Over the decades, I’ve studied countless fascinating teachings and interpretations of Torah, Jewish life and ritual, as well as theological, and not so theological concepts, and among them, innumerable stories, tales, legends, as well as several terrific songs on the theme of Messiah. Ironically or not, while searching for an entirely different topic, I came across a beautifully written story about the Messiah. Its premise is a classic Rabbinic teaching that, I believe is crucial for the continuance of a viable religious American Jewish experience:
“The identity of the Messiah, is hidden, even from him or herself.”
A monastery had fallen upon hard times.
Once, it had been filled with monks and its church resounded with the sounds of praise to God. Now, only a handful of old monks shuffled through the cloisters and prayed with heavy hearts.
On the edge of the monastery’s woods, an elderly rabbi had built a small hut to which he would retire from time to time for quiet meditation and study. The monks welcomed him and enjoyed his quiet company on their grounds.
One day, the Abbot of the monastery visited the rabbi in his hut and poured out his sorrows to him.
Listening intently, the rabbi then said: “You and your brothers are serving God with heavy hearts. I will tell you a secret that you can tell your brothers, but only one time, after that, no one must ever say it aloud again.” The rabbi looked directly into the eyes of the abbot and said:
“The Messiah is among you; he is one of you!”
The abbot hurried from the rabbi’s hut to gather his fellow monks together and tell them what the rabbi had said. “One of us is the Messiah!”
The monks were startled by the abbot’s words. what could they possibly mean? Is Brother John the Messiah? What about Brother Thomas? Perhaps I might be the messiah myself! Yet, despite their many questions, they obeyed the abbot’s instructions and never again mentioned the rabbi’s words aloud.
However, those words had an amazing effect upon the monastery.
The monks began to treat each other with special deference, not knowing who might be the Messiah, each treated the other just a bit nicer than before. Visitors found themselves deeply moved by the joy and beauty coming from the monks. Soon, people from miles around were coming to have their souls nourished by the atmosphere of the monastery and the monks who were there. The community of brothers began to rebuild and once again, joy and song echoed through its halls.
The rabbi was never seen again by the monks, but the monks, who took his teaching to heart, always felt his presence and so did all with whom they came in contact.
And who knows, perhaps the rabbi was the Messiah; perhaps you may be…?
The monks took the rabbi’s message to heart and changed, not only their hearts and their world, but also those with whom they came into contact. As a result, not only they, but their monastery, once again, became a source of hope and of light.
American Jews, atop the ramparts of every political and social cause, having reached the apex of economic success, secular accomplishments and professional achievements, are being confronted with an existential question: “Now what?”
If it’s only to become a true believer and blind adherent of a specific political party and its slogans…
If it’s only to Tikkun Everything and Everyone, except ourselves…
If it’s only to isolate ourselves in self-made ghettoes, against everything outside of our often, too narrow, Jewish comfort zones…
If it’s only eating matzah ball soup and using a Yiddish word now and then…
If Israel is thought of like any other place or perhaps worse than…
If one left the synagogue because the bar/bat mitzvah is completed…
If you agree with the words of the late singer, Peggy Lee: “Is that all there is?”, then it’s long overdue time, to ask a new question:
“What does my being a Jew really mean?”
Like the monks in the monastery, going through the motions of their faith spiritlessly and with with heavy hearts, so too do many Jews go through the motions of Jewish life. Searching for meaning and purpose in a “meshigeneh” world, we worship at the altar of politicians, offer sacrifices to the god of material consumption, and forget or ignore the obvious one, the synagogue and Torah.
Like everything else in this Covid world, synagogues are undergoing significant internal changes. Through miracles of technology, teaching Torah, conducting worship, social interacting and so much more, are now being conducted in ways unimaginable a generation ago. The methods may be changing, but the message remains the same: A Jew is still a Jew, hungry for Torah, the Staff of Life and thirsty for Torah, the Source of Living-Giving Waters.
The reason Torah is compared to Bread and Water is obvious, for just as bread and water are basic necessities for physical life, so too is Torah essential for Jewish spiritual life. I’m not referring to Bar/Bat Mitzvah preparation, nor any religious ritual per se. Rather, life itself: how to be a mentsch, proper societal behavior and relationships, sensitivity to and awareness of the world around us, kindness to animals, appreciation of the fragility and holiness of life, making time holy, providing meaning to our lives, hope and growth, and many more.
The message of the rabbi and abbot would not have succeeded if the monks of the monastery had not believed in that message, empowering them, allowing for change to occur.
Similarly, unless each and every member of a synagogue, regardless of its philosophy or interpretation of Judaism, becomes a bearer of light, an “Or La’Yehudim”, speaking of the Torah it teaches and by which that member lives, to those not yet part of the temple family, that synagogue will die.
People join a synagogue for different reasons, among them: that’s where their friends belong or because they see the difference it makes in the spiritual lives of its members. Torah exists, not just to be read and studied, but to be lived. Its physical presence may be in the Aron Kodesh, the Holy Ark of the synagogue, but it’s home must reside in the heart of each of that synagogue’s families and supporters.
It’s time, long overdue time, to ask a new question: “What does my being a Jew really mean?” The synagogue, as well as generations of Jews, past, present and future, are waiting for your answer.
And who knows, perhaps you, your child or even your grandchild, may well be the Messiah…