former home at the bottom of the alley could be found. “I have no idea,” he said. “Besides, do you think this is the only reputed Messiah’s Alley in Tzfat? There must be dozens all around the city, and this one is so damn narrow, you don’t expect that the messiah’s donkey could ever fit through it, do you?”
Laugh though they might, Tzfat residents possess one of the greatest old-new spiritual teachings about redemption, an ancient insight dressed in the finery of a modern city. Savta Yocheved’s unrelenting insistence upon greeting the Redeemer of the cosmos feels childish, almost stupid, to us grown-ups who have been ground down by cynicism and religious skepticism. Too often, I find myself wearing this lousy attitude as if it were Parisian chic, refusing to see how much of a strait jacket, paralyzing my capacity for hope, it turns out to be. In the narrow, steep, constricting places covering the maps of our lives, longing for the messiah might be naïve, but it is far superior to despair. I know too many people who are sitting on a razor’s edge, having decided that the world has lost all hope. Walking through Messiah’s Alley, I wondered if we are losing everything but hope.
I am not sure that I literally believe in the coming of the messiah. My doubts are only deepened by the repugnant ways in which rigid ideologues, particularly, but not exclusively, those on the extreme political right, exploit messianist fervor to push agendas that are racist and ultranationalist. Nonetheless, I take the profound spiritual power of hope underlying the messianic leap of faith very seriously. Savta Yocheved’s not-so-crazy persistence reminds me that my longing for the messiah matters far more than whether he actually shows up. That longing is an echo of Maimonides’ credo of believing with perfect faith in the messiah’s appearance even though it is indefinitely delayed. That longing propels me out of my spiritual torpor, the tragic result of my cynicism and despair at the world as it is. That longing demands that I look forward toward the world’s redemption precisely at those moments when the world appears to be careening towards hell. That longing forces me to remember that the coming of the messiah becomes more imminent every time you and I do something, anything, kind, just, peace-loving, or courageous to bring him. It is happening every time you and I look at each other and see in the other’s face a tiny yet fierce reflection of the Redeemer.
The weather here in upstate New York is very slowly beginning to warm for early spring, Soon, I will take my familiar resting place on the front steps of my house, the best I can do to replicate an entrance to an alleyway. I am seriously considering placing a sign on my front lawn welcoming the messiah and inviting him or her to share a cup of coffee and some food. If someone passing by decides, out of curiosity or loneliness or longing, to pull into my driveway and the two of us share a moment of genuine human connection, I will know that the Messiah cannot be too far behind us.