There is no specific mention of the Messiah in the Torah, but the writings of the prophets and the Talmud offer a rich literature detailing the divinely sent figure who will one day arrive in our broken, imperfect world and set it all right. When will this great reckoning take place? One opinion has it that the Messiah will arrive either when the world is hopelessly decadent and lost or, alternatively, when the world is good enough to merit him.
The Talmud tells the story of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, who asked the prophet Elijah when the Messiah would arrive. Elijah responded: “ask the Messiah himself – he is sitting at the gates of Rome, among the poor and the sick, helping them with the bandages on their wounds.” So Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi went all the way to Rome, found the Messiah and asked “when will you come?” The Messiah answered: “Today.”
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi returned to Elijah disillusioned that the Messiah has not kept his word. Elijah explained that the Messiah was quoting from a psalm: “Today, if you heed His voice.” Meaning, that the Messiah will come when people do God’s bidding.
But what does that have to do with the Messiah sitting among the poor and the sick? The core of the message must be that healing the sick, tending to the vulnerable, caring for the stranger, sacrificing for the other, is God’s work. The Messiah is, then, in the words of the memoirist, Ilana Kurshan, “a metaphor for the redeemed world to which we aspire.”
The story of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi and Elijah suggests that the world will be a better place only when we make it so. When we wait for the arrival of someone great sent by God, we ignore our potential – created by God – for greatness. And while the prophets and the Talmud may be vague about who the Messiah is, and how he will transform the world, perhaps that is because the Messiah is us. As Kurshan writes: “the world will not be redeemed when the Messiah comes; rather the Messiah will come when we redeem the world.”
We are expected to carry the burden – we cannot expect that it will be borne by someone divinely sent. The Messiah, according to this understanding, is not a person but an ideal, a pinnacle that the individual is called upon to strive toward. No one is exempt from the awesome responsibility of acting in the world to improve it. Just as the Messiah cares for the sick, we must do whatever we can to help heal the world.
We are expected to carry the burden – we cannot expect that it will be borne by someone divinely sent.
The talmudic story continues by noting that the Messiah removes old bandages and applies new ones, one at a time, so that he can be ready at a moment’s notice to leave to fulfil his role. This is an important detail. It suggests that at any time the world can be redeemed. All it would take is for each individual to do his share, and the process would at last be complete.
This alternative reading is certainly not conventional, but it is not heretical either. Indeed, the Talmud contains far more radical opinions regarding the Messiah (including Rabbi Hillel’s opinion that the Messiah arrived long ago). But it does lend credence to the analogy of the Messiah as a call to personal action and responsibility.
All of this talk about the Messiah reminds me of an old joke: a man is seen outside a small town. The people ask why he is there. He says that he is paid to wait for the Messiah. The locals ask if it is a well-paid and respectable line of work. He says, “No, but it’s a steady job.”
The Jewish world has been waiting a very long time for a divine figure to save us. Maybe the wait will be over when we finally save ourselves.
Paul Socken is distinguished professor emeritus and founder of the Jewish Studies Program at the University of Waterloo.