by Sam Glaser
I had the pleasure of leading the 5776 High Holiday prayers for a wonderful congregation, Beth El Yardley, just north of Philly and feel like I have a whole new family in the area. My wife and two of our kids came with me on the adventure, Sarah on the flight with us from LA and Jesse on the train from New York where he is a freshman at Yeshiva University. I’d like to think they came to support their dear old dad but in fact they were lured primarily with the promise of rest and relaxation at a Central Virginia lake with prime waterskiing conditions where friends of ours have a home. After two sweet days of Rosh Hashana prayers we stuffed our bags into a rented Chevy Malibu and braved four hours on the I95, choosing to drive in the middle of the night rather than endure the traffic which was exacerbated thanks to the Pope’s east coast visit. Following a delicious week of water sports and family time I returned to Philadelphia well rehearsed and suntanned, prepared to enter the vocal marathon that is Yom Kippur. Once again I experienced the annual cantorial miracle: somehow without any food and drink God enabled me to daven in top form over the course of twenty-five hours, baruch Hashem!
We got back to LA just in time for Shabbat and then Sukkot started on Sunday night. Needless to say, holiday preparations were somewhat rushed. Thankfully my son Jesse volunteered a hand to help me get the sukkah up and running. LA weather was relentlessly hot and yet I feel there is no cooler place to be than in a sukkah. The meals with dear friends were sublime, the davening filled with ecstatic song and dance and each night I fell asleep under the schach (organic sukkah roof material) while watching the full moon slowly arc across the desert sky. I realized that I was experiencing a view that our ancestors have enjoyed for millennia. Yes, we Jews are still living in sukkot, on a panoramic journey from exile to redemption.
When we left Egypt we made forty-two stops over the course of our forty-year march to the Promised Land. In each place we set up our sukkot and enjoyed the protection from the elements in the form of divinely placed clouds that shielded us from all dangers. According to Kabbalah we all are reincarnated from these same brave, wandering Jews. How remarkable that the Jewish People are still wandering; sojourning in modern cities around the globe instead encampments in the desert, hopefully spreading the light of ethical monotheism on the way, engaging in tikkun olam, sharing our spiritual gift with all nations. Sukkot reminds us that life has purpose and direction, that we come from humble origins and that there is indeed a fabulous destination.
Once, on the flight to a Shabbaton that I was leading in Knoxville, TN, I was pouring over Farbrengen, a hip Chabad publication that used to arrive on my doorstep several times a year. An article by Rabbi Heschel Greenberg entitled “The Mysterious Logic of Mashiach” particularly interested me. The Mashiach (messiah) word has always given me the willies. A human being ushering in a “golden age” sounds like science fiction. Furthermore I am highly resistant to change and any talk of such sudden transformation fills me with foreboding. Most of us growing up in a politically correct world inherit the value of moral relativism: nothing is absolute, no one really has the truth, no one can tell us what to do…especially some fanatic who calls himself Mashiach! This article took the reader on a step-by-step explanation of why the belief in a messianic age is absolutely normal, spans all cultures and bridges the religious and secular divide. Christians pray for Jesus to come back, Muslims wait for the Mahdi, Capitalists place their faith in science to perfect the world and Communists attempt to create an atheist worker’s utopia. And why shouldn’t it be an individual that ushers in this messianic age? After all, enterprising upstarts who choose to open the eyes of a blinded populace rather than accept the status quo have launched every revolution in human history.
The article provided such a paradigm shift that I spent the entire flight preparing a talk on the Jewish concept of the messianic age for my Knoxville victims. I even peppered my Saturday night concert with songs inspired by eschatological themes. I thought the presentation was important and interesting and no, I never got invited back. The fact is that no one wants to discuss the messiah except for Chassisdim, who end every d’var Torah with “and Mashiach should come speedily in our days.” Even many Modern Orthodox avoid the subject, as if the announcement of Mashiach would affect their real estate holdings or require that they wear shtreimels. The Conservative movement is undecided (surprise, surprise) and Reform has confidently voided mention of a messiah in its principles and liturgy. And yet, Maimonides, the great rationalist, considered the belief in the coming of Mashiach to be one of the thirteen core principles of our faith. Judaism maintains that mitzvot are cumulative, every act of kindness and love reverberates through the universe and leaves and indelible imprint. Whereas evil dissipates and is forgotten, goodness is rooted in eternity. Given this precept, we should be outraged that the messianic age isn’t here yet. As one sweaty, slightly inebriated friend said to me amidst the revelry on Simchat Torah, “We’re such nice people! What is God waiting for?”
The era of the messianic redemption will come speedily, much like our exodus from Egypt transpired with such great haste that we couldn’t even wait for our bread to bake. But it will only seem sudden. The roots of this transformation go back to the life of Avraham, the survival of his nephew Lot, the heroism of Ruth and the birth of King David. Our third exile is ending in the miraculous homecoming party that is the modern State of Israel. The seeds of Torah have now been sown worldwide with more people studying in more locations than ever in history. Jews exert undo influence in business and media and Jewish parlance is the lingua franca of Western Civilization. Maimonides views the advent of Christianity as an integral vehicle to spread awareness of monotheism and messianism to all nations. Science and technology have given us PCs, iPhones and the Internet; we realize more than ever that we are all connected and inter-dependent. Whereas it seemed that the former Soviet Union collapsed overnight, it’s demise had been festering over decades. So too will this “new age” seemingly spring upon us, leaving us shocked and surprised and even laughing at the degree of transition. Only in the aftermath will we be able look back and perceive the steady progression towards our yet unimaginable destiny.
So hopefully by now you see that discussing the messiah is very Jewish and very normal. It isn’t a crutch or a fairy tale but is our raison d’être as a nation. Working towards redemption gives our lives direction and meaning and assuages Jewish suffering over the millennia when it is seen as a function of this ultimate goal. Even the agnostics among us possess God-given messianic impulses. Just like we know we have a pulse, we know we are driven towards making the world better, to fostering the triumph of good over evil. We entertain this phenomenon every time we see a movie where the hero wins! God has given us this incredible drive towards tikkun olam…we are willing to sacrifice our lives to make it happen. Ask a Darwinian evolutionist to explain that! I believe this drive is universal but is particularly active in the Jewish neshama. God has instilled it within us so that we will not accept mediocrity, we don’t stand idly by our neighbor’s blood, we can’t rest until we accomplish something monumental. So yes, we have to discuss our redemption destiny, pray for it and in the words of Maimonides, wait daily for its coming. The Talmud echoes this sentiment; it states that one of the first questions with which we are challenged when we leave this mortal coil is, “Did you yearn for the arrival of the Messiah?”
A prerequisite for redemption is that we desire redemption. That’s a byproduct of our powerful gift of free choice. Unfortunately we have been in exile so long we have lost the yearning to flourish in our own land. We get so comfortable in our suburban refugee camps that we forget that we’re only “passing through.” The price of immersion in the Diaspora is a disconnection with our essential mission statement to be a “light unto nations.” Even Israelis lose focus and pray to reach the Promised Land of Hollywood or the Golden Medina of New York. Tragically, reaching a state of peace and tranquility with our Arab cousins in the Middle East seems more distant than ever. Perhaps God is trying to nudge Israelis to an awareness that davening for Mashiach is the only way; in the words of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, “We are stuck in a very unfortunate position, we try to move to right, left, forward, retreat and the way is blocked…we are surrounded on every side…there is one direction, however, that is not closed: upward.”
What should we expect from this imminent spiritual revolution? According to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, “The age of Mashiach is not something separate from our times. It is pieced together from everything we do now, and all that we know of shall remain. Only the negativity will vanish, and the Godliness within each thing will be obvious to see.” The promise of our Torah is that our heart will be circumcised. Yes, our heart has a foreskin and no we won’t need a Mohel. This impediment to spirituality is the voice that tells you “maybe there is no God” or “no one will care if I don’t claim cash on my taxes.” That inclination to do the wrong thing, the Yetzer Harah, is a gift from God so that we grow from the lifelong struggle over lethargy and self-centeredness and feel a sense of triumph whenever we are victorious. That’s what we are going to lose. We will be less egotistical, narcissistic, selfish and miserly. We will unite as a Jewish People and with total clarity of God’s presence, denominational strife will vanish. (Of course, there will still be that synagogue in which we won’t set foot.) Mashiach will be a charismatic, brilliant, world famous leader who becomes the undisputed king of Israel. Hard to imagine the Knesset unanimous about anything, but that’s the idea. Just as an example of the messiah’s power: war will cease to exist AND Israel’s borders will expand. According to Rabbi Manis Friedman, we will be continuously head over heels in love with our Creator, spouse, children and fellow humans, seeing only a unified state of reality and the deepest inner beauty. Sounds a lot like a summer music festival but without the drugs.
And that brings us full circle back to Sukkot. We pray for Mashiach three times a day in our Amidah, every time we eat bread, every time we say the Aleynu prayer. But the capitol of messiah awareness is during this holiday when we leave our fortified homes to live in a fragile hut protected only by God’s grace. Passover corresponds with the First Temple, Shavuot with the Second and Sukkot with the Third Temple that will be built by Mashiach. Sukkot is also known as Chag Ha’asif, the gathering holiday when we collect the bounty of our harvest in gratitude to our Heavenly Provider. Asif also refers to the joyful gathering of Jews during the holiday and the ultimate gathering when we are all brought on “wings of eagles (read El Al)” at the time of our redemption. Over Sukkot we read the prophet Zechariah’s frightening prediction of wars that will precede this age of everlasting peace. The name of the leader of the enemy camp is Gog, which can be translated as roof. It’s the roof people, those who put their faith in technology and material wealth, versus us, the schach people, those who know that ultimately God is the true source of security. The nations that survive this ultimate battle will join the Jewish People in Israel to rejoice and give thanks every Sukkot. Some folks don’t want to wait for Mashiach; one of the highlights of Sukkot in the Holy Land is witnessing the hundred thousand gentile pilgrims who parade through the streets of Jerusalem at this time every year.
Let me conclude with a sweet story I heard this Sukkot from the brilliant and eloquent Rabbi Tzvi Freeman who has made the Happy Minyan his home base. Right before candlelighting on Sh’mini Atzeret, the holiday that immediately follows the week of Sukkot, the rabbi’s son was in our local Marriott and overheard the discussion of a family from Israel with a clerk at the front desk. They had a reservation but no credit card with them and the clerk was adamant that they could not check in without it. The rabbi’s son seized the opportunity to do an amazing mitzvah: he approached the panicked couple and offered to get a credit card so that they could check in. He sprinted home and asked his dad for the car keys so that he could hurry back with the credit card. Rabbi Freeman told his son that he would take care of it…he wanted the mitzvah for himself! But his son insisted and followed through with this heroic act. In the aftermath the rabbi realized it was a far superior mitzvah with his son doing the action. After all, he learned such sacred behavior from his exalted parents, and what nachas for the parents to see that their son was not just doing the minimum but was actively elaborating on this opportunity for chesed (kindness.)
The rabbi then reflected on the incredible pride that God must feel for his treasured nation on Simchat Torah. We take our beloved Torah out of the ark and dance with it all night in interwoven, chaotic circles of joyful abandon. That’s right…we dance with a book! What other nation dances with books? We have never been commanded to do so. It’s “just a custom.” But what a custom! Just like the rabbi’s son took Divine service to a new, innovative level, that’s what we do on this most blissful of holidays. May all of us go beyond the letter of the law and bring our utmost to our holy service; that’s the type of nachas that will surely speed the day of our redemption.
So don’t be afraid of Mashiach. Call it Tikkun Olam, call it the New World Order. Take a few minutes in your prayers, after you ask for all the “me” stuff like health and livelihood, and pour your heart out to the Almighty that there has been ENOUGH suffering in the world and it’s time for peace. Be CHUTZPADIK! God, please, don’t make us wait any more. Let no one else go hungry, let no on else become a victim of senseless violence, protect the weak, protect our planet. Help us now! Heal us now! Please, God. Amen.