There’s a book in our home that my boys often pull from the stack. In The Best Call of All, a family hears the cosmic shofar blast announcing a world, they say, “we had longed for/ for longer than long,” and the mom feels a joy of years, and the dad sheds the tears of our people. But how does the contemporary Jew feel it like that? We’ve only lived a fraction of the beauties and pain of our people; we come on the toes of its morphology! The formative scholars have moved mountains and gone, the master implorers swept hearts afire and left the underbrush, and the populace shrunk from its seams to its center and left its embers. So who are we?
As many nations singularly eye one crowned contagion and the earth teeters between hazy concepts of an end-world, we draw forth our own inbred teachings of the world’s culmination. In a packed, hushed synagogue back in 1991, no other disciples seemed to want the redemption as dearly as did our most global Jewish leader, the Lubavitcher Rebbe. On video we see the Rebbe intimate that the hearts of the populace must want what has been promised, if even just a quorum of them. “May ten Jews at last stubbornly decide that they can convince G-d” [to bring the redemption], he said, and that could usher him in. When I first heard snippets of this, that this desire was lacking, it made perfect sense. I dared not ask the question aloud, but I thought, why does anyone say they want the redemption? Yes, we’re fed on it, but why do you or I personally want it? And we can sway and sing in a group, but who of us holds that core, resolute desire for which there is no why? For those who’ve lost a dear one, there is an extra pull to the Messiah in the promise of human revival. Or else the pull is one of people simply wanting their home. But whom have we met, say from across the faces at our shabbat tables, who’ve pined for not a part but it itself? Blink, and we can, on this corona-flooded day, recognize that visceral flutter in the eyes of us all.
I only noticed recently this new street concept we have of being woke. Literally I awoke one morning and noticed we were giving folks that good label (versus, what, existentially cloudy? or simply of another political persuasion?). In these frothing, turbulent waters that is exilic reality, where a dim wormhole can claim that its corridors lead to light, can we really call ourselves woke? As in a categorical, consummate state of upness? At least Plato understood that there is a ladder of knowing and how one might humbly play in the currency of shadows for years, mistaking them for the thing itself. He should’ve understood, though, that his highest rung was still cast by shadow — the doubled darkness emitted by human reason especially when it purports to have Truth in the palm of its hands. truths: disparate, no capital, sure; the frayed edges of the human tapestry, divinely sustained. Oh, that Plato, he did perhaps have a moment above the cresting plane, crossing human intellect into a hind-glimmer of the divine, just enough to know a Something Greater. But it was a gulp of air gone under. We simpletons, not the philosophers, do gain real glimmers of Truth — the kind that unites all things, e pluribus unum — in moments when the smartest, prettiest, most innovative of us simply, sincerely align with Divine intent, the singular mitzvah, a moment of eternity.
In the last exegetic writing (ma’amar) of the Rebbe, based on a line in Exodus (27:20) that tells of G-d’s bid to Moses that the people’s oil for the candelabrum be “crushed for illumination,” the Rebbe describes there an awakening in exilic reality itself that is not premised on a woke moment. Yes, it’s been roused by the leader of the thousands, the Nasi, but it’s not a desire that is premised on an upper vision. The wokeness is more likely found in the gut than in the eyes. We Jews who’ve emerged from the embers of near extinction don’t have the full picture; maybe to the better of us it illuminates wider or deeper. But the prophets and visionaries, who could step back and glance at the weaving or sleep with a dream divine, are little seen. In fact, in this Age of the Snippet — little newsbits and memes here and there — I am utterly aware of my total lack of vision. I wish to hear something that brings all these particulars together, but my job is not of that brand. It is simply of the Jew, even and especially in (previous) comfort, to feel that our essence must emerge, for our lungs are trying to expand, but we can’t fully breathe here.
Essence cries out to Essence, like the holy Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi screamed out to his Maker: “I don’t want your Garden of Eden, I don’t want your World to Come, I just want You.”
Trust me, because I don’t come from Liadi, and my folks didn’t emerge from Russia. My line of Jews come from the sands and cities of North Africa, where the skins of my ancestors developed certain goosebumps to the real gurus, choosing to be tail to the lions than head of the foxes. Our arm hairs will stand on end when a leader calls up our essence; so like many of our fellow Jews touched by the Rebbe, my parents traveled cross-earth to bask and then live in the vicinity of this woke master Jew. In fact, my Rocker-turned-Hasid dad would steadfastly tout the Rebbe’s last words like it had seeped into his blood: “With song and chant” would the Messiah come. A dear family friend, Rabbi Meir Abehsera, who had a knack of hacking away at human folly and bluff, was a Jew who also peddled the redemption. In his book The Possible Man, he reflected the vision of the Rebbe in which a Jew does a singular eternal mitzvah that can change the course of existence when he says, “…it may be that the grand finale is being held back by one tiny component which has been willfully displaced, or by a single coin which has yet to be given with good intention by one certain person to one specific cause” (93).
Something here makes sense. The part that we are now all made up of feet — a culture of protest even! — but admittedly without a head. We have our leaders of tens and hundreds, but we admit we are without our Moses. We might rely enough on our sense of reality that we feel alright without him. In those ancient days of Ahasueros, the woke master Mordechai did not tug his fellows above the cresting plane that they should sense some big truth above (like, do you see what I see, guys??). Instead, he rent his garments at the news of their mass extermination and screamed guttural sounds through the streets of the capital before gathering them for the public learning of Torah. That was an awakening of some kind of essence, the oil that emerges when the olive is crushed. But even that wasn’t the finality, the thing that awoke, amassed and saved us. This last exegesis of the Rebbe’s was recommended to me as an answer to my questions of leadership, and I’ve finally, providentially, understood why. Our tradition explains that this post-First Temple time cemented our acceptance of Divine will at Mount Sinai. But the quench for me came later: Says Esther’s megillah, “And the Jews accepted upon themselves that which they had started to do” (9:23), upon which the latter traditional interpretation is based, and yet that line is said well after the climax and detente of the oppression; in fact, it is said after we learn that Mordechai recorded the events of Purim and publicized them — the settling back into a more comfortable exile. That’s because Mordechai already did his lamplighting job! And the test of success is that space of time where the light has to take root and burn on the people’s own energy.
I’ve recently questioned my burgeoning desire for the messiah. It’s because you lost Yehuda, right? says a brutal truth censor within. But I know it is not simply because I want the revival of our precious baby who fought a Maccabee’s fight for three months, leaving us just before Succoth this year, that I now pray actively for the redemption as I light the candles of Shabbat. I know this because that crushing corridor of “oppression” — where stuff was squeezed out of us — has now evolved into new shapes. I didn’t necessarily cry out for the Messiah when we laid Yehuda to rest; I returned to work, picked up pieces, and then I felt whole again, a richer whole with Yehuda present in it. Only months into my settled life did Yehuda appear in my dream one Saturday night (disclaimer: I usually have those earthbound, tumultuous dreams, not those special, mystical ones). I ran to him when I saw he was placed in a box, ornate, but a box! This couldn’t be! I screamed his name over and over and over again until he rosied up and started to move. I nudged a doctor nearby, Do You see this?! The doc sighed, Oh, that happens sometimes. The doctor vapored off as Yehuda stretched more vigorously and curled forward into my arms, and it was just us. I said Shema Yisrael but had the feeling of forgetting some words, so I quickly said, “Amen, so may it be your will” and awoke. Later that week I realized the significance of this dream in light of that week’s Torah portion of Beshalach whose Song at Sea has traditionally signaled the prophesy of the revival of the dead. I’m an introvert telling a secret dream here; I do it, because I don’t feel it is just my dream, for something big is clearly upon us.
A query I’ve long peddled is Why is so much put into us? As a teacher, I know that you can give the picture, model the process that gets you there in real time, give parameters and ramifications, then say Go! But notice that our Talmud tells us two angels nudge the growth of one blade of grass. So why all this investment? Like we wouldn’t “choose life” (Deuteronomy, 30:15) without some of these investitures and external nudges? I don’t have vision, like I said, so without an answer, at least this question has now receded in light of a realization: I said I think that something here makes sense, and it’s the withdrawal of the teacher. That video of our Rebbe who says that he has done all he can. See, I’m the regular kind of teacher, and even I know that there is a quiet space in which we must step back for the assessment of the student. Does the light, like G-d bid the High Priest for our menorah, now rise up on its own? I imagine that our nudging angels, visionaries, guides and upbringers whisper to each other: Shhh, let’s look: what will they do?
So we’re foot soldiers, some precious energy unfortunately expended by the weight of heavy picket signs that often scream that change is somewhere out there. Thankfully, the essence has more energy to emit, and because we’re not a band of philosophers (trust me, the best ones have come and gone, have embedded thought in action or else found the thought in the act), we are here to do the last to be done. Our leader of thousands told us to look to our weekly Torah portion to illuminate the current moment. This week, on the very first day, the portion Vayak’hel-Pekudei in Exodus tells us that the common folk, the “wise-hearted” men and women, brought both crafted and raw materials enough for a nearly complete tabernacle (35:21, onward). Where were the leaders? They are not yet there as the nation gathers, for the nation is gathering from deep within them, from their own accord, the quietest, truest grassroots movement we ever saw. And when do the leaders emerge? They come to crown this foot soldier’s movement with the gems of the high priest’s attire along with the oil and incense.
At a family member’s wedding last week, Jew spoke out to Jew, first furtively then loudly: You see it too?! And they weren’t your regular Redemption Jews. And then a mother thought twice to bring her son back home once his school shuttered in Israel; shouldn’t he be there to greet the Messiah? No, these are not our steadfast elders who talked their kooky talk about redemption. It’s you and me; it’s a new emergence, it’s the essence that speaks. This foot soldier’s movement has begun.
May Hashem bring the true and ultimate redemption now.
References — stuff we should check out firsthand: