Why Belief in Moshiach is Integral to Judaism
"May it be your will, L-rd our G-d and G-d of our fathers, that the Holy Temple be rebuilt speedily in our days...." —Ethics Of The Fathers, 5:20
The Mishnah is a purely an halachic, or legal, work, consisting of sixty-three tractates of legal material, arranged by topic in six "orders."
Its concise, almost cryptic style is designed to compact as many rulings and guidelines in as few words as possible; for the reasoning and deliberations behind its laws one must look to the Talmud, the lengthy exposition on the Mishnah.
Also the rare Mishnah that seems to digress with a philosophical insight or some background information, will always, upon closer examination, prove to be a statement of law and a practical instruction on daily living.
The Ethics of the Fathers differs from the other 62 tractates of the Mishnah in that it deals not with Torah law per se but with the area defined as that which is "within the line of the law."
Yet the Ethics is no exception to the "no frills" approach of the Mishnah. Though many of its sayings apply to the interior world of the human heart and mind - addressing issues of outlook, emotion and character - its every word is a halachah, a directive. This is no less true of the above-quoted passage.
At first glance, it appears to be a prayerful appeal to the Al-mighty to send Moshiach. One wonders what it is doing in the middle of the twentieth mishnah of the fifth chapter of the Ethics, following the injunction to "be bold as a leopard, light as an eagle, fleeting as a deer and mighty as a lion to do the will of your Father in Heaven." But the author of the Mishnah is instructing us on a truth that lies at the heart of the Jew's belief in Moshiach and the Redemption.
To believe in Moshiach is not merely to believe that he will someday come. It is to expect him on a daily, hourly and momentary basis. It means that no matter what we are discussing, the subject turns to Moshiach at the slightest provocation. It means that while discussing the need to be "fleet-footed" in fulfilling G-d's will, one is struck with an immense yearning to instantaneously be able to fulfill all of the mitzvos, so many of which are implementable only when the Jewish people are settled in the Holy Land and the Holy Temple stands in Jerusalem. It means that in the midst of studying a chapter of halachah, a spontaneous plea erupts from the depths of one's heart: "May it be Your will that the Holy Temple be rebuilt speedily in our days."
To better understand why the constant anticipation of its immediate realization is inseparable from the Jew's very concept of Redemption, we must first examine the centrality of Moshiach and the Redemption to Judaism itself.
In his introduction to the tenth chapter of the Talmudic tractate, Sanhedrin, Maimonides enumerates the thirteen basic principles of the Jewish faith. The first four principles deal with the belief in G-d: that G-d is the Original Cause upon which every creation is utterly dependent for its existence; that He is absolutely one and singular; that He is non-corporeal and timeless. The fifth principle establishes man's duty to serve Him and fulfill the purpose for which he was created. Principles six to eleven establish that G-d relates to humanity: that He communicates His will to man; that every word of the Torah was transmitted by G-d to Moses; that G-d observes and is concerned with the behavior of man; that He punishes the wicked and rewards the righteous. The final two principles deal with the era of Moshiach: the belief that there will arise a leader who will bring the entire world to recognize and serve the Creator, ushering in an era of universal peace and Divine perfection.
What does it mean when we say that something is a "basic principle" in Judaism? A simple definition would be that in order to qualify as a "believing Jew" one must accept the truth of these thirteen precepts. But the Torah clearly makes no such distinctions. As Maimonides himself writes in his eighth principle:
" ...This entire Torah, given to us by Moses, is from the mouth of the Al-mighty - namely, that it was communicated to him by G-d.... In this, there is no difference between the verses, `The sons of Ham were Kush and Mitzrayim,' `The name of his wife was Meithavel' and `Timna was a concubine,' and the verses, `I Am the L-rd your G-d' and `Hear O Israel, [the L-rd is our G-d, the L-rd is One]': all are from the mouth of the Al-mighty, all is the Torah of G-d, perfect, pure, holy and true..."
"Our sages have said: Anyone who believes that the entire Torah is from the mouth of the Al-mighty except for a single verse, is a heretic...."
So a "basic principle" is more than a required set of beliefs; that would apply to each and every word in the Torah. Rather, these are thirteen principles upon which everything else rests. The Hebrew word Maimonides uses is yesodot, "foundations": different parts of an edifice could conceivably exist independently of each other, but without the foundation, the entire building would collapse. So, too, each of these thirteen principles is a "foundation" to the entire Torah.
In other words, while every word in the Torah is equally important to the believer as a person, these principles are crucial to the faith itself. A person who does not accept that "Do not steal" is a divine commandment is no less a heretic than one who denies the existence of G-d; but belief in the rest of the Torah is not dependent upon the fact that G-d said not to steal. On the other hand, things like the existence of G-d, His absolute and exclusive power, His involvement in human affairs, and His communication of the Torah to man, obviously pre-require the whole of Judaism. Without these "foundations" the rest is virtually meaningless.
One difficulty, however, remains with this explanation: Why is the belief in Moshiach included among the foundations of the Jewish faith? Obviously, the concept of Moshiach is an important part of Judaism. The Torah speaks of it (in Deuteronomy 30 and Numbers 24, among others), the prophets are full of it. But could one not conceivably believe in the rest of the Torah without accepting its vision of a future perfect world?
Not In Heaven
The Torah details a most exacting and demanding code of behavior, governing every hour of the day, every phase of life, and every aspect of the human experience. It takes a lifetime of committed labor, tremendous self- discipline, and every iota of man's intellectual, emotional and spiritual prowess to bring one's life into utter conformity with the Torah's edicts and ideals.
Thus, there are two possible ways in which to view the Torah's vision of life. One may conceivably argue that the level of perfection expected by Torah is beyond feasible reach for a majority of people. From this perspective, Torah is an ideal to strive towards, a vision of absolute goodness designed to serve as a point of reference for imperfect man. A person ought to seek attaining this ideal -says this view- although he will probably never reach it, for he will much improve himself in the process.
The second view takes the Torah at its word: each and every individual is capable of, and expected to attain, the perfectly righteous and harmonious life it mandates. Torah is not an abstract ideal, but a practical and implementable blueprint for life. The Torah itself leaves no room for doubt on its view of the matter: "For the mitzvah which I command you this day," it states, "it is not beyond you nor is it remote from you. It is not in heaven... nor is it across the sea.... Rather, it is something that is very close to you, in your mouth, in your heart, that you may do it."
These two views reflect two different ways of looking at the essence of G-d's creation. If man is inherently or even partially evil, then obviously he can go either way. There is no reason to assume that he will, or even can, attain a state of perfect righteousness.
A world community that is utterly committed to goodness, in which every single individual acts in concert with the purpose for which he was created, can only be the dream of a chronic optimist, or of one who is hopelessly out of touch with "reality." Yet if one believes that the world is intrinsically good; that G-d has imbued His every creation with the potential to reflect His absolute goodness and perfection; then, one's concept of reality is completely different. Then, our currently harsh reality is the anomalous state, while the reality of Moshiach is the most natural thing in the world. In other words, where a person stands on Moshiach expresses his attitude vis-a-vis the entire Torah.
Is Torah's formula for life a pipe dream, or is it a description of the true nature of creation? If the Torah is nothing more than a theoretical utopia, then one does not expect a world free of greed, jealousy and hate any time in the near future. But if the Torah mirrors the essence of man, then one not only believes in a "future" Moshiach, but understands that the world is capable of instantaneously responding to his call. This explains why belief in Moshiach entails not only the conviction that he will "eventually" arrive, but the anticipation of his imminent coming.
In the words of Maimonides:
"The Twelfth Principle concerns the era of Moshiach: to believe and to validate his coming; not to think that it is something of the future - even if he tarries, one should await him...."
And in his Mishneh Torah, Maimonides states:
"One who does not believe in him, or one who does not anticipate his coming, not only denies the prophets, he denies the Torah itself."
When Moshiach is that very realistic possibility, for another moment to go by without the Redemption taking place is far, far more "unrealistic" (that is, less in keeping with the true nature of things) than the prospect of its immediate realization.
The Nature and Definition of Truth
Of course, man has been granted freedom of choice. But the choice between good and evil is not a choice of what to be - he cannot change his quintessential self - but the choice of how to act. Man can choose to express his true essence in his behavior, or choose to suppress it. Ultimately, the truth, by nature and definition, always comes to light.
So, while man can choose how to act in any given moment, the very nature of humanity, and of G-d's creation as a whole, mandates that it not only can, but will attain the perfection of the era of Moshiach.
Moshiach means that the true nature of creation will ultimately come to light. That "evil" is but the shallow distortion of this truth, and has no enduring reality. That man will free himself of hate and ignorance. That every human being will fulfill his divinely ordained role as outlined in the Torah, transforming the world into a place suffused with the wisdom, goodness and perfection of its Creator.
Moshiach means that the Torah is for real.