Rav Kook: Watching the Dawning of Messiah
Illustration: Shofar at Sunrise by PeasantPrincess [Pixabay license] via Pixabay
“What I see for them is not yet, What I behold will not be soon: A star rises from Jacob, A scepter comes forth from Israel”
Who is Mashiach (the Messiah)? What is Mashiach? What’s he all about? Strange as it may seem, we learn about Mashiach from the wicked Bilaam, in the Torah portion of Balak. While the verses are obscure, the Rambam explains them in The Laws of Kings and Their Wars.
Since many of those, who live in the Diaspora, picture the Mashiach to be some type of fairytale hero who will whisk them back to Israel on some kind of magical carpet when he flies down to earth dressed like Superman, with super powers and X-ray vision, we will try to present a more realistic, down-to-earth picture.
The name Mashiach (often translated as the Messiah) is derived from a Hebrew word meaning the “anointed one” — G-d’s anointed king. The belief in the coming of the Mashiach is fundamental principle 12 of the Rambam’s Thirteen Principles of Faith. Since in our very time, the Almighty has been gathering our scattered exiles to Israel from all over the globe, Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook made a point to explain the concept of Mashiach to his students at the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva in Jerusalem, emphasizing that the Mashiach wasn’t only the ideal Jewish king, but also a gradual developmental process which evolves over time.
The Rambam wrote: “Anyone who does not believe in the Mashiach, or who does not anticipate his coming, not only denies all of the prophets, he denies the validity of the Torah and Moshe Rabbenu, our teacher, since the Torah gives witness to him, as it says, ‘When all these things will come upon you (all the tribulations of exile), then the Lord your G-d will turn your captivity and have compassion on you, and return and gather you from the nations’.”
Believing in the Torah means believing in the Mashiach and yearning for his arrival. As one of the Thirteen Principles of Faith, we say, “I believe with complete faith in the coming of the Mashiach, and even though he may delay, nevertheless, I look forward to his coming every day.”
This means that when a Jew in the Diaspora is eating a bagel and lox and reading The New York Times, or The Jewish Press, or when he’s going to watch the new Woody Allen movie on Motzei Shabbat, he should be yearning for the Mashiach to come. In the gemara of Tractate Shabbat, it is written, “At the hour when a man faces heavenly judgment, they say to him, did you yearn for the salvation of Israel?” Yearning for the coming of Mashiach, and the salvation he will bring, is complete emunah (faith). Thus, the Rambam writes, someone who does not believe in him, or anticipate his coming, denies the prophets of Israel and Moshe, our teacher, since the Torah gives witness to him.
How does the Torah give witness to him? The Rambam answers with the verse, “When all these things will come upon you (all the tribulations of exile), then the Lord your God will turn your captivity and have compassion on you, and return and gather you from the nations (Deut. 30:1-3).”
Please notice, my friends, that the ingathering of the exiles is proof of the Mashiach. As the Rambam makes clear, the incredible ingathering of our outcasts to the Land of Israel — an occurrence we have witnessed in our time — is a revelation of Mashiach, an actual stage in the days of Mashiach, through the concrete aliyah of Jews from all over the globe, and not through miracles.
During the long generation we spent in galut (exile), Mashiach became a misunderstood concept. Partly due to the pernicious infiltration of Christian doctrines into our collective Western subconscious, Mashiach was envisioned by many people as a religious superhero who would arrive on the scene in a flash of miracles and wonders, and lead all the Jews out of the ghetto and back to the Promised Land. Helpless and impotent in galut, and constantly at the mercies of the goyim (nations) and their governments, we had no way of actualizing our dreams of returning to Zion, and thus this Superman fantasy of Mashiach seemed to be the only way we could be redeemed from the harsh realities of our lives. When centuries passed in waiting and disappointment, a philosophy of passivity arose. We were to pray and wait, and the Mashiach would do all the work when he came.
Then, the demand arose that the Redemption occur all at once, and be complete from the start, and not in a gradual, natural, process of historical development and events which came to completion with the passage of time. When the Zionists began to show initiative and take matters into their own hands to bring the exile to an end, the proponents of this passive “we can’t do anything” school of thought, rose up in protest. We were to wait in exile, they claimed, until the Mashiach brought us to Israel. Any attempt on our part not to wait was treif (not kosher, not acceptable)!
Interestingly, the Rambam himself, in his famous Letter to Yemen, writes:
“Those who seduce themselves and say that they will stay in their places until the king, Mashiach, comes to the lands of the West, and only then will they depart and go forth to Jerusalem — I don’t know how the decree of destruction will be stayed from them. Rather, they are transgressors, and they cause others to sin.
“For there is no set time for the coming of Mashiach on which to depend, saying that he is close or far. The obligation of the commandments is not dependent on the coming of the Mashiach... Rather, we are to busy ourselves with Torah and precepts, and to strive to fulfill everything we can….
“However, if a man will stay in a place where he sees the Torah is waning, and where the Jewish People will be lost with the passage of time, and where he cannot stand by his faith, and say, ‘I will stay here until Mashiach comes and survive where I am’ — this is nothing but an evil heart, a great loss, and a sickness of reasoning and spirit. This is my opinion, and Hashem knows the truth.”
Which Jewish community in the Diaspora hasn’t faced the potential danger which the Rambam describes in his letter, that with the passage of time, both Judaism and Jewish life were endangered and often wiped out? Where are the once great religious centers of Russia, Eastern Europe, North Africa, or Spain? Today, throughout America (though the faithful of Brooklyn, Lakewood, Monsey, Boca Raton, and Palm Springs claim that it can never happen to them), many once-prominent Jewish neighborhoods are now slums. Buildings which housed synagogues have been converted into churches. Assimilation in America is more than sixty percent. In spite of a few, isolated, Torah communities, Judaism in America is taking a beating.
In contrast to this, the baal teshuva movement in Israel is constantly growing and assimilation hardly exists. Now with the coronavirus, violent riots, and Jew-hatred brewing, extinction of Jewish life in the Diaspora is merely a question of time, as it must be since the curse of exile was never meant to last forever.
Today, thank G-d, the Master of the World has given us a Jewish State in Israel. He has given us a flourishing society and a powerful army to defend ourselves from our enemies. We have Jerusalem back in our sovereignty, and Israel has the greatest concentration of Torah learning and talmidei chachamim (Torah scholars) in the world. The miraculous rebirth of the desert land, the amazing advancements in all fields of endeavor, and the equally amazing ingathering of Jews from around the globe, are all the fulfillment of ancient prophecies come true.
All of these incredible developments — which we can see with our eyes and which we have helped bring to pass under the guidance and blessing of G-d — are all aspects of Mashiach and our promised Redemption. These are things which are happening now! The Master of Heaven and the Earth hasn’t waited for the arrival of Mashiach. He has brought all this about through wars, international treaties, and the bravery and self-sacrifice of the Zionist pioneers, religious and non-religious alike. All of this is a part of Mashiach.
The Rambam stated: “In the future, the Mashiach will arise and bring back the Kingdom of David, restoring it to its original sovereignty” (Laws of Kings and Their Wars 11:1). Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook emphasized that the Mashiach’s premier assignment was to restore Jewish sovereignty over Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel). And yet, in our time, Jewish sovereignty has already been restored over large portions of Eretz Yisrael.
But the Rambam wrote that Mashiach will do this. How are we to understand this seeming contradiction? Rabbi Kook explained:
“The Jerusalem Talmud teaches that the Redemption comes about, 'Little by little, like the dawning of the day (Berachot 1:1).' The Redemption unfolds in gradual stages. A major step in the process is the establishment of Jewish sovereignty of Eretz Yisrael. Until our time, it was not clear how this would occur. Now, thank God, it is crystallizing and progressing before our eyes.
“The days of Mashiach encompass a great number of stages, as our Sages reveal in the expression, ‘Two thousand years of Mashiach’ (Sanhedrin 97a/b). This is also implied in the expression which we say toward the end of the Shacharit prayer, ‘The years of Mashiach.’ The ingathering of the exiles, and the restoration of Jewish sovereignty over Eretz Yisrael, i.e., Medinat Yisrael (the State of Israel), are clear steps in the process and revelations of Mashiach.
“The revelation of the exile’s end began to appear with the settlement of the early moshavim, as our Sages teach, ‘There is nothing more revealing of the end of the exile than this, as the Prophet says, ‘But you, O mountains of Israel, you shall shoot forth your branches and yield your fruit to My People Israel, for they will soon be coming’ (Ezek. 36:8). Rashi explains, ‘When Eretz Yisrael gives forth her fruits in abundance, the end of the exile is near, and there is no surer sign of the end of the exile than this’ (b. Sanhedrin 98a). This is clearly happening today. We see the blessing on the Land and on her fruits — grapes, bananas, oranges — each day we hear of greater agricultural success. Just yesterday, the Land was a desert, and today we export fruits to all of the world!
“This is a quiet miracle of the days of Mashiach. We have to accustom ourselves to see this as the work of Hashem. Likewise, with the great immigration of our People and the restoration of Jewish sovereignty over our Land — these are all aspects of Mashiach orchestrated by the Master of the World, the Causes of Causes. The restoration unfolds every day. The Master of the Universe is not idle, God forbid. Today, we are in the middle of the road, in spite of all the complications which will all be worked out over time. Medinat Yisrael is the statehood of the days of Mashiach, which begins with revealed events and concludes with hidden matters like the revival of the dead.
“There is no contradiction between these two facets of our Redemption, the revealed and the secret. For we are dealing with our unique Divine Nation, with the Statehood of Am Yisrael, a normal State which must weather all sorts of trials, and with this, a State where prophets will once again roam. The Redemption doesn’t only evolve through obvious miracles. We also experience the quiet miracles of a desert land yielding bushels and bushels of fruit, of cities built on sand dunes and swamps, and of a Nation reborn in the ancient Land. All of this is a part of Mashiach. And it is happening now.”
Just open your eyes, my friends, and see!
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