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He’s Waiting For Us

There are real lions in this world, and one must grapple with them or get eaten alive.
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May 31, 2024
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There’s a 50-year-old Israeli joke told about Jerusalem’s Biblical Zoo, where a remarkable exhibit is mounted about Messianic times. Its centerpiece is a cage with a lion and lamb living together, in fulfillment of Isaiah’s vision that “the leopard shall lie down with the young goat.” Visitors are amazed by this exhibit; one intrepid reporter decides that he must discover how this is possible. After some inquiries he learns that the zookeeper is none other than Henry Kissinger; and when the reporter finally gets ahold of Kissinger he asks him: “By God, how do you do it?” Kissinger answers in his trademark monotone: “Every day – a new lamb.”

Within the humor of this joke is a commentary on human affairs: those who dream of an otherworldly utopia will eventually find that Kissinger-style realpolitik is inescapable. There are real lions in this world, and one must grapple with them or get eaten alive.

Messianic visions have always stood at the center of Jewish identity; and, in a characteristically overcomplicated Jewish way, there are two intertwined visions.  As Avi Ravitsky points out, there are two cataclysms in Biblical history: the exile of the Jews from Israel, and the exile of humanity from the Garden of Eden. Because of this, there are two dreams of redemption from exile. One dream is of a return to the Jewish homeland. But there is a second dream, one very present in Isaiah, of a coming utopia of peace and happiness. And somehow, both visions need to fit into the same jacket at the same time. How that happens is a matter of debate.

The question of what the Messianic period will look like arises at the beginning of Parshat Bechukotai, when the Torah promises that if the Jews fulfill the commandments, they will be blessed with peace and abundance. One of the blessings is that God “will remove wild beasts from the land.” (Leviticus 26:6) The meaning of this verse is unclear. Where will all these animals go? Samuel David Luzzatto, following one opinion in the Sifra, interprets this as a natural outcome of peace and abundance; if the cities are filled with people, there will be no empty buildings or fields that wild animals can inhabit. Of course, wild animals will remain in the forests and jungles.

Others see this verse as being directly tied to the vision of Isaiah. If we are meritorious, nature will change. All of the formerly dangerous animals will be domesticated, and pose no threat anymore.

The Ramban champions this view in his commentary to Bechukotai, where he makes the following claim:

When (Israel) observes the commandments, the Land of Israel will be like the world was at its beginning before the sin of Adam the first man, when no wild beast or creeping thing would kill a human….It is [because of] this that Scripture says… ‘and the lion shall eat straw like the ox’…Scripture stated about the time of the redeemer.…that peace will return to the world and all beasts will no longer prey on others and will cease to be dangerous….

When the Messiah comes, the lion will turn vegetarian. The Biblical Zoo won’t have to put a new lamb into its exhibit every day.

The Ramban’s view is adopted by the majority of his medieval contemporaries, with one prominent exception: Maimonides.

In his Mishneh Torah, Maimonides makes it clear that there will be no change in nature during the times of the Messiah. He writes that (Kings 12:1):

Do not presume that in the Messianic age any aspect of the world’s nature will change or there will be a transformation of God’s creation. Rather, the world will continue according to its ordinary pattern. When Isaiah states: ‘The wolf will dwell with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the young goat,’ they are meant as a metaphor and a parable. The interpretation of the prophecy is as follows: Israel will dwell securely together with the wicked idolaters who are likened to a wolf and a leopard…Similarly, other Messianic prophecies of this nature are metaphors.

Maimonides’ view of the Messianic period is consistent with what he maintains elsewhere; that the world always follows the natural order, and miracles, which are few and far between, only occur for significant purposes.

When contrasting the views of the Ramban and Maimonides, one might see the Ramban’s view as more distant from our reality. Nature will change during the Messianic period, and God will bring overt miracles to return Israel to its homeland and create a utopian world of peace and holiness. In a dramatic turn of reality, the impossible will come to life.

But actually, Maimonides’ view seems even more impossible. If nature is unchanging, history should be stuck in a repetitive cycle of war and peace. After thousands of years of bloody conflicts, how could one imagine otherwise?

Yet Maimonides believed that even if nature cannot change, humanity can. The Messiah, he explains, is a king who will return the sovereignty to Israel and teach Israel the ways of the Torah. The Messiah doesn’t only battle for a state; he fights to elevate the hearts and souls of his people. Full redemption is only possible when people seek enlightenment and strive to become the best version of themselves.

Sovereignty is the first stage in reaching this utopia. Once people no longer have the pressures of persecution, a revolution of prophetic inspiration can take place. And this inspiration is the very purpose of redemption. Maimonides writes (Repentance 9:2):

It is for these reasons, that all Israel, their prophets, and their Sages, have yearned for the Messianic age; so they can rest from the (oppression of) the gentile kingdoms, who do not allow them to rest long enough to properly occupy themselves with Torah and mitzvot. At that time they will find tranquility, and increase their knowledge… In that era, knowledge, wisdom, and truth will become abundant, as Isaiah (11:9) states, “The earth will be full of the knowledge of God.”…. And Ezekiel (36:26) states: “I will take away the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.” (The Messiah) will teach the entire nation and instruct them in the path of God. All the nations will come to hear him….

A return to Zion will allow for a spiritual flourishing that will eventually spread across the globe.

Today, Maimonides’ vision of redemption seems further away than ever. Israel was a country divided against itself right before October 7th, and may be one again after this war. (Those divisions may have encouraged Hamas to attack.) Dreams of peace seem impossible when pain is all one can think about. Israel endured horrific attacks at the hands of a depraved enemy, leaving a country traumatized. At the same time, one cannot look away from the awful loss of life and suffering in Gaza, which causes profound anguish as well. As Golda Meir said: “perhaps in time (we will) be able to forgive the Arabs for killing our sons, but it will be harder for us to forgive them for having forced us to kill their sons.”

Hopes for universal enlightenment, (so common after the fall of the Soviet Union,) have gone into reverse.  Academic theorists have turned universities into hotbeds of hatred, making Jews the scapegoats for the accumulated sins of Western society, both real and imagined.  Social media allows people to find their own “truth,” further dividing polarized societies where no one can talk to each other. The dual dreams of the Messianic Age, a return to Israel and the salvation of mankind, seem now like a bitter illusion.

It would make sense for us to give up on this dream right now. But one must consider that Maimonides’ situation was worse than our own. His family fled Muslim persecution in order to remain Jews. Crusaders had ravaged the Jewish community in the Holy Land, and often held Jews there and elsewhere for ransom. Karaites and Rabbanites held an uneasy peace, which often exploded into open conflict.

Yet Maimonides still believed that even without miracles, humanity could change course. He felt no matter what the circumstances are, we are capable of bringing redemption.

And we need to take up Maimonides’ challenge.

In a sermon given in 1969, Rabbi Norman Lamm related an anecdote told to him by the Israeli General and politician Yigal Allon:

As a child in his native village near Mt. Tabor, Allon heard the famous Jewish legend about the Messiah sitting in the gates of Rome as a poor leper and waiting. Allon was disturbed by the story, and asked his teacher: “What is the Messiah waiting for?” 

The teacher’s answer was:

“He is waiting for you.”

This is Maimonides’ message to us as well. After October 7th, we must redouble our efforts to both rebuild our homeland and rebuild our souls. Even as redemption seems further away than ever, we must never give up.

We must remember that the Messiah is waiting for us.


Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz is the Senior Rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York.

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