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    Calling for Mashi’ach

    Israelites crossing the Red Sea, from a 1907 Bible card

    The Egyptians coming up behind, the forbidding sea ahead – the Israelites had every reason to be scared. They cried out to Heaven to save them. Moses led the appeal.

    But the response was not what he expected, and not too gentle. “Why do you cry out to Me?” he was told; “Speak to the Children of Israel that they go forward” (Ex. 14:15).

    This command echoes in a story of Rabbi Mendel of Kotzk (d. 1859).

    When a disciple of Rabbi Shlomo Leib of Lentshno (d. 1843) came to visit Rabbi Mendel, the latter said to him, “Give my greetings to your teacher, Rabbi Shlomo Leib. I have great affection for him. But why does he constantly cry to God to send the Messiah?

    “Why does he not rather cry to Israel to turn to God, and then Mashi’ach would certainly come? Is this not what God said to Moses, ‘Why do you cry out to Me? Speak to the Children of Israel that they go forward!'” (cf. Martin Buber, “Tales of the Hasidim: The Later Masters”, 1961 ed., p. 287).

    The story reflects two approaches to Mashi’ach that have exercised the Jewish world rather actively in recent years since the Chabad movement raised the level of awareness of Mashi’ach and aroused a great deal of debate.

    One view is that the Mashi’ach will come unexpectedly (Sanh. 97a) and we have to be at a pitch of excitement and anticipation; the Yalkut Shim’oni says, “If a generation awaits My kingdom they will be redeemed immediately” (Echah 997).

    The other view says that we have to mend and beautify a confused and difficult world and prepare mankind for its redemption; once they are ready, the nations will speak “a clear tongue, calling on the Name of the Lord to serve Him with one consent” (Zeph. 3:9).

    The Talmud acknowledges these two approaches. It quotes one verse which says Mashi’ach will come riding on a donkey (Zech. 9:9), and another which speaks of him arriving on “the clouds of Heaven” (Dan. 7:13). It explains, “If they are worthy, he will appear on the clouds, but if not, on a donkey” (Sanh. 98a).

    The clouds of heaven approach is the miraculous one: the donkey approach suggests a more measured, natural arrival, since donkeys are earthly animals that are not particularly fleet of foot.

    Is there, then, an irreconcilable dichotomy between crying out for a miracle or painstakingly working on ourselves and the world?

    The answer must be no. Crying out expresses our desperate longing for an event that will surely come at the moment which only God can decide. But mending the world creates the earthly conditions that will show we are prepared and worthy.

    The Lubavitcher Rebbe, whose last years often focussed on the subject, used to say that there were so many messianic elements in the contemporary world that people asked, “Until when do we wait?” But though the timetable is out of our hands, we can help it along by intensifying our doing of good deeds.

    As the Kotzker Rebbe said, crying out to God is not enough. The message must be, “Speak to the Children of Israel that they go forward!”

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