The vast majority of the Talmud is concerned with the here and now: How should we behave? How can we be good Jews? How can we be in right relationship with each other and with God? These are questions for the immediate present.
But the Talmud is also animated by a steady gaze toward the future, toward the messianic era. Despite its prevalence in the Talmud, there is little clarity about exactly what this wonderful future age will entail or how exactly it will arrive (aside from the fact that it will be heralded by the Messiah).
Today’s page contains two of many ideas found in the Talmud about the messianic era, which come amidst a longer and terribly sober discussion of death. It is observed that the dead, who are no longer able to act, cannot perform mitzvot. Therefore, we receive this caution that one should perform mitzvot while still living:
Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar says: Perform mitzvot while you still find opportunities, and you have the financial means, and you are still under your own control. And King Solomon also said, in his wisdom: And remember your creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years arrive when you will say: I have no desire for them. (Ecclesiastes 12:1)
Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar explains: “The evil days” — these are the days of old age. “And the years arrive when you will say: I have no desire for them” — these are the days of Messiah, in which there is neither merit nor liability.
Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar teaches that one must perform commandments during one’s lifetime because one will not be able to do this after death — and perhaps not even in old age, due to infirmity. He brings a quotation from Ecclesiates, which is rather stark about the challenges and pains of aging, and then offers a midrashic interpretation. The simplest reading of Ecclesiastes is that the “evil days” are the days of old age, which no one desires. But Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar separates “evil days” from “the years of which you will say: I have no desire for them,” and identifies the first as old age but the second as the messianic era, which presumably will come after most people’s lifetimes.
“The years of which you will say: I have no desire for them.” What a strange characterization of the messianic era! We colloquially think of that future redemption as a time that Jews largely look forward to, and yet Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar has found a downside: In this era, Jews will no longer be able to perform deeds that earn them merit.
This characterization of the messianic era seems to trouble the Gemara, which immediately brings a counterview:
Shmuel said: There is no difference between this world and the days of Messiah except for subjugation to foreign kingdoms alone, as it is stated: For the poor will never cease from the land… (Deuteronomy 15:11)
For Shmuel, the messianic era refers simply to a time when Jews will have autonomous rule — when they are no longer subjects to foreign powers. But according to Shmuel, it is hardly a perfect time, as he proves from Deuteronomy — it will still be plagued by poverty, much as any other era of human history. And as such, we must suppose, contra Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar, there will still be opportunities to perform righteous deeds.
For contemporary Jews who think of the messianic ideal as something toward which the Jewish people continually strives through the performance of mitzvot and acts of tikkun olam, Shmuel’s view might come as a surprise, and possibly a disappointment. Shmuel doesn’t think a perfected world is possible. And Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar sees a serious downside to a perfected world. But neither suggests that we shouldn’t nonetheless look forward to that future era — even if it isn’t quite so perfect.