Rosh HaShana hope in a time of COVID-19 (part 2)

In the article I wrote in the Journal of Dharma (January-March 2005), I stated that God’s creation is good, is clear to religious Jews. But it is also clear that all people lose people they love who die. This is often painful and always sorrowful. Also all people fear serious illness and their own death.

Today especially, issues of depression, anxiety, frustration, and purposelessness create misery for an increasing number of the world’s people. Training people to view their own life positively and hopefully is increasingly important.

One way of influencing people to think positively is to teach them the importance of saying blessings for the many things they experience, both in their ordinary daily and weekly life, and at occasional extraordinary times. It is a Mitsvah (Jewish religious duty) to say blessings at every meal over food and drink. Every morning when we awake it is a Mitsvah to say several blessings because various parts of our mind and body still work.

During daily prayer there are 18 blessings, and there are blessings for the weekly celebration of the Sabbath. There are also blessings to say for special occasions, for our sages urge us to thank God for as many blessings as we can, since the more blessings one can say, the more blessed one becomes. Indeed, Jewish tradition maintains that everyone who is able to say 100 blessings a day is truly blessed.

Among the special occasion blessings, there is a blessing for seeing a non-Jewish sage and another one for seeing a Jewish sage. There is a blessing for hearing good news and another one for hearing bad news in accordance with Rabbi Huna’s view that we need both joy and suffering to experience ‘very good’. Here are a few examples of blessings for special occasions:

Understanding that suffering, sorrow and even death do not nullify the basic goodness of the world God has created, and training ourselves to see all the blessings that surround us, are two of the many ways the Torah tradition in Judaism teaches Jews to have a positive and optimistic view of both the natural world and the human world we live in. But, although individuals can train themselves to make their lives joyful and holy, some would say that civilization has corrupted the world of nature with sin, lust, greed, violence and immorality.

It is true that prior to the creation of self conscious moral creatures our world was free of evil. However, at that time the world also lacked good for there were no creatures who could choose to do good and not evil. It is possible to think of nature as always pure and modern civilization as always being a corrupting influence. Indeed, this seems to be a popular view among many ecology activists today and the Torah opposes this negativism.

Another important Jewish teaching concerns the outcome of human history. Most ancient philosophies saw human history as cyclical. Others saw the cycle as a declining one, with each age followed by a more degenerate one. The present age was often considered to be dire and always getting worse.

The Prophets of Israel (from the 11th century to the 5th century BCE), especially Isaiah, introduced God’s assurance of a Messianic Age to come when all nations would achieve all-enveloping peace, prosperity, and justice.

How can people, especially Jews, believe in a Messianic Age after all the world went through in the 20th century? It is true that human society changed more rapidly, violently and fundamentally in the last century than ever before in history. While doctors saved the lives of millions, dictators sacrificed the lives of millions. Populations exploded and birth-rates declined. Technology produced both worldwide prosperity and poverty at the same time.

Knowing all this, how can we look upon the future with optimistic hope? Are we – along with the entire world and our society – heading towards a wonder-filled new age, or a doomsday; or else, are they both occurring concurrently because breakdown is always a prelude to breakthrough? Many who believe in the Biblical vision of a Messianic Age use the insights of the Prophets of Israel to provide guidance in understanding the social, economic, scientific and cultural upheavals sweeping the society.

Usually it is the dramatic dangers of the pre-Messianic tribulation that are being emphasized. I will focus more on some positive signs developing throughout the world that accord with a positive Messianic vision of the Jewish Prophets.

In most religious traditions, redemption is defined in terms of individual enlightenment or personal salvation. However, the Prophets of Israel conceived redemption as a transformation of human society that would occur through the catalytic transformation of the Jewish community. This transformation, which will take place in this world at some future time, is called the Messianic Age.

The transition to the Messianic Age is called the birth pangs of the Messiah. The birth of a redeemed messianic world may be the result of an easy or difficult labour. If everyone would simply live according to the moral teachings of their religious traditions, they would themselves bring about the Messianic Age. But, if they do not do it voluntarily, it will come through social and political upheavals, worldwide conflicts and generation gaps.

The Messiah refers to an agent of God who helps bring about this transformation. The Jewish tradition teaches that this agent of God (and there may be two or three such agents) will be a human being, a descendant of King David, with great leadership qualities similar to Moses or Mohammed. The arrival of the Messianic Age is what’s really important, not the personality of the agents who bring it about, since they are simply the instruments of God, who ultimately is the real Redeemer.

The Messianic Age is usually seen as the solution to all of humanity’s basic problems. This may be true in the long run but the vast changes the transition to the Messianic Age entails will provide challenges to society for many generations to come. For twenty-five centuries Jews have prayed for the day when Isaiah’s vision of a radically new world in which Jerusalem would be fulfilled with joy for “no more shall there be in it an infant that lives only a few days” (65:20).

Before the mid-19th century, the annual death rate for humans fluctuated from year to year but always remained high, between 30 and over 50 deaths per 1,000 individuals. Infectious and parasitic diseases primarily caused those elevated and unstable rates. The toll from disease among the young was especially high. Almost 1/3 of the children born in any year died before their first birthday; in some subgroups, half died.

A century ago, the infant mortality rate in Jerusalem (as in most of the world) was 25-30%. Now it is less than 1%. For thousands of years almost every family in the world suffered the loss of at least one or two infants; now it happens to less than one out of a hundred.

If this radical improvement had occurred over a few years, it would have greatly impressed people. But since it occurred gradually over several generations, people take it for granted. Also, it seems to be part of human nature that most people focus on complaining about the less than 1% that still die (an individual family tragedy heightened by the fact that it is unexpected because it is so rare) rather than be grateful that the infant mortality rate has been reduced by over 95%. Yet very few people see this transformation as a Messianic one in spite of the fact that it is a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy.

Finally, the great increase in the number of people who live long enough to become “elders” provides us with a new set of challenges (a 5-10 year increase in life expectancy is bad news for pension plans and good news for healthcare workers). These improvements in human health are unprecedented in human history.

Truly, we will be coming close to Isaiah’s prophecy: “One who dies at 100 years shall be reckoned a youth, and one who fails to reach 100 shall be reckoned accursed” (65:20). Such radical changes will necessitate major changes in the way we think and act when faced with decisions about life and death. Yet who among us would want to return to the high mortality rates and early deaths of previous centuries? The challenges we now face are not those of survival, but of opportunity.

Where does a Messiah fit in with all of this? He will still have lots to do when he arrives. Most Orthodox Jews would not commit themselves to any individual as a Messiah unless he successfully rebuilds the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, fulfilling the prophecy of Zachariah, “He shall build the Temple of the Lord, and he shall bear the glory, he shall sit on the throne and rule, there shall be a priest before the throne, and peaceful counsel will exist between both of them” (6:13).

Now that a large part of the Jewish people have returned to the Land of Israel, and resurrected a Jewish State, one might think that rebuilding a temple of the site where Solomon originally built one almost 3,000 years ago, would be relatively simple. It would, except for the fact that a Muslim Shrine, The Dome of the Rock, presently occupies the site. Often erroneously called the Mosque of Omar, it is not a mosque and it was not built by Omar. It was built in 691 by Abd-Al-Malik and it is regarded by Muslims as the third holiest site in the world.

Any attempt to replace the Dome of the Rock would be opposed by the vast majority of all Jews; and would provoke a Muslim Holy War of cataclysmic proportions. There is, however, a lot of vacant land on the Temple Mount, and a small Jewish house of worship could be built adjacent to the Dome of the Rock provided the Muslims would cooperate. Most observers agree that anyone who could arrange such Jewish-Muslim cooperation would really be a Messianic Ruler of Peace (Isaiah 9:5).

Christian support for such a cooperative venture would also be important. Anyone who can bring Jews, Christians and Muslims together in mutual respect and cooperation would surely fulfill the greatest of all Messianic predictions: “They shall beat their swords into ploughs and their spears into pruning knives; nation shall not take up sword against nation, they shall never again teach war” (Isaiah 2:4).

Indeed, such Jewish/Christian/Muslim cooperation would not be possible without great spiritual leadership in all three communities. Thus, each community could consider its leadership to be the Messiah and this would fulfill the culminating verses of Isaiah’s Messianic prophecy as enlarged upon by Micah:

“They shall beat their swords into ploughs and their spears into pruning knives. Nation shall not take up sword against nation, they shall never again teach war, but every man shall sit under his grapevine or fig tree with no one to disturb him. For it is the Lord of Hosts who spoke. Though all peoples walk each in the name of its God, we will walk in the name of the Lord our God for ever and ever” (4:3-5).

If each people truly follows the best of its own religious teachings the Messiah will surely have arrived, and God’s Kingdom will be established. This is the most optimistic and positive vision of humanity’s future that one can have. and one that we can all work for together.

About the Author
Rabbi Allen S. Maller has published over 250 articles on Jewish values in over a dozen Christian, Jewish, and Muslim magazines and web sites. Rabbi Maller is the author of "Tikunay Nefashot," a spiritually meaningful High Holy Day Machzor, two books of children's short stories, and a popular account of Jewish Mysticism entitled, "God, Sex and Kabbalah." His most recent books are "Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms' and "Which Religion Is Right For You?: A 21st Century Kuzari" both available on Amazon.
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