If you live in Jerusalem, you may have noticed recently that members of the Chabad-Lubavitch Chasidic movement have started attaching large, yellow flags to traffic lights and street signs at prominent points throughout the city.
In general, I have a lot of gratitude and positivity towards Chabad. On my own journey, the kindness, dedication and open-heartedness of many Chabadniks has impacted me in wonderful ways.
But these flags don’t say anything about kindness, or even the name of the movement itself. They just have one word on them, a word which seems to have eclipsed everything else for many Chabadniks. The word is “Mashiach” (Messiah).
This article isn’t about Chabad. The fact that these flags are appearing right now just expresses and confirms that an unhealthy current of messianism is alive in large parts of Israeli society, and it is contributing to many of our most serious challenges.
How many times have I, or you, heard people avoid even acknowledging the gravity of serious challenges, by expressing the hope that the Messiah will suddenly appear and magically fix them?
For example – the millions of Palestinian Arabs in the West Bank, whose presence poses a grave conundrum to a state which is, for now at least, Jewish and democratic.
For example – the social, military and economic effects of large proportions of men in the fast-growing sector of the Israeli population not doing any kind of national service, not working and not paying taxes.
For example – the relentless torrent of dishonesty, extremism and incitement stemming from members of the current government, which threatens to destroy the fragile web of norms and institutions that comprise a functioning democracy.
For many people, a misunderstood conception of the Messiah is a shortcut to pretending that these challenges do not exist, or that they will be solved without any participation or agency on our part.
In other words, people misuse the idea of the Messiah to avoid taking responsibility for the consequences of their actions.
This is sometimes called a bypass. A bypass of this kind doesn’t solve anything, it doesn’t even face the issue, it just avoids or suppresses it.
But an issue which is bypassed doesn’t go away.
Just like our own inner conflicts or wounds, the less attention we give them, the more power they hold over us.
The less we look right at them, the more we make them so terrifying that we desperately try to configure our lives to avoid ever meeting or acknowledging them.
We deny they exist, meanwhile we’re investing vast energy in holding them at arm’s length, or actively sticking our heads in the sand to ignore them.
And meanwhile, the challenges themselves only fester and grow.
Looking at the history of the Messiah as a part of our tradition, it is clear that this disempowering form of the idea is not the only option.
The Talmud shares an astounding conversation between Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi and the Messiah, in which the Messiah promises to come “today.” Later on, disappointed at the Messiah’s non-arrival, the rabbi complains to Elijah the Prophet about the Messiah’s apparent dishonesty:
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said to Elijah: The Messiah lied to me, as he said to me: ‘I am coming today,’ and he did not come.
Elijah said to him that this is what he said to you: He said that he will come “today, if you will listen to his voice” (Psalms 95:7).
Elijah’s response is perhaps a little cryptic, but the great French commentator, Rashi, clarifies for us: it means that the Messiah will come when Rabbi Yehoshua, and by implication, all of us, listen to the voice of the blessed Holy One.
In other words, of course we all want the Messiah to come right now, but it won’t happen until we are all playing our part.
This way of understanding the Messiah is articulated even more starkly in the teachings of the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of the Chasidic movement.
In several teachings, his close student, the Chernobyler Rebbe (R’ Menachem Nachum Twersky), teaches in the name of his master that every single one of us contain a piece of the Messiah. Our job, he says, is to each work on our own portion of the redemption, to prepare the way for the world of universal peace and justice envisioned by our Prophets.
Rather than encouraging passivity and bypassing, this understanding of the Messiah is radically empowering. According to the Ba’al Shem Tov, each of us has been given a unique piece of the redemption, that only we can facilitate, by facing the challenges that lie before us.
So the next time someone tells you that we don’t have to face a certain issue, because the Messiah will fix it for us, remember the Chernobyler Rebbe’s words:
And it is known that everyone who truly serves the blessed Creator needs to bring forth their own portion of the Messiah.
May it be so.