(First published as a Jewish Press Front Page Essay in October 2008)
As a native New Yorker and a lifelong Yankees fan, I never thought that I would see the day that I would pull for the Chicago Cubs to win the World Series. However, with the Yankees’ season ending prematurely this year, and after having spent the last decade in Chicago, witnessing firsthand the ongoing frustration associated with supporting the North Side’s “lovable losers”, I decided that it was time to lend a little moral support to the Cubbies.
And this really seemed to be the year. The Cubs were the National League’s best team this season, boasting a strong blend of hitting and pitching, not to mention a former Yankee in the manager’s seat. They rode this talent to an impressive 97 wins (the team’s most since 1945), and had eight players named to the Senior Circuit’s All-Star team.
More significantly yet, it was exactly 100 years since the Cubs had last raised the championship banner. I, like the producers of “Back to the Future” (as well as millions of others), thought that their time had finally come.
Sure, I had observed a few moments of glory amongst the Cubs’ general ineptitude, including the celebrated 1998 campaign of Sammy (“The Juice”, or was that “Corked Bat”?) Sosa, as well as the 2003 team, which came this close to advancing to the World Series against my Yankees, only to be felled (or so they claim) by one of their own fan’s interference of a late inning putout. Ah, the curse of the Billy Goat, and the black cat, and Bartman…
However, this time, they were really due, especially with both the Red Sox (2004, OK, don’t rub it in) and White Sox (2005) putting a recent end to their own longstanding misery.
But then again, these are the Cubs that we’re talking about.
After a sizable pre-playoffs rally, which included politicians and former players, the Cubs laid an egg. Three games (the first two at home), three losses, with a combined offensive (read: repulsive) output of six runs.
That I was not crestfallen after this most recent debacle is certainly to be understood. After all, despite the fact that I was rooting for the Cubs, I was in no sense invested in their success. What surprised me, however, was the generally tepid response from their fans throughout the city.
Following the sweep, reporters traveled throughout Chicagoland to capture the reactions of Cubs fans. I expected to hear sound bites of angry, frustrated people, armed with some version of the “Bronx Cheer” to direct at their team.
In truth, I did not hear any virulent anger. Rather, I heard three other, more moderate reactions, one somewhat negative, one neutral and one more positive.
The negative sentiment was expressed by the non-believers, those Cubs fans who had tasted disappointment for so long that they could not permit themselves to truly expect anything other than failure. By lowering their expectations, they would be able to shield themselves if and when history would in fact repeat itself. This “I knew they’d lose” defeatism was expressed by many of the Cubs faithful.
Others reacted with blasé indifference. These were the fans that are attracted more to the “baseball cathedral” known as Wrigley Field than to the team that it plays host to. In their eyes, Wrigley is a monument unto itself, where the game becomes secondary to the venue. Lose as often as the Cubs have over the past decade and you can understand why the unofficial mandate of “eat, drink, and become fully imbibed” began to permeate so long ago. Why else should one leave work early on a sunny August day and head down to the ballpark? It certainly makes bad baseball far more tolerable. For these sad souls, the Cubs playoff loss was only secondary to the fact that they were left without an excuse to publicly engage in their typical irresponsible manner.
The third group, on the other hand, responded with a healthy dose of optimistic persistence. These people understood that all was not lost; they would simply “get ‘em next year” (the Cubs’ unofficial motto). Sure, they were disappointed with the team’s performance, but they refused to allow themselves to get excessively down about it. After all, is there really that much of a difference between 100 and 101 in the grand scheme of things?
As I was processing all of this, it dawned on me that in some very basic respects these responses mirror the wide range of reactions amongst the Jewish community regarding something far more significant that we have long been awaiting, namely the coming of mashiach.
There are times when we can be moderately negative about the imminence of mashiach’s arrival. Certainly there are no believing Jews who are not completely resolute in their conviction about the eventual coming of mashiach. After all, the most famous and commonly repeated principle in Rambam’s list of fundamental Jewish beliefs states, “I believe with a complete faith in the coming of mashiach. And even if he tarries, every day I await his arrival.” Every trusting Jew embraces this concept.
However, the idea of mashiach coming imminently, as in today, can often seem as far removed as a Cubs championship, if not even further. Consider this, from Rav Shimon Schwab, zt’l, who recounted his youthful perspective on the idea of mashiach:
I remember vividly that when I was still a very young man, whenever we talked about mashiach we thought of something that was going to happen at the very end of time. As we say in Yigdal, “He will send at the end of days our mashiach, to redeem those that wait for the appointed time of his salvation”…His arrival was not something that we thought could be imminent. (Waiting for Mashiach, Selected Speeches, CIS publishers, p. 15)
As well as this, from the saintly Chofetz Chaim, zt’l:
We live in an age where we lack emunah (faithful trust in Hashem). Despite this fifty percent chance of (mashiach’s) coming, we in our own mind see it only as a very remote possibility. In our limited perception, we consider the odds of it happening no better than those of winning a lottery jackpot. (Quoted in ibid, p. 17)
If this lack of emunah was perceptible in the more spiritually attuned world of pre-war Europe, certainly it would appear that it would be a challenge for us as well.
However, the problem runs even deeper. Not only are we often skeptical about the imminence of mashiach’s arrival, we may at times be entirely indifferent, if not moderately hostile, towards it altogether.
Let me explain. We surely all intellectually long for the Messianic Era. How can we not? Even the relatively naturalistic view of Rambam (Commentary to Sanhedrin 10:1) paints a picture of such glory that we cannot help but yearn for its imminent arrival:
The Messianic Age is when the Jews will regain their independence and all return to the land of Israel. Mashiach will be a very great king…He will achieve great fame… His great righteousness and the wonders that he will bring about will cause all of the peoples to make peace with him… It will be easy for people to make a living and with very little effort they will be able to accomplish very much…The main benefit of the Messianic Age will be that we will no longer be under the subjugation of foreign governments who prevent us from keeping all of the commandments… (The Messianic Age) will be highlighted by a community of the righteous and dominated by goodness and wisdom…
Yet, at times I wonder as to whether these promised spiritual and material gains sufficiently motivate the average orthodox American Jew to remain excited about the prospect of completely changing their current realities, including their comfortable lifestyles.
Let’s be honest. We enjoy more opportunities here in America than Jews have ever received in any other foreign land. We walk the streets largely unafraid. We can pray in public venues and even secure police protection on our holidays. We possess our own extensive media outlets and educational systems, unimpeded by sinister, meddling governments.
Materially, we are as well off as we have ever been; Jews have tasted great success in practically every form of business imaginable. Even in today’s troubled times, with all of the difficulties that individuals and institutions are being forced to endure, we are far more affluent than ever before.
Certainly, in this context, it is quite a challenge to remain enthusiastic over the idea of mashiach’s arrival, which threatens to drastically challenge our status quo. Again, in the words of Rav Schwab (Ibid, p. 27):
If I really believe that (mashiach) can come any day and I need a house, I won’t build a luxury house, for who knows how long I would be in that house? How can those who build extravagant villas for themselves truly believe that at any moment he can come?
For the average American Jew, life in this country has such an aura of permanence that it is often difficult to see beyond it and factor a different reality into our long term plans.
Thankfully, and almost paradoxically, we are also blessed with a healthy dose of optimistic persistence. Despite the long wait, and the immeasurable suffering which we have had to endure, we have never lost hope in a better tomorrow.
It is one thing to wait one century for a World Championship. It is a far greater challenge to wait nearly twenty times that period for the most wonderful historical outcome imaginable, only to endure setback after setback, suffering upon suffering, exile upon exile.
Yet we have done just that. And the very fact that we continue to long for the arrival of mashiach is a powerful indicator that our belief in his coming remains strong.
Rashi (Bereishis 37:35) informs us that Yaakov Avinu would not be comforted for the loss of his beloved Yosef because, “no one accepts consolation for a person who is really alive but believed to be dead, for it is decreed that a dead person should be forgotten from the heart, but not a living person.”
In a similar vein, we refuse to be consoled for the loss of our beloved Bais Hamikdash. Though it appears “dead” (G-d forbid) to the outside observer, we know that it is very much alive in the hearts and minds of the Jewish people. It is for this reason that we hold out hope for its speedy return.
However, despite our strong desire for mashiach’s arrival, we must be careful not to become impatient. He will certainly come, but on his terms, not ours. As the Talmud (Sanhedrin 97b) teaches us, “(the coming of mashiach) depends solely on repentance and good deeds.”
This idea helps us to explain an apparent, surprising Talmudic paradox with regards to the very idea of yearning for mashiach’s arrival.
On the one hand, the Talmud (Shabbos 31a) informs us that one of the six questions which we are asked by the heavenly tribunal immediately after our passing is “did you eagerly hope for (messianic) salvation?” Yet, another source suggests (Sanhedrin 97a) that we have no such obligation to long for mashiach, and that in fact, “(mashiach) will not come unless the Jewish people have given up hope for the redemption”.
What exactly does this latter statement mean and how are we to resolve this apparent contradiction? Are we supposed to long for his coming or are we not?
The answer is that we certainly are supposed to continuously yearn for the coming of mashiach. Failure to do so can be disastrous, to the point of possibly impeding our entry into Olam Haba.
When the Talmud says that we must give up hope for the redemption, it means that we must give up hope of bringing mashiach on our terms, without taking the necessary steps to truly deserve it. That is what the other Talmudic statement means when it says that repentance and good deeds are necessary prerequisites for his coming.
However, we must realize that this needed level of character improvement can come in one of two ways. Either we can repent on our own; otherwise Hashem may choose to step in and expedite the process by bringing in an outside motivator, as the Midrash below makes clear.
If the Jewish people do not repent from their own volition, the Holy One, blessed be He, will cause to rise against them a wicked king whose decrees will be as cruel as that of Haman. He will subjugate them, and consequently they will repent.” (Midrash Tanchuma, Bechukosai 3)
This is what the Talmud (Sanhedrin 98a) means when it says,“the son of David will come only in a generation that is either altogether righteous or altogether wicked.” When the time is right Hashem will take stock of His people. If we are righteous, then we will certainly merit his coming. If not, Hashem will take the necessary steps to ensure our readiness, thus clearing the path for mashiach.
Contrary to the belief of some, we have no control over when mashiach will actually come. The only thing which we can impact is the spiritual state that we will be in when the time finally arrives.
And a sizable portion of that readiness involves our general sense of focus and longing for mashiach’s arrival. If we are truly waiting, if we, like the Chofetz Chaim, leave our proverbial suitcases by the front door (as the great sage did in eager anticipation of mashiach), then we will hopefully merit to reach the degree of righteousness that will allow us to be ushered directly into the Messianic Age, without any of the difficulties describe above.
Once more, from the words of Rav Schwab:
Waiting is of the essence. When we wait for him, something happens to us. It elevates us, for we want to be prepared for his coming.
Let us hope that in the merit of such anticipated waiting Hashem will finally put an end to this long, difficult exile and return us to our truly desired state, speedily in our days.