I know that I should want him. I see other people who glow whenever they mention the Mashiach. They dance and sing and their every action is genuine. I envy them.
I have never wanted the Messiah.
When I was younger and questioned as to what I would wish for could I have anything, I asked for my grandmother's health. Many others in my class dutifully answered, "We want Mashiach!" Since the Mashiach was not a real concept to me, whereas my grandmother was, that answer would never have occurred to me.
But that is not all. As a child, I read about two sages who prayed to God so that they would not have to live through the Messianic era (Sanhedrin 98b.) They did this because the sufferings would be so great, the pain so terrible, that they did not wish to have to live through it. As someone who was very imaginative and could envision a great deal of pain and destruction, and as someone who is afraid of that pain, this thought took hold of me and would not let me go. To want the Messiah is to live through unbearable pain; I determined that I could not do this.
Happily, I realized in eleventh grade that the Messiah need not be brought through pain. I read the following passage from The World of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik:
- In the midst of their discussion, one of the Jews exclaimed: "If only we could be certain that these were the pangs of redemption that precede the coming of the Messiah." Before he was able to complete the sentence, Reb Chaim interrupted him and exclaimed: "I do not agree with you!"
Taken aback, the Jew responded to Reb Chaim: "What did I say, Rebbe, that you did not agree with. I barely said anything."
Reb Chaim replied: "You said too much! You implied that all the sufferings and sacrifices would be worth it if only we could be certain that these were the pangs of the redemption. I do not agree with this approach because it is totally against halakhah. The law is that saving lives [pikuach nefesh] cancels the entire Torah. Accordingly, it also cancels the coming of the Messiah. Who says that the Messiah will come only through the murder of innocent Jews? God has many ways to bring the Messiah, and certainly He does not have to bring him through the shedding of innocent Jewish blood."
This is the tradition I received from Reb Chaim of Brisk. (131)
Thank God, I breathed. The Messiah can come without pain; this means I can want him now, and want him totally, and I will fulfill the law and be at peace with myself.
But this is not the case.
Had I been born during a different time period, it would be easy for me to want the Messiah. Had I lived through the Holocaust, had I truly suffered anti-Semitism, had I been physically hurt or separated or made to feel different, I would of course desire a Savior, a Redeemer. My every thought and prayer would be for him.
And I have read the stories of the sages who listen so attentively to hear whether the King Messiah approaches, who even packed suitcases so that they could follow him as soon as he arrived, who are crestfallen because they mistakenly think he has come only to realize he has not come.
But none of this changes the fact that the reason I do not want the Messiah is because I think our world is very beautiful.
Our world, with all its flaws, with all its angry and divisive people, its penchant for so many opinions and ideas and arguments, still, to me, is beautiful.
And I have pity on the world and I don't want the Messiah to come.
What do I mean? I'll try to explain.
We learn that when the Messiah comes "the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea" (Isaiah 11:9).
And it seems to me that if that is so, so much that I love and hold dear would have to die. For example, there is so much art that I find beautiful and inspiring. But in a world where we all have knowledge of God, would the Sistine Chapel be permitted to remain? Despite the fact that the ceiling is exquisitely painted by Michelangelo, could we permit such a church, that last ironic picture of The Last Judgement, to remain? Or forget the Sistine Chapel. Any religious art, art dedicated to Jesus, perhaps of his Crucifixion; could any of that remain? Beautiful temples, pagodas, places of worship, would all that have to be destroyed?
In my mind's eye, the coming of the Messiah equals the destruction of everything that is suddenly learned to be false, no matter how beautiful it is. There would be no more Sistine Chapel, none of these gorgeous pieces of art; all this would be smashed down with axes and burned, as is the case with any form of idol worship. After all, our God is a jealous one, and would he permit all these monuments to other gods to remain in this world? No! Unless perhaps the fact that the world is filled with knowledge of God would mean that we would be able to appreciate these works of art for what they are, art, and not see them as reflecting a God in any way. But I do not think that is the case. After all, idols can be very beautiful, can't they, lovingly carved and made of silver and gold? And yet they must nonetheless be destroyed.
It is not that I don't believe the Messiah will come. I believe he will come. I believe it so much that whenever I look at something, I look at it with a queer breathless feeling that it will not be there tomorrow. I try to memorize anything that holds meaning for me; I watch movies like The Passion of the Christ and think, "If the Messiah comes tomorrow, that won't exist anymore..." even though it teaches me and I am able to learn from it. I look at Michelangelo's Pieta and feel a strange sense of worry for that, too, that that, too, will be destroyed. And it is not only art. This extends to books, magazines, so many forms of information that I look to and learn from, but if God is evident, none of this will exist any more.
I once spoke thus to my friend and told her that I am sad for all the wonders that it seems to me will be destroyed once the Messiah comes, and alarmed her for she said, "Oh, but Chana, it will be so much more and so much better than we can comprehend!" And I believe what she said and it is true that there will be new wonders to replace the old, as described:
- R. Hiyya b. Joseph said: A time will come when the just will break through [the soil] and rise up in Jerusalem, for it is said in Scripture, And they will blossom out of the city like grass of the earth,29 and by 'city' only Jerusalem can be meant for it is said in Scripture, For I will defend this city.30
R. Hiyya b. Joseph further stated: The just in the time to come will rise [apparelled] in their own clothes.31 [This is deduced] a minori ad majus from a grain of wheat. If a grain of wheat that is buried32 naked sprouts up with many coverings how much more so the just who are buried in their shrouds.
R. Hiyya b. Joseph further stated: There will be a time when the Land of Israel will produce baked cakes of the purest quality33 and silk34 garments, for it is said in Scripture, There will be a rich35 cornfield36 in the land.37
Our Rabbis taught: There will be a rich cornfield in the Land upon the top of the mountains.37 [From this] it was inferred that there will be a time when wheat will rise as high as a palm-tree and will grow on the top of the mountains. But in case you should think that there will be trouble in reaping it, it was specifically said in Scripture, its fruit shall rustle like Lebanon;37 the Holy One, blessed be He, will bring a wind from his treasure houses which He will cause to blow upon it. This will loosen its fine flour and a man will walk out into the field and take a mere handful38 and, out of it, will [have sufficient provision for] his own, and his household's maintenance.
But these new wonders do not make up for the loss of the old. I cannot resign myself to the loss of so much that is precious to me...
And it is more than that. Suppose Mashiach ben Yosef comes and dies. Then Mashiach ben David comes and reigns. And then there is a time of justice and righteousness and peace on earth for a span of a thousand years or so. And then (or before then) tehiyat ha'meisim, the Resurrection of the Dead. Even then, as a sidepoint, my soul will not necessarily be resurrected within my body, but within the body that served God best. So fine. We have our peace on earth, our Resurrection of the Dead; God serves the tzaddikim the Leviathan and bathes them in celestial light.
And then what?
There is no purpose, no meaning anymore. The whole point of existence, to discover God and serve him and to eventually bring the Messiah; it would have been fulfilled. We live, but knowledge of God fills the earth. There is no struggle anymore. There is no choice. Or if there is, it is limited.
So what happens then? Does the world die? Does the sun go out, as the scientists predict, and we all are incinerated or otherwise killed? There is certainly no reason for the world to continue on...
It is not just the ending of my personal story; it is the ending of all our stories. We have no purpose, no meaning, no reason to live anymore. We have fulfilled our purpose.
And once our world is destroyed, what then? Does God then create a new world? A new world in which to place his servants, to begin a new story, to hand them a new Torah? A new world where there will be a Midrash that God "created and destroyed many worlds before this one?" Does the entire story begin again? Is it all one everlasting cycle? Will these people have a new Abraham, a new Moses, a new conflict and struggle, a new quest to bring the Messiah?
Will they go through the same realizations we have gone through, realize that their text does not fit historical and archeological evidence? Will they too have fights and questions about God's existence?
Imagine for everything to begin again, to happen again, but to different people, people who are making all these discoveries for the first time, just as we did. There is something grand in this but something tragic as well, something so completely futile and hopeless, something that terrifies me!
No. I do not want the Messiah to come.
For me, the Messiah suggests the beginning of the End. For when the Messiah comes, after our allotted time of service in comfort and joy, our reward, after techiyat ha'meisim, what then? There is no more purpose, no more reason to be, no point, no struggle. There is nothing.
And the earth shall descend into darkness and nothingness, and the spirit of God shall hover over the face of the waters, and God shall create, again...
I do not want all our stories to end. Perhaps this is my personal selfishness, but I feel like we have so much more to learn, so much more to discover, so much more to teach but once the Messiah comes all this will be halted; we will have our requisite reward and then we shall fade away. And then there will be a new beginning, and it will not include us, or if it does, it shall only include our souls, and that will be the great and tragic irony, that we shall not remember the destruction of the last world, and we shall see this all as new, and suffer and struggle in the same way again, just as we always have done.
Imagine, for a moment, those other destroyed worlds; perhaps they too had people? Perhaps they too had Messiahs? How many years have we been living this cycle? This is assuming there even is a cycle, but I cannot imagine there not being one, for otherwise you mean to tell me our world is so vastly important that once it dies God will never create another one? No, that I cannot believe.
Tell me, those of you who want the Messiah, who truly desire him, why do you want him? How can you want this ending, even if it brings a momentary good; does it not end all of our stories? Or do you perhaps not see it as an ending...and if you do not, how can you not?
I wish I could want the Messiah. I wish I saw a way to want him, honestly and truly.
But once again, what I feel is the desire to desire.