By Barry Jacobson
As we finish the seven weeks of nechamah and enter the Yomim Nora’im, an interesting and unusual Gemara comes to mind. The opinion of Rebbe Hillel (not the famous Tanna, Hillel) in Sanhedrin is “Ein Mashiach l’Yisrael, shekvar achaluhu biymei Chizkiyah”—there is no Mashiach for the Jewish people, because they already used up their tokens in the generation of King Chizkiyah. Rashi explains that many miraculous victories occurred at the time. Perhaps the generation deserved this in light of another Gemara, which says that it was an exceptionally righteous and learned generation, in which even small children were expert in the complex laws of tumah v’taharah.
On the surface, Rebbe Hillel’s opinion (which is certainly not the normative view) is most depressing. Does this mean that all of our hopes for redemption, a better life and an end to our suffering, will never materialize?
Quite possibly, not at all. What Rebbe Hillel may be telling us is that we must figure out a way to solve our own problems. We are big boys. Instead of waiting around for a miracle, why not use our G‑d-given intelligence, our ability to speak to and understand each other, and our physical capabilities and ingenuity—all of which are truly the most amazing miracle of all—to figure out a way to create the society we all aspire to have?
Many people suffer from excruciating health problems. Just this past week, a horrific story was heard from China about a six-year-old boy whose eyes were gouged out. Aside from his physical pain, he keeps asking, Why doesn’t the sun rise; why is it always dark? While we always daven for refuah and we hope that Mashiach will heal all our ills, perhaps we must actively encourage more advanced medical research among members of our community. In the future, I hope to write in more detail about this.
Many of us hope Mashiach will bring world peace. The pesukim certainly seem to indicate that this will indeed occur, eventually. “Lo yisa goy el goy cherev, v’lo yilmedu od milchamah.” But does this mean we must wait for some supernatural occurrence? Perhaps we can bring it about on our own, by spreading the traditional Jewish message of kindness. Maybe we can even learn a thing or two from our less-religious brethren who work under the banner of “tikun olam.”
We often hear that the main barrier to world peace is the State of Israel, and specifically the conflict with the Palestinians. We often think we can solve the problem simply by unleashing Israel’s incredible military might, which is always hamstrung by considerations of world opinion. Israel always uses the least amount of force necessary, often bombing deserted fields and buildings, or merely buzzing an enemy capital, rather than inflicting actual harm. In addition, we constantly try to step up hasbarah, and demonstrate that Israel has a deep historic connection to the land, and a right to a small sliver of territory with defensible borders for a uniquely Jewish state. If the Arabs can have 22 states, and the Muslims can have 57 states, why can’t we have just one, without constant delegitimization and dispute? And there are many additional arguments that can be mustered, as well. We often try to show the world how we are the only true democracy in the Middle East, and that we are successful economically, and continually produce advanced scientific work in many areas.
But the reason the conflict persists is that the more we demonstrate our physical strength, and the more we succeed with our arguments, the more we crush the pride of our neighbors. And it is this crushed pride that is the true source of the conflict, especially because their religion seemingly tells them that Jews are supposed to be second-class citizens. The only way to end this conflict is to figure out a way to instill a sense of self-worth among our adversaries. And that is the most difficult part of all. In the future, we may elaborate on this point, as well.
Other pressing issues are the tuition crisis, and the expense of maintaining a religious household. But it is interesting to note that, according to a 2012 listing, total net worth of the top ten Jewish billionaires is a staggering $200 billion. A quick back-of-the-envelope calculation finds that even if they would donate just 2.5% of their wealth to Jewish education, it could create an endowment of $5 billion. Invested at 5% annual growth, this would yield $250 million per year. If there are 100,000 Jewish day school students in need, that would cover $2,500 per child, yearly, would certainly make a difference for a large family. In other words, the money already exists within the Jewish community to largely ameliorate the tuition crisis.
But the problem is that many of these individuals have absolutely no interest in their Jewish heritage. A simple kiruv program for billionaires is not the answer. Some of these people have deeply negative impressions of religious Jews. This may in large part be based on the way some members of the religious community behave, individually, and on a possible reputation for primitive and intolerant ways of thinking in our community, collectively. If we want assistance from our nonreligious brethren, we must find ways to make our lifestyle and beliefs palatable to them and to modern society as a whole, and provide a valid reason why they should want to ensure Jewish continuity.
So, in summary, many problems that we daven for actually do not require supernatural solutions, but rather may be within our control, using our G‑d-given talents. Perhaps this is the message of Rebbe Hillel. As we approach the Yomim Nora’im, maybe we should take the time to envision the utopia we all hope for, and use that as a yardstick for gauging our actions. Without a concrete goal and a game plan, it is easy to fall right back into bad habits. Even miracles, as in the time of Chizkiyah, do not have a lasting inspirational effect. Later generations backslide. Only when we convince ourselves that the mitzvos are not just meaningless rituals, but are the backbone for a just and successful society, can we build the utopia we desire.
Every musician begins with tedious and boring practice of scales. Even world-class violinists may spend half the day on scales. But at some point, a musician progresses to the point that he understands his instrument so well, it becomes an extension of himself, and it can express the musician’s very own feelings. The instrument sings. At that point, musicians stop finding practice to be a chore, but rather they find it a source of immense enjoyment. This is the ideal in Judaism, as well. The Torah is designed to create a symphony of life. Once one grasps that point, the performance of mitzvos starts to have a deeper meaning and is easier to maintain.
May we all merit a happy and healthy year, and make progress towards actualizing the messianic vision we all desire. If we try our best, the Ribbono shel Olam will surely step in and complete the rest. v
The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.