Thursday, December 27, 2012

We want Mashiach whenever



A thought for Parshat Vayechi...

On his deathbed, the patriarch - son and grandson of men who knew the Almighty intimately, of women whose insight mirrored the Divine plan - pledged to entrust to his children the secrets of the universe. With little strength or time remaining, Yaakov summoned his children and intoned, "Gather, and I will tell you what will befall you in the end of days." Then, abruptly, the ancient sage altered his focus, speaking more neutrally, "Gather, listen, sons of Yaakov, and pay heed to your father Yisrael." (Bereishit 49:1-2) He continued to convey blessings, but spoke no more of the end of days.

Commentators offer a range of approaches to explain why Yaakov changed his plans, but perhaps we might offer our own answer by first asking a fundamental question: Why did Yaakov wish to inform his children of the "end of days", at all? What benefit would there be in telling them of the end of a story not to play out for thousands of years? Indeed, informing them could even be hazardous; might they, or their descendants, abandon the book, knowing that they would never live the last page?

Don Isaac Abarbanel suggested that the eternal question of "When will he come?" is rooted in our desire to escape our current suffering. In his Maayanei haYeshuah (1:2), Abarbanel catalogued the history of the Jewish longing to know when the end will come, noting that such figures as King David (Tehillim 74:10), Yeshayah (Yeshayah 6:11), Chavakuk (Chavakuk 1:2), Zecharyah (Zecharyah 1:12) and Daniel sought to know the date of Mashiach's arrival. He then wrote, "How could they not seek the Divine message, the time when He will come and be seen, in order to find tranquility for their spirits, to rest from their struggle, to flee from their trouble?" However, this does not explain how the sons of Yaakov, who knew no suffering in Egypt, would benefit from knowing the circumstances of Mashiach's arrival.

We might answer our question with a closer look at the Jewish view of history. In his work Zakhor, Professor Yosef Haim Yerushalmi noted that the modern study of history clashes with the traditional Jewish approach to studying history. As he put it, "To the degree that this historiography is indeed "modern" and demands to be taken seriously, it must at least functionally repudiate premises that were basic to all Jewish conceptions of history in the past. In effect, it must stand in sharp opposition to its own subject matter, not on this or that detail, but concerning the vital core: the belief that divine providence is not only an ultimate but an active causal factor in Jewish history, and the related belief in the uniqueness of Jewish history itself." In other words, the modern study of history contends that all events in history occur without an underlying plan or purpose. Traditional Judaism, on the other hand, insists that history is a story written by a Hand, progressing according to a specific plan, and with a particular end in mind.

Perhaps this was the understanding of human events that Yaakov intended to convey to his children, as he passed to them the mantle of leadership. The point was not to have them mark down on some millennia-long calendar that Mashiach would come in Tevet 5773. Perhaps the point was for them to understand, as leaders of the Jewish nation, that there is an "end of days" at all, that the events of their lives are invested with purpose. [Indeed, Yosef tried to tell them this himself, insisting that his sale had been according to a plan. Of course, even Yosef ("G-d sent me here to provide food") didn't realize the scope of that plan ("your children will be slaves in a land not their own").]

Nonetheless, G-d determined that Yaakov would not share this vision with his children, and perhaps this decision was motivated by their own welfare. People who are told that their lives and actions have automatic and inherent historical meaning, irrespective of their personal decisions, might abandon themselves to the determinism of Fate. If Mashiach is going to come in Tevet 5773, and my actions in 2255 will automatically play some butterfly's wing of a role in bringing about that ultimate hurricane regardless of my free will, then why should I value my own decisions and choices? Whatever will be, will be! Knowing how the story plays out could yield generations of Jews who would view themselves not as actors, but as acted upon; not as eventual redeemers, but as eventually redeemed. And so Yaakov's mouth is closed, and so King David, Yeshayah, Chavakuk, Zecharyah and Daniel were turned back, as was Don Isaac Abarbanel.

The information is there. The date is known. For us, though, it would be better that we not read the last page of the book; rather, it would be better that we write it.



7 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  2. Steg (dos iz nit der šteg)December 27, 2012 at 7:45 AM

    yishar koaḥ rav

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  3. The arrival time of Mashiach is also known to have some flexibility. Any prediction of an exact date would have to assume that certain other events would or would not occur before that. Do we know that Yaakov's Plan A was to set an exact date? There are other possibilities.

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  4. Just out of curiosity, do you think Avraham told his descendants of the prophesy of going into exile for 400 years?
    KT|
    Joel Rich

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  5. You quote Prof. Yerushalmi:

    "To the degree that this historiography is indeed "modern" and demands to be taken seriously, it must at least functionally repudiate premises that were basic to all Jewish conceptions of history in the past. In effect, it must stand in sharp opposition to its own subject matter, not on this or that detail, but concerning the vital core: the belief that divine providence is not only an ultimate but an active causal factor in Jewish history, and the related belief in the uniqueness of Jewish history itself."

    Then you say:

    "In other words, the modern study of history contends that all events in history occur without an underlying plan or purpose. Traditional Judaism, on the other hand, insists that history is a story written by a Hand, progressing according to a specific plan, and with a particular end in mind."

    I just want to say that if Prof. Yerushalmi's entire book reads like that, I WOULD NEVER READ IT. Bad writing guarantees he will remain obscure, unread and eventually forgotten. I realize he taught at Columbia and Harvard, but whatever profound thoughts he may have are buried in academic jargon. I would rather read someone who writes clear simple prose like yours. Life is too short.

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  6. Steg-
    Thanks!

    Bob-
    Certainly true.

    Joel-
    I've often wondered about that. It appears not, based on פקד יפקוד. What do you think?

    Fenster-
    I'm flattered, but I like Prof. Yerushalmi's writing...

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  7. Not quite the same thing, but it reminded me of this passage from Dorothy L. Sayers' mystery novel The Nine Tailors, where Lord Peter Wimsey reflects on the King James version of Psalm 39 while at a funeral:

    "'That I may be certified how long I have to live.' - what a terrifying prayer; Lord, let me never be certified of anything of the kind."

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