Growing up in an Orthodox circle, there was a poem I’d heard by Rabbi Yitchok Feigenbaum, about the messiah coming to town to announce his presence. But upon seeing his head covering, which was not theirs, the people of the town told him he must not be the messiah, as the messiah would wear a top hat. And so the messiah put on a top hat, and went to the next town, wherein the people told him, no, you must not be the messiah, he would be wearing a fur hat, and so on, until the messiah gets tired of seeking a correct hear covering and leaves.
The message is clear and it tells a child (or adult) who hears it the importance of not judging books by their covers, and to respect people who aren’t like you.
But through this beautiful message about a head covering not defining a Jew, it never occurred to me as a child that the messiah, of course, might not wear a head covering at all. It took me many years before I realized that.
You obviously look for a messiah who looks like you or thinks like you, even remotely so. And so for the most part, the religious community never assumed that its secular brothers could be the messiah, as they were nothing like the religious.
A couple approximations were made: some thought that Herzl could have been at least a prelude to the messiah who was meant to come from the tribes of Joseph (Rabbi Kook gave a eulogy for him to this extent), while others assumed they could, at best, be the messiah’s donkey. This goes without saying that our people knew how to create more colorful analogies for these other Jews, such as Empty Wagons and so on. But that they themselves could be the messiah? Definitely not.
But it was, in fact, the seculars who brought back the messianic ideal, not as a belief but as a goal: to redeem people, and the Jewish community as a whole, through being their own messiah, and no longer waiting for a religious one to show up. In the same way that Hassidism brought the ability to fix the broken world to the simple peasant, Zionism brought a means of redeeming the Jewish people to the simple Jew. The state was built, overwhelmingly, by people who did not believe in waiting any more, and were happy to be their own messiahs.
It is no shock that during the past six months of protests, and especially in the past three weeks, the protest rhetoric became one of Churban Bayit, Temple destruction. To a secular Israeli, one need not wait for messiah, one must continue the messiah’s work, and one must not allow the messianic age to lapse.
Is that my people have taken such drastic measures? Is that why people have decided that the social contract to which they agreed with the state, the economy, the army, is null and void, because they too followed a false messiah?
The attempt of some to write off the past months as some temper tantrum or hissy hit is a clear picture of how little people seem to understand a secular perception of the state. In the religious view, the state is a means to an end, the messiah, and as such, it must keep striving towards that, but if things don’t look god one day, it is not a sign that things have failed, it is simply the birth-pangs of the messiah. This was the way most of the religious Zionist world handled the disengagement from Gaza (obviously there were those who did not share this idea, and some did indeed lose faith in the state as the beginning of the redemption). Finance Minister Smotrich, in addressing the protestors after the vote, spoke of his experiences after the disengagement, and how he handled it. Believing the state to be a miracle, he decided that he must hang two Israeli flags on his car, not just one, because the miracle did not end just because Jewish presence in Gaza did.
But this shows a lack of perception regarding the other side. In the secular worldview, the state is the end of the various means, and it must remain functional and do its job of protecting the Jewish people, protecting itself, and ensuring justice. And to those who protest, it is not against just the laws which are proposed (something of which many with whom I’ve spoken on the other side have been greatly displeased, but often do understand); it is against the reality wherein the Zionist project strays from the progressive path it was on, to becoming an ideal secular state, and in their view, is reverting and turning backwards in a moral and societal way. What is being mourned on the streets, the panic that you see, is not a loss of power, as some have accused, but a loss of hope, and a Breaking of the Vessels of an entire vision.
I won’t deny: I did not think the Reasonableness Doctrine was the most important and worrisome thing on the docket, but most recently I recall it being used to defend the people of Israel from having a criminal as a minister, a man about whom several of the descriptors of pre-destruction Jerusalem in Isaiah 1 are very accurate. And that use and abuse made me incredibly angry. Easily enough this could be bundled up with the other laws into a true nightmare scenario, where Jewish statehood reverts to First Temple corruption, rather than messianic progress.
What is happening on the streets is people feeling that their messiah is proving to be false.
And for some of the people on the other side, the resulting frustration, I truly do believe, is due to the fact that their messianic vision is being challenged. It was meant to be gradual, but this state would eventually become the messianic dream, that was the thinking. It should not have shocked anyone that a democratically elected government might be the means to do this. I’m not citing some theory; this is ideology I’ve read, and opinions I’ve heard spoken by people I know. The government making these changes would set the groundwork eventually for a modern messianic state; and if it happened democratically, why would people protest? This is the will of the people.
And they are being shown, perhaps it is not, and even if it is, a simple majority will not cut it. Our state cannot hold on the power of a messianic ideal which does not include the forces in this country overwhelmingly built and still controlled by people who don’t share that vision.
And so not one, but two messiahs are being challenged in these days. The one who had come, and the one who is still on his way, but neither of them are in particularly good standing with the public.
And I’m sick of it.
I can’t wait any longer for things to get better because someone from the outside will intervene, but how then do we encourage those who believed this was it, to keep going even when things fall apart? Messiah is a great ideal, but belief in it encourages complacency when misplaced, either because one believes it is already here, or because one believes the amount of good they can do has a clear limit.
My compromise? We wait for the donkey.
We no longer attempt to claim where messiah is, or whether he or she is coming. We ready a saddle and do the most we can as individuals to keep building things; but we abandon waiting for messiah actively. Passively? For sure. Every morning as I fold up my tefillin and put them back in the box at shul, I say, I believe in the coming of the messiah. And I believe he’ll get here some day, or she. The person who can make some sense here. But they aren’t here yet, and they won’t come from waiting.
And then, when you have given up on waiting, you act. You do as much as you can to repair the state, repair the people as they are; fix them and make them feel heard. You acknowledge their beliefs, you try to understand them, and you acknowledge their pain as well. In that place, I wouldn’t be shocked if we found ourselves in a far more redeemed world, if we can manage to get there.
We are not to cry and wait for someone else to fix the situation; we simply need the circumstances that will allow for a chance in situation. And we need to identify them correctly. And perhaps one day if we look in the mirror we will see that a person is standing there who can be a messiah for someone else, for an apartment, for a street, for a project, for a synagogue, and maybe for a state. The current rupture presents infinite opportunity to be a messiah for others, and fixing the world and repairing the temple are not just things which happen with bricks and mortar, but with hearts and minds.
And that is why in these hard times, I keep my eyes peeled, not looking for anyone wearing a hat, not looking for a messiah, but waiting for my donkey.