We all instinctively identify and label the heroes and villains in our lives, and Judaism supports the need for iconic heroes.
In Hollywood's early days, the traditional villain was the hunched-over, mustachioed scofflaw sporting a black cape, while the hero was the pumped-up, 6-foot-3 blond hunk with gleaming-white teeth. And while today's Hollywood has been mixing things by portraying schlubs as heroes (think "Shrek"), the Talmud states that a Torah scholar must be impeccably dressed. Furthermore, God will only allow prophecy to rest on someone who is "wise, strong, wealthy and tall." In order for God to be well represented to his people, the messenger has to look like a mensch.
Moses didn't appreciate this idea. When God first dispatched him to speak to the Jewish people, Moses tried to get out of it. He felt that no mortal could aptly represent God, and so God should represent Himself.
God disagreed. He taught Moses that the gap between man and God was too great at the outset of Jewish history. The people at the time were unsophisticated slaves who instead needed a heroic Moses as their icon of salvation.
God won the argument.
In last week's portion, when Moses first spoke to the Jews about how God had sent him (the good guy) to defeat Pharaoh (the bad guy), they were very receptive and they believed him. But in Parshat Vaera, after Moses again complains about having to be the messenger, God teaches him a lesson.
"Therefore," God says, "say to the Jewish people, 'I am Y-H-V-H'" (Exodus 6:6).
God was saying: Moses, this time tell the Jews that the omnipotent and unknowable God will be taking them out of Egypt, and that it's no longer about you, the hero, defeating Pharaoh, the villain. And the second time out the Jews did not accept Moses' words. "They did not listen to Moses from shortness of breath" (Exodus 6:9). They lacked the depth to appreciate a direct and ethereal encounter with God, sans the very tangible heroes and villains.
Therefore, it's a bit surprising when the Talmud states that in the future, the Jewish Messiah will be a "poor man, riding on a donkey," just as he is described in the book of Zachariah (9:9). If it was so important during the Exodus that there be iconic heroes and villains, why is it now OK for the Messiah to look like such a nebbish?
Apparently, the Talmud feels that by the time the Messiah is ready to appear, the world will no longer be suckered in by external appearances. We will have evolved to a more mature appreciation of greatness, and our saviors will not have to look like Errol Flynn.
The Talmud also records a dialogue between the sage Shmuel and a powerful Persian ruler. The Persian asked Shmuel why the Jewish Messiah would be riding on a donkey.
"Allow me to provide him with a well-groomed Persian horse!" he mocked.
Shmuel responded, "Do you have a horse of a hundred colors?"
Shmuel says this because according to the Persian ruler's superficial values, there is no horse in the world that would befit our leading man, the Messiah. So Shmuel's doesn't need the ruler's horse or any other horse because when the Messiah comes we'll be able to recognize him for what he is even without the clichéd symbols of heroism.
As human beings, we need icons to help us relate to God and the forces of good and evil. This, according to Moses Nachmanides, was why the Jews made the golden calf. Once they thought that their leader Moses was dead, they immediately had a need for a new intermediary icon to lead them through the desert.
Without black-and-white icons, life sometimes becomes too confusing and we lose our way. But, ultimately, we are meant to rise above the external images. We are to eventually become sophisticated enough to be able to recognize goodness and salvation even from the not-so-obvious sources.
So don't be surprised when you meet the Messiah and discover "a poor man, riding on a donkey." Or, maybe he'll be short, bald and beardless, like Natan Sharansky. Who knows? I just hope I'm wise enough to recognize him when the time comes.
Daniel Korobkin is rabbi of Kehillat Yavneh and director of community and synagogue services for the West Coast Orthodox Union.