Messianic Musings of a Radical Jewish Boy

Dear Friends,


My father, of blessed memory, was a radical social activist who was involved in the labor movement, the civil rights struggle, and other causes on behalf of the poor and the oppressed. My mother, of blessed memory, shared his goals, but her focus was on improving conditions for the poor and the needy in our neighborhood of Rockaway Beach, New York. My parents encouraged me to be a social activist, and they involved me in their altruistic activities.


My parents were also concerned about the dangers of anti-Semitism, and my father told me about the Holocaust. He served in the American army during the war, and his unit liberated the inmates of a German concentration camp – a traumatic experience which strengthened his bond with his persecuted people that were abandoned by most of the world during the Holocaust. The stories that my father told me about the suffering of our abandoned people gave me the feeling at an early age that Jews were in “exile” in a cruel and cold world.


The education that my radical parents gave me increased my awareness that we are living in a world that is not yet redeemed. This was not the message, however, that I would hear from the Christian children and the missionaries in my neighborhood. They would tell me that the world had already been redeemed through the coming of Jesus, whom they viewed as the Messiah. I discovered that they also deified him; moreover, I was shocked when some of the children asked me, “Why did you Jews kill God?” I did not understand how one could kill God. When I asked my parents about this, they told me that Jesus was a Jewish man who was killed by the Romans.


These unpleasant neighborhood encounters later helped me to understand a story in Michael Gold’s autobiographical novel, “Jews without Money.” Michael Gold was a radical Jewish social activist who grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, before World War One. In one chapter of this book, he describes how a young Jewish boy was chased and beaten by a gang of Italian boys who blamed him for the death of Jesus. The Jewish boy managed to flee the streets of the Italian neighborhood and arrived, bloody and bruised, at his apartment on the other side of the Bowery where the Jewish neighborhood began. There his mother comforted him and tended to his wounds. He asked his mother who Jesus was, and in the following excerpt, he cites her reply:


“It is their false Messiah!” said my mother bitterly.


“But I didn't kill him! Why do they say I killed him?”


“Of course you didn’t kill him darling.”


“And he really wasn’t the Messiah?”


“Of course not. When the Messiah comes he will save the world. He will make everything good. That false Messiah made things only worse. Look at the world; liars and thieves everywhere, wars, murders and children killed with street cars! When the true Messiah comes he will change all this.”


“When will he come, Momma?”


“I don't know. Ask Reb Samuel; maybe he can tell you.”


Michael Gold then tells how the young boy went to the chasid, Reb Samuel, with his questions about the Messiah. Reb Samuel replied:


“You must learn to do good deeds, for every good deed hastens the coming of the Messiah.”


Reb Samuel added: “He will come to save the world, not to destroy it. First he will redeem the Jews, then the other nations.” Reb Samuel then asked the boy to repeat after him the Hebrew words which affirm our faith in the coming of the Messiah, and the following is the translation:


“I believe in the coming of the Messiah, and though he may tarry, I will wait daily for his coming.”


“My own “Reb Samuel” was Rabbi Gabriel Beer, the rabbi of our local synagogue and principal of its afternoon Hebrew school. (He now lives with his family in Jerusalem.) It was he who introduced me, when I was age 9, to the original, pure vision of the Messiah as defined in our Sacred Scriptures. This vision reveals that the Messiah is a man and not a god; moreover, this vision portrays the Messiah as a righteous teacher and sovereign whose arrival will lead the world into a new age of universal unity, shalom, and enlightenment. In addition, his arrival will lead to the ingathering in Zion of all the exiles of our people. (For an example of this vision, see Isaiah 11:1-13.)


I became very excited by this vision of redemption for our people and the entire world. I began to wonder if there was something I could do to contribute to the fulfillment of this vision, as my parents had trained me to be a social activist, and my father instilled in me a sense of responsibility for the entire world. Suddenly, the following idea entered my mind: 


Perhaps I could prepare myself through proper study to become the Messiah? 

I began to feel overwhelmed by this idea. Becoming the Messiah is an awesome responsibility, and I started to feel a great weight on my shoulders. After all, I was only nine years old!


I later found welcome relief from my burden when I heard Rabbi Beer mention in class that the Messiah will be a descendant of King David, from the Tribe of Judah. (According to our tradition, our tribal identity is passed on through the father, and our national identity as Israelites is passed on through the mother.)  After hearing that the Messiah will be from the Tribe of Judah, I remembered that I am a Kohen, a member of a special priestly family from the Tribe of Levi. This meant that I could not be the Messiah. I felt so relieved! When I left the class that day, I felt light and happy, for I could now go back to being a kid again. 


Through further study of our classical sources, I learned that we can hasten the coming of the Messiah and the future redemption through a renewed devotion to Torah study, prayers, and good deeds. This responsibility did not overwhelm me, especially since it is a shared responsibility. One of the sources for the radical idea that we can bring the messianic redemption closer is found in the following teaching from the Talmud regarding tzedakah – the sharing of our resources with those in need:


Rabbi Judah says, “Great is tzedakah, for it brings the redemption closer, as it is said (Isaiah 56:1): ‘Thus said Hashem: Guard justice and do acts of tzedakah, for My salvation is soon to come and My benevolence to be revealed.’ ” (Baba Basra 10a)


It is also written: “Zion shall be redeemed through justice, and her returnees through tzedakah.” (Isaiah 1:27)


Chapter 60 of the Book of Isaiah has a very moving description of the messianic age, and this chapter concludes with the following Divine promise to our people:


“Hashem shall be unto you an eternal light, and the days of your mourning will be ended. Your people will all be righteous; they will inherit the Land forever; a branch of My planting, My handiwork, in which I will glory. The smallest shall increase a thousandfold, and the youngest into a mighty nation; I am Hashem, in its time, I will hasten it.” (Isaiah 60:20-22)


“In its time, I will hasten it.” – Rabbi David Kimchi (Radak) and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch mention two explanations of these words. According to one explanation, Hashem is promising that when the appointed time for the final redemption arrives, the process will proceed in a speedy manner. Both of these commentators also cite the teaching of our sages which reveals the following second meaning to the words, “In its time, I will hasten it”:


If Israel is not worthy, then the redemption will come “in its time” – according to the appointed time that Hashem has established; however, if Israel is worthy, then Hashem “will hasten it” – Hashem will cause the final redemption to come before the appointed time! (Talmud, Sanhedrin 98a)


Rabbi Hirsch states that this second meaning of the verse reveals the following insight:


The hour depends on us! Hashem’s paternal arms are always open to His returning children, as it is written: “Even today, if you will hearken to His voice” (Psalm 95:7).


Have a Good and Strengthening Shabbos,

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen

Jerusalem  (See below)


Related Teachings:


1. It is written: “A redeemer shall come to Zion and to those of Jacob who turn back from defection” (Isaiah 59:20). Our father, Jacob, had twelve sons who become the founders of the 12 Tribes of Israel; thus, “Jacob” is one of the biblical terms for our people. The commentator, Rebbenu Bachya, in an essay on the future redemption, explains that the redeemer will come to Zion through the merit of those among Jacob who engage in a process of teshuvah – spiritual return and renewal (Kad HaKemach). One of the sources for his explanation of this verse is found in the Talmud, Yoma 86b.


Rabbenu Bachya adds: “Moses, peace be upon him, promised us that teshuvah is the cause which will bring on the redemption.” Rebbenu Bachya explains that this promise is an assurance that we will ultimately return to Hashem. The following is the promise of Moses regarding teshuvah and redemption:


“It will be when all these things come upon you – the blessing and the curse that I have presented before you – then you will take it to your heart among all the nations where Hashem, Your God, has dispersed you; and you will return unto Hashem, your God, and listen to His voice, according to everything that I command you today, you and your children, with all your heart and all your soul. Then Hashem, your God, will return your captivity and have compassion on you, and He will gather you in from all the peoples to which Hashem, your God, has scattered you. If your dispersed will be at the ends of heaven, from there Hashem, your God, will gather you in and from there He will take you. Hashem, your God, will bring you to the Land that your ancestors possessed and you shall possess it; He will do good to you and make you more numerous than your ancestors.” (Deuteronomy 30: 1-5)


An English translation of Rebbenu Bachya’s “Kad HeKemach” is published by Shilo Publishing House. The English title is, “Encyclopedia of Torah Thoughts,” and it is translated and annotated by Rabbi Dr. Charles B. Chavel.


2. The following teaching is from the Talmud (Shabbos 118a):


“Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon Ben Yochai: If Israel kept two Sabbaths according to the halacha (the detailed steps of the Torah path), they would immediately be redeemed.”


The above teaching may be one of the reasons why we sing at the Friday night Shabbos table the following verse regarding those who have pleasure through keeping Shabbos:


“They will merit much good, those who take pleasure in it, with the redeemer’s coming, for the life of the World to Come.” (Menucha V’Simcha)


As we discussed in a previous letter, the term “World to Come” can refer to the world that the righteous soul enters after death, or the final stage of redemption on earth, following the Resurrection.   


3. See the previous letter – “Zion Needs the Messiah!” – for a description of the radical role of the Messiah.

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