Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Nine Days, and the challenge of hoping for mashiach and redemption

The Nine Days of intense mourning begin tonight, leading up to Tisha b’Av. As always, at this time of year I grow depressed. I think about how many times I have observed this period, how many times our nation has observed this period, without seeing the geulah (redemption).

It’s a cruel parody of hope, the way we sing “Next year in a rebuilt Yerushalayim (and while I recognize and value what we have, it is not a re-built Yerushalayim; I'm not doing the Nachem debate right now, I've done that elsewhere),” and the way we say to each other in advance of the Three Weeks, “If mashiach hasn’t come by then.”

Over a decade ago I spent time transcribing tapes of Rav Soloveichik’s Tisha b’Av shiurim, and I can hear his voice talking about how communities in Europe buried their kinot books after each Tisha b’Av, declaring that they wouldn’t need those books the following year. The Rav would point out the line in the kinot (mourning prayers of Tisha b’Av), “בכל שנה אומרת היא השנה הזאת,” “Each year she declares: This is the year!”

It’s all too depressing.

My depression comes from two opposite approaches, clobbering me in the middle:

1) I am wowed by the heights that observant Jewry has reached. I agree with those who say that we have reached a stage at which more Jews, in sheer numbers although not in percentage of the nation, are more learned and more carefully observant and more full of chesed, than at any point since the destruction of the beit hamikdash. We have public shiurim and mitzvah campaigns and outreach efforts, and even if they are not enough, is not our motivation sincere and our effort complete, and do we not view effort, rather than achievement, as the essence?

And so I wonder: What more can we do, to deserve that a mashiach-quality leader be sent for us? If we do all of this and still are not worthy, what more can we possibly do?

2) And then, on the other end, I see how flawed we are, how flawed all of us are, everywhere on the spectrum of religiosity. Even those who are most careful about the kashrut of their meat are guilty of lashon hara (harmful speech), even those who are most careful about learning Torah are guilty of sinat chinam (unfounded animosity toward others), even those who are most benevolent toward others are still spending unearthly sums on luxury and working long hours to fund it instead of dedicating their time to Torah. And more Jews, in sheer numbers as well as in percentage of the nation, are more corrupt or farther from Judaism than at any point since the destruction of the beit hamikdash.

These are terrible things to say, I know; the great Yeshayah was punished for saying “כסדם היינו, We were like Sodom.” So I will not compare us to Sdom, but I will say that in my experience, and certainly based on myself, we are, as a nation, far from where we need to be.

And I wonder: How, then, can we be expected to deserve a mashiach-quality leader, and redemption? Is it at all possible, or are we set up to fail?

Which, perhaps, is one reason why the Rambam demanded that we believe in the arrival of Mashiach, “להאמין ולאמת שיבא – to trust in his arrival and to see it as truth.” Working toward being worthy of mashiach is insufficient, because depression is too tempting; we need to believe that we can bring it, that this world can be worthy. If we cannot believe it, we cannot bring it.

We need to believe; we need to hope. But how can I?

My approach: I won’t deny the huge odds, but I will ignore them. I will focus on the immediate job in front of me – this class, this relationship, this page of gemara, this tefillah (prayer). I will plod away, as Jews have for 1941 years. I will focus not on a mega-goal of mashiach, but on a micro-goal of mitzvah.

And I will hope and trust in redemption, that each successive step will bring us one step closer to defying those odds.

1 comment:

  1. It's a dialectic. Your final paragraph is spot on for an individual - kach mkublani mbeit avi abba - do a little soul searching on what you can do and then keep putting one foot in front of the other and let HKB"H worry about the results.

    Community leadership is similar but must pick a few (if not one) major issue and work on those as a tzibbur, and be flexible to realize when they are fighting the last war.

    She-nir'eh et nehamat Yerushalayim u-binyanah bi-mherah ve-yamenu

    Joel Rich