April 1, 2004
Longing for the Messiah
When we open our doors at the seder and invite Elijah the Prophet to sip the glass of wine that we have designated for him, we express our longing for
the Messiah. Elijah, in our tradition, will herald the arrival of a ruler who will enable a world of peace. The message of the seder is of hope: God, the Creator, entered history to free us from bondage, providing reason to believe that God will re-enter history to facilitate the final redemption.
Jews believe that the Messiah has not yet come. The test of the authenticity of the Messiah, as we understand our Scripture, is by physical achievement: Is there Jewish independence and universal peace? We have had many who were proclaimed Messiah at one time. Bar Kokhba led a revolt in the year 132 against the Roman Emperor Hadrian. Many Jews, including the beloved Rabbi Akiva who is mentioned in our Passover haggadah, believed that Bar Kokhba was the Messiah. Alas, the revolt failed dismally, Bar Kokhba was killed and Jews kept longing.
The most successful Messiah vis-a-vis the Jewish community arose in the 17th century. According to professor Gershom Scholem, the great historian of Jewish mysticism, close to two out of every three Jews in the world for many months believed that Shabbetai Tzvi (1626-1676) was the man who would bring redemption. It was a time of intense Jewish persecution, marked by massacres in Poland and Russia. Israel was controlled by the Ottoman Empire. Shabbetai Tzvi had a prophet, Nathan, who taught that the time had arrived for the return of the Jews to their homeland. Upon arriving in the capital of Constantinople with the hope of visiting the Sultan, he was arrested. In custody he had considerable freedom and to symbolize the messianic era, he sacrificed a paschal lamb at Passover. Soon afterward, he was given a choice: convert to Islam or die. He converted. Some of his followers said that it was only a test of their faith and that Shabbetai had gone over to the dark side to gather holy sparks. Bottom line: Shabbetai never delivered.
In more recent times, many followers of Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, believed that he was the Messiah. There was precedent for such belief among Chasidim. For instance, in the 19th century, followers of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav believed that he would unite and elevate holy sparks enabling the messianic era. During Schneerson's protracted illness his followers held on to belief that he would proclaim his true cosmic role. It was a time of hope, influenced by the recent fall of the Soviet Empire and the possibility of peace in Israel. Once the Rebbe died, close to 10 years ago, many of his Chasidim asserted that he would be resurrected speedily in our day. Some still cling to that faith.
Messianism is dangerous when it leads to false hopes or the need to convert others. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the 20th century theologian, said that when the Messiah comes, he should refrain from announcing his name, thereby allowing Jews and Christians to welcome the Messiah together. We don't believe in a Second Coming. Our reading of Scripture has only one coming, which is tested by its success. Moreover, Jewish mysticism and modernity have reinforced that each of us is a partner in the crafting of a world of harmony. Each of us has a role as a peacemaker, beginning with our own homes and communities.
In our tradition, history is a spiral. The same seasons return each year, but there is a forward and upward motion. One day we will celebrate the redemption of all of creation. May that day arrive speedily.
Eli Spitz is senior rabbi at Congregation B'nai Israel in Tustin.