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Many Messiahs - Rosh Hashanah Sermon by Rabbi Richard Hirsh, September 21, 2017

24/10/2017 01:49:36 PM



A year ago on Rosh Hashana, I offered a sermon based on three Jewish teachings about Satan. In Jewish tradition, Satan is the persecuting prosecutor. He is the one who places the record of our accumulated transgressions before God on these days of reckoning.

In the interests of equal time, this year I want to share three Jewish teachings about the Messiah, the mythical character who stands for, among other things, the belief in the possible, and the hope for a future that is better than the present.

Unlike certain politicians who need not be named, I do not want to suggest a meaningless moral equivalency between Satan and the Messiah. I do not believe, for example, there are “some very fine people” to be found among the followers of Satan. I just thought it might be helpful, particularly after this turbulent year, to focus on our better angels, both celestial and terrestrial.

Judaism, like all cultures, has a history. It has evolved over time, and includes a variety of viewpoints, about even the most central and consequential issues. So when it comes to Jewish views of the Messiah, we are looking at a menu of offerings, rather than an agreed-upon set of beliefs.

There are essentially two different Jewish streams of thought about the Messiah: one is the mundane Messiah and the other is the miraculous Messiah. Each corresponds to a different dimension of teshuvah, the word that often gets flattened out in translation as “repentance,” but more accurately means “turning” or “returning.”


The Hebrew word for Messiah is Mashiach. The Hebrew root word means “to anoint.” Drizzling anointing oil over the head of one chosen for leadership signifies ascendency to authority. At some point, the act became the name for the person acted upon.

After twenty years of my High Holiday sermons, you know that one of my favorite ways to frame a Jewish concept is: If X is the answer, what is the question? So if “Messiah” is the answer, what is the question? What is the context, and what is the problem, that the idea of the Messiah comes to address?

The idea of “the Messiah” arises at a specific time, and in a specific place, and in response to a specific set of issues. The time is shortly after 586 BCE. The Babylonian empire had invaded the land of Judea, eradicated Jewish self-government, destroyed the Jerusalem Temple, and exiled most of the surviving population. The place is Babylonia, where vanquished Jews gathered together and sought a response to their situation of exile.

Three specific issues needed a response: Would the Jewish people be gathered back to the Land of Israel? Would the Temple in Jerusalem be rebuilt? Would Jewish independence be restored under a king descended from the line of King David? It is in the convergence of this time, this place and these issues that the idea of a Messiah appears.

On their own, the exiled Jews could hardly expect to achieve these three goals. But they were convinced that, having repented of the sins for which they believed they were exiled, God would surely send a leader who would accomplish what they could not. Rabbi Richard Hirsh Rosh Hashana Day 1 Sermon Darchei Noam 9.21.17 “Many Messiahs” print copy

The Messiah would be an extraordinary human being, but a human being. He would assure that the Jews would be returned home, that the Temple would be rebuilt, and in a convenient conflation, would himself be of the line of David. And this was the prevalent perspective for most of the biblical period: the Messiah would be mundane, not miraculous.

This strand of mundane messianic thought, which continues throughout Jewish history, is concisely summarized by the 12th century philosopher Maimonides, who said:

Let no one think that in the days of the Messiah any of the laws of nature will be set aside, or any innovation be introduced into creation. The world will follow its normal course…Do not think that [the] Messiah will have to perform signs and wonders, bring anything new into being, revive the dead, or do similar [supernatural] things. (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Melakhim 11:1)

The initial messianic impulse in Judaism was directed towards the mundane resolution in this world of a complex set of political and religious issues. And being a human project, it would require both patience and perseverance.

The idea of a mundane Messiah has something significant to say about how we view teshuvah. Teshuvah need not be a dramatic change that turns life upside-down and inside-out. Teshuvah does not have to be an annual mid-life spiritual crisis. Everything that has been need not be set aside or left behind for the sake of a single dramatic change that promises an immediate resolution. Change can be incremental. We do not have to change our entire life – in order to create real change in our life.

Teshuvah can sometimes best be thought of as a small course correction which, played out over time, yields a significant change of trajectory – the way a small adjustment to a satellite or a ship can ultimately bring it to a dramatically different destination.

The key to this type of teshuvah, as it is the key to the mundane form of Jewish messianic teaching, is patience and perseverance. For some of us, the kind of teshuvah we need to do this year involves looking beyond the coming days, weeks and months, and taking the long view. Where can we apply spiritual leverage so that over time, our lives more closely resemble what, at our best, we know they are capable of becoming?


But a mundane and very human Messiah was not the only Jewish conception. Another meaning of “Messiah” did emerge, one that suggested someone much more miraculous than mundane. This Messiah was understood to be a supernatural being, one who would usher in the cataclysmic end of history. This Messiah had powers nearly equal to those of God. And the coming of this Messiah would be marked by turmoil and travail, rather than by patience and persistence.

If we can imagine a graph of these two messianic impulses, the mundane and the miraculous, the mundane would start at the top and the miraculous at the bottom, and somewhere in the century before the Common Era, the lines would cross. To use Mordecai Kaplan’s Reconstructionist terms, the natural idea of the Messiah followed a downward trajectory, and the supernatural concept of the Messiah became ascendant. It is this strand of messianism that gives us the metaphor known in Hebrew as heveli Mashiach, the “birth-pangs of the Messiah.” Rabbi Richard Hirsh Rosh Hashana Day 1 Sermon Darchei Noam 9.21.17 “Many Messiahs” print copy

And not coincidentally, it is this strand of messianism that provides the context into which the Jesus movement erupts in the first century. It was a time when patience and perseverance was in short supply. The political, cultural and religious constrictions imposed on the Jews by the Roman empire became increasingly oppressive. Given the disproportionate power of Rome and the Jews, it seemed to many that only a miraculous deliverer could provide salvation.

So we find passages such as this in the Talmud:

When the time comes for the Messiah to arrive, all the kings of the nations of the earth will be at war with one another. All the nations of the world will be agitated and frightened. The meeting place of scholars will be laid to waste, and given over to prostitution…There will be few pious or righteous people, and the Torah will be forgotten…Arrows of hunger will be sent forth, and a great famine will arrive…all Israel will cry out in fear… (TB Sanhedrin97A)

This strand of miraculous messianic thought also continues throughout Jewish history,

Following the destruction by the Roman Empire of the second Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 of the Common Era, the concept of the miraculous Messiah had significant emotional appeal. The resources at hand in this world seemed inadequate. Hoping that God would send deliverance from beyond this world and bring this world to an end was, for many, a compelling concept. And as we know from the debates around the early Jesus movement, the expectation of the imminent arrival of the Messiah created many candidates for the title.

But another passage in the Talmud offers a different perspective. There, Rabbi Yohanan offers a cautionary counterpoint to the hopes for a miraculous Messiah:

If you are planting a tree, says Rabbi Yohanan, and someone comes to say the Messiah has arrived, first finish planting the tree, and then go see if the Messiah has arrived.” (Avot d’ Rabbi Natan B31)

Rather than hoping to feast at a heavenly messianic banquet, assure instead that provision is made for the earthly food that trees provide. Rabbi Yohanan is a pragmatist: better to plan for a future that looks much like the present, and assure that there will be trees for future generations. Better to rely on patience and perseverance than to assume one is living through the upheaval of the end of days.

The idea of a miraculous Messiah also has something to say about how we view teshuvah. We might not resonate with the intensity of emotion and the fearsomeness of the imagery embedded in such messianic visions. But they can be correlated with a different dimension of teshuvah – the insight that sometimes change does need to be a dramatic development, one that does turn life upside-down and inside-out. Teshuvah certainly can be a gentle correction of trajectory. But when we see a collision coming with the consequences of bad choices that we have made, a sharper turn is often needed.

Sometimes, the kind of teshuvah we need to do does not allow the luxury of the long-view, of incremental effort that will, over time, yield change. Sometimes we need to take a short-term perspective. Out of a combination of remorse, regret and resolution, we need to focus on what our lives have become, rather than on what our lives are capable of becoming. Rabbi Richard Hirsh Rosh Hashana Day 1 Sermon Darchei Noam 9.21.17 “Many Messiahs” print copy

The kind of teshuvah that is premised on the mundane model of the Messiah is a turning towards something; the kind of teshuvah that is premised on the miraculous model of the Messiah is a turning away from something.

These two kinds of turning, turning towards and turning away, are not mutually exclusive. But they do raise a question for these opening days of the New Year: what kind of change shall we focus on?


So we come to the modern period. Reform and Reconstructionist prayerbooks have removed prayers for the coming of the Messiah. We no longer pray for a descendent of King David to preside over a renewed Jewish monarchy. We do not pray for the ingathering of all Jews to the Land of Israel. And we certainly do not pray for the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple and the resumption of the sacrificial system of worship.

But we have been reluctant to abandon the messianic message, even in progressive Jewish spiritual tradition. We do not pray for a “redeemer to come” but we do still hope for “redemption to come.” The persistence of the messianic impulse, despite our having abandoned the belief in a Messiah, suggests interpreting this complex concept in a different way. Our understanding of the Messiah is a neither mundane nor miraculous. If we are to find contemporary meaning in this imagery, it will be as a metaphor.

There is something embedded in the stubborn persistence of the idea of the Messiah. It is implicit in Ani Maamin – “I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah; and even though his arrival be delayed, still I believe.” Embedded in the idea of the Messiah, mundane, miraculous or metaphorical, is something sacred – a glimmer of hope in an often dark world that filled with injustice and inequality.

And it is our choice whether to stare into the darkness or to look towards the light. I suspect that is a piece of what draws us together every year at this season: the solidarity of being with others on these days devoted to teshuvah. Implicitly or explicitly, we are sharing the audacious and even inspiring possibility of change. We are affirming our faith that “how things are” and “how things ought to be” – both in our own lives and in the world at large – can be brought closer together.

Glen Berger, who wrote the play “Underneath the Lintel,” says the following about the lone character in his script, someone “who made a single mistake…” but has not abandoned hope:

“He is a human being, and he isn’t going to give up so easily. Humanity inevitably finds the strength, despite our mistakes and tragedies, to rebuild, to persevere, to proceed, [at least] until death does us in…Anything at all can be an invitation to the miraculous…in the face of overwhelming existential bewilderment and terrible suffering, to respond with a little defiant dancing (in all its myriad forms) is a very human and wondrous thing.”

The idea of the Messiah is our Jewish way of doing a little defiant dancing. Rabbi Richard Hirsh Rosh Hashana Day 1 Sermon Darchei Noam 9.21.17 “Many Messiahs” print copy

There is a remarkable talmudic passage that teaches: Beyom she-neherav beit hamikdash, nolad ha-Mashiach – “on the very day that the Temple was destroyed, the Messiah was born.” (JT Berachot 2:4)

Over the many years since I first learned this teaching, I have come to see it not as an answer, but as a question; not as a promise but as a premise. It is the collective voice of ancient Jews who lived in times no less challenging or filled with despair than our own, reminding us to persist in patience and in perseverance. To do a little defiant dancing. “To find the strength, despite our mistakes and tragedies, to rebuild, to persevere, to proceed.”

The choice to turn the direction of our lives often presents itself in our deepest moments of despair, discouragement and desperation. From Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur, we simultaneously acknowledge the ways in which we did not change, and we affirm that possibility that we can change. Beyom she-neherav beit hamikdash, nolad ha-Mashiach – on the very day that the Temple was destroyed, the Messiah was born.

So here is the question I want to leave with you on this Rosh Hashana morning: Is it more important that the Messiah arrives? Or is it more important that the Messiah is born?

Thu, 23 May 2024 15 Iyar 5784