Several years ago I went to visit one of my daughters in Israel. She was attending a summer program and had one Shabbat free in Jerusalem. Friday afternoon several families took their daughters to Ben Yehuda Street to prepare for Shabbat.
Friday afternoon on Ben Yehuda Street is an experience not to be missed. In the summer you might meet friends from your hometown, your rabbi or see different groups of Hasidim congregating and preparing for Shabbat.
As a group we were beset by beggars asking for money. Some would give a few “shek” (or “shekel” worth about 25 cents at the time) or like me, they would turn away. One young American male, dressed in Hasidic garb, persisted. I finally asked him, “Why are you asking for money?” He answered, “I have nothing to eat for Shabbat.”
Immediately that changed the entire dynamic. According to Jewish law when a person specifically asks for food, their needs must be met. I told him that I would not give him money but would buy him three meals for Shabbat. He left, to return ten minutes later with his roommate. To the consternation of the other families and the utter surprise of these two boys, I took them to the nearest “take out place” and bought them three meals for Shabbat.
When they were about to leave, laden with their food (and beer), one asked me why I spent so much money on them. I told him that since he has asked for food I was not allowed to refuse. He had never heard of that law, and asked me to educate him.
I replied, “I am a Conservative rabbi, I know that you will not accept Jewish law from me.”
He answered, “But you know the laws of Tzedakah.”
I smiled and said, “Now I know the Mashiach is near, when a Bratslaver Hasid asks a Conservative rabbi to teach him Jewish law, can the Mashiach be far away?”
Our tradition downplays the importance of intention in favor of action. You are, and you are judged by what you do, not what you intend to do. There are exceptions to this rule, one of them is Tzedakah. At first glance Tzedakah seems simple: someone gives money to someone else. However Tzedakah is not only what you give, but how you give it as well.
The Messianic age will not arrive until we understand this lesson.
“The Messiah will come only when he is no longer necessary.”-Franz Kafka, Parables and Paradoxes.
In the up coming, and probably final installment of director Christopher Nolan’s Batman run, The Dark Knight Rises, Batman returns to save Gotham once again (starring Christian Bale as the Caped Crusader – to be released July 20th, to see the trailer click here). In the story, it’s been eight years since New York, I mean Gotham City, last saw Batman. Eight years prior he branded himself a criminal in place of Harvey Dent (Two-Face), because, he felt, the city’s need to see Harvey as a hero was greater than the truth. Now he can’t help but come back again, this time to fight a new super villain, Bane.
So, I guess we need our heroes - or do we?
[For the real comic book nuts, eight years might be nothing compared to Batman coming out of retirement at age 55, dealing with aging and mortality as he fights for justice in Frank Miller’s 1986 instant classic, The Dark Knight Returns. Click the above book cover to read more about it.]
There is something biblical about the least likely hero (see Time magazine’s piece the Anti-hero where TV’s hit Breaking Bad is set center stage). My favorite Biblical outcast turned hero: Jephthah.
Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty warrior. His father was Gilead; his mother was a prostitute. Gilead’s wife also bore him sons, and when they were grown up, they drove Jephthah away. “You are not going to get any inheritance in our family,” they said, “because you are the son of another woman.” So Jephthah fled from his brothers and settled in the land of Tob, where a gang of scoundrels gathered around him and followed him.
Some time later, when the Ammonites were fighting against Israel, the elders of Gilead went to get Jephthah from the land of Tob. “Come,” they said, “be our commander, so we can fight the Ammonites.” (Judges 11:1-6).
In just six short verses the Bible establishes Jephthah as an outcast and then quickly pivots him to be a hero (Brilliant writing! Better, divine!). Whether it’s David fighting Goliath, Batman saving us from the sadism of the Joker, or even Rocky fighting a Russian killing machine in a boxing ring, there is something biblical to the sense that at the brink of catastrophe a Chosen One will rescue us at the last possible second. The Hanukkah Song, Mi Yimalel (Who Can Retell) makes the point explicit:
Mi yimalel gevurot Yisrael, Who can retell the things that befell us,
Otan mi yimne? Who can count them?
Hen be’chol dor yakum ha’gibor In every age, a hero or sage
Goel ha’am. Came to our aid.
In the case of the song, the reference is to the Maccabees who fought back the Greek
Assyrians, and rededicated the Holy Temple that had been made impure by the enemy (Hanukkah means “dedicate”). Perhaps it’s America’s deep grounding in Biblical tradition that we so often fall for the super hero. Or maybe it’s something in the nature of man. It could be that we just want someone to look up to. When things look their worst, don’t worry – someone will step up and save the day. Personally, I fear that we have that expectation with regard to climate change, that some super scientist will invent some technology (cloud seeding, or metal trees that oxygenate the air), and hence our misguided lack of urgency. I worry about our craving and reliance on radical, heroic fixes. The Talmud teaches the dictum: “Ein somchim al ha’ness,” don’t rely on miracles. And while the theme of the the hero is so central to the history of the religious mindset, it exists as a paradox. There is a perversion, an abdication of responsibility, that comes with falling for the hero – Don’t worry, be complacent, someone, somehow will fix things.
When Queen Esther fears speaking to the king to save the Jewish people, her uncle, Mordechai chastises her:
“Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape… And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?”(Esther 4:13-14).
And hence the paradox of the hero:
Salvation will come at the hand of a hero – but the hero is you.
While I too fall for the hero and plan to see the new Batman this week, I know deep down that it’s just entertainment. Real life, especially a religious life, one where I feel ultimately accountable to God’s expectation to love, to uplift, to care, requires a message of personal responsibility antithetical to the super heroic. It asks us to find the heroic within ourselves, to step up to challenges instead of being frozen by them, or waiting for someone greater to save us. The need to step up to human responsibility, and not wait for a greater power to fix things, to redeem mankind, may even be central to ultimate salvation, and the ultimate redemption of the world. Rabban Yoachanan ben Zakkai (90 C.E.) said it like this: If you are holding a sapling in your hand and someone tells you, ‘Come quickly, the messiah is here!’, first finish planting the tree and then go to greet the messiah’ – Avot D’Rabbi Natan 31b. Rabbi Heschel taught that God was in search of man. “God is still waiting for a righteous generation, who will live by justice and compassion,” he said.
In other words: It’s up to us to save us, or, at the very least, it’s up to us to live lives noble enough to be worthy of saving.
Yom Hasho’ah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, begins tomorrow evening at sundown. Many of us will light a yahrzeit candle and pause to remember. And many memorials will include the singing of Ani Ma’amin — “I believe.”
The text is fairly well-known: “I believe, with perfect faith, in the coming of the Messiah. And even though he may tarry, I will wait for him.” The context is very well-known. It was this text that some Jews sang on their way to their deaths during the Shoah. The well-known Modzhitzer niggun nearly perfectly captures the longing, the hope, and the horror of those moments on the trains, on the platforms, on the journey to the gas. He tarries…and we wait.
What does it it mean to say “I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah” while everything around you suggests otherwise? What does it take to sing it under the most trying of circumstances? Had circumstances been different, were I living there instead of here, then instead of now, would I have been among its singers?
I cannot know, but I can hope. Better yet, I can prepare. I can try to live each moment well, forming habits of the heart and soul that will lead me to do the right thing, instinctively and reflexively, when the chips are down. And as I practice, I come to realize that faith in the Messiah is about having faith in the human capacity to connect to Other, to Self, to God. When we do those things, we bring what our Tradition calls Y’mot Hamashiach that much closer.
Rabbi Eliezer Berkowitz concludes his Faith after the Holocaust with two pieces of testimony from that time and place, seeing in them reason to believe. He tells the story of
Abraham Seidman, the Jew in the Warsaw Ghetto, the kind of Jew whom Judaism produced in every generation in tens of thousands, a pious, modest, hardworking pater familias at the same time scholarly, not in a professional sense, but simply because it was the duty of every Jew to study and know the Torah. He had been taken from the Ghetto to the Umschlagplatz to be sent to Auschwitz. There was still some time before the transport was to leave. How did Abraham Seidman spend the few remaining minutes? He wrote a letter to his children taking leave of them forever and asking them for forgiveness should he ever have offended or hurt them.
And Berkowitz also tells this story, first-told in Rabbi Michael Dov-Ber Weissmandel’s Min Hametzar, regarding Itzik Rosensweig:
Itzik was a Jew somewhere in Slovakia, a Jew like Abraham Seidman in Warsaw. He made a living by raising poultry. One day he and his family were squeezed into the cattle cars, in which hundreds of other Jews were pressed to suffocation. In the car there was despair all around him; outside a celebrating population of former neighbors was jeering at him and deriding him. He begged them: Please go to my house and give food and water to the poultry. They had nothing to eat or drink all day.
Where is the Mashiach for whom we wait? He lives in Abraham Seidman, showing himself to be, for one shining moment, a perfect parent. He lives in Itzik Rosensweig, answering baseless hatred with a display of compassion and wholeheartedness for the ages. He lives in those Modzhitzer Hasidim, singing their faith with full hearts, performing the ultimate act of Kiddush Hashem Barabim, sanctifying God’s Name for all the world to see. He is always at hand. When we are be’emunah shleimah, in a place of wholeness and trust, feeling safe and secure no matter what is happening around us, then Mashiach lives in us.
Ani Ma’amin – I believe.
Be’emunah sh’leimah – with a faith that is whole. With a faith that emerges from my own wholeness, the clear sense of just what is, right now.
B’viat hamashiach – I believe with a faith that emerges from the clarity of this moment, that all moments can be this moment. Clear. Perfect. And I believe that the clarity and perfection is precisely what is called mashiach.
V’af al pi sheyitmah’meyah – And though that clarity is fleeting, though the moments of perfection are few and far between…
Im kol “zeh” – With every moment that passes, every “now,” every “this”…
Achakeh lo – I seek to open to that possibility, waiting, and working, and hoping.
B’chol yom, sheyavo — Every day, every moment, let it come to pass.