Jews have a complex relationship with redemption. On the one hand (most of what I write has an ‘on the one hand’ in it) we are called upon to look forward, indeed to yearn, for redemption. When discussing the great and awesome judgement to which a person will be subjected after his days on Earth are over, a key question that will be asked of each of us is whether we yearned for the promised redemption (Shabbos 31a). If we are meant to continuously yearn for the Messianic redemption, then why are we taught (Sanhedrin 97a) that there are three things that spring upon a person while he is unaware, the arrival of the Messiah, a lost item that he stumbles upon and (the bite of) a scorpion? It seems that for all of our yearning for Messianic redemption, it only comes when a person isn’t looking!
The answer seems to lie in the depth of our belief system. We don’t believe that the status quo can radically change. From the micro level (can I really alter some aspect of my character or repair some act for which I must repent) to the macro level (can the messed up situation/world ever be set straight) we tend to disbelieve. On the downside, we find the prophet teaching us (Lamentations 4:12) that even the kings of nations, did not believe that Jerusalem would be breached and that the Temple would be destroyed. In fact, this left ample room for false prophets to declare that there was nothing to be concerned about, that the Temple would be safe and that the People need not take major corrective steps. Their message met the basic feature of human belief – in the status quo. Things don’t change; indeed they cannot change. And yet the Temple was destroyed. From one day to the next the situation of the Temple and of the Jewish People was altered dramatically. Similarly, we have difficulty believing that our situation will again change and that Messianic redemption will indeed arrive. Thus two things can co-exist. We can yearn for the Messianic redemption and it can only come when we are not looking. They come together as beliefs. We must believe in the prophecies of redemption while bowing to the human nature of belief in the status quo. There is no other way to live for if I were to imagine that the situation will immediately change then it would not matter much how recklessly I enlarge my overdraft. And if I do not believe that the situation can change then I will lose all hope and become a desperate ‘fixer’ of things over which I have no control. I need to find the balance between the two belief systems; the necessary belief in redemption and the belief in the status quo. One keeps me going and one keeps me from going too far.
There is a big catch in this story, though. There is a piercing comment of the Maharsha on the above-mentioned Gemara about the three things that spring on a person when he is unaware. He decodes the Gemara as follows: The Messaih’s arrival will be for some as joyous as finding a lost treasure, and for others it will be as the bite of a scorpion. Both are sudden, but one is suddenly brilliant and wonderful and one is suddenly horrible. How could the same event be both wonderful for some and horrible for others. Likely that has a great deal to do with the nature of the yearning. I recall as a youngster hearing about a simple Jew in a small town who heard a great rabbi speak about the coming of the Messiah. Glowing and excited, the fellow ran home to tell his wife the good news. The Messiah is coming and we’ll all be going back to the Holy Land, to the rebuilt Temple, and so on. His wife’s response took him aback. She challenged him, ‘but what about our cow?’ So the simple Jew ran back to the rabbi who was still at the Synagogue and put her question before him, ‘perhaps we don’t want to go to the Holy Land; we have a cow here.’ To which the rabbi responded with exclaim, ‘but what about the Cossacks!’ Ah, now he clearly understood. He went back to his wife and proclaimed, ‘we shouldn’t want to stay here, what about the Cossacks!’ She thought for a moment and sent her husband back to the rabbi. She had a suggestion. ‘Leave us here with our cow, and take the Cossacks to the Holy Land!’
There are many people whose yearning for deliverance, if it exists at all, is simply for relief from the difficulties of their daily lives. And while I have no issue with such prayers and while I would wish the same for myself and for those I care about, there is more to redemption than relief from difficulties. There is universal recognition of what a human being was designed to be – a mentsch who is then crowned with Commandments (Mitzvos) and above that crowned with Torah. The universal recognition of what it means to be truly human in the Creator’s image is the piercing message of redemption. To cut through the nonsense and seemingly endless stream of smallness when people hold up false values and put other humans down. To wipe away the disgrace of misguided people who have replaced the glorious Torah definitions of exalted humanity with their own pathetic definitions of human achievement. For those who are yearning for distorted humanity to prevail then redemption will be a scorpion’s bite. For those who are holding fast to the finest Torah definitions of Man, the redemption is a found treasure. It will always be unexpected because of the nature of our status-quo belief, but it can be profoundly glorious if we are yearning in the right direction.
Oh, by the way, the way to demonstrate the yearning for exalted humanity is to strive towards it with actions that reflect that yearning. We’re fragile and error prone, but if we keep climbing the steps, there will be an elevator that will take us to the top.