An old Jewish folktale tells of a small town, and near it was a monastery in decline. The monastery’s grounds were overgrown and dusty and it had only six monks left, all over 70 years old, living out their lives without much hope or joy. As it happened, near this monastery there was a little hut where a certain Rabbi would come for hitbod’dut, for solitary time and meditation. One day, the Abbot of the monastery, in a moment of desperation, decided to go to speak to the Rabbi about their problem, thinking that perhaps he could help them reverse their decline, their loss of direction and their loss of spirit. He came to the Rabbi and poured out his heart to him.
The Rabbi told him, “We have similar problems. We have synagogues that are empty and families that are crumbling.” And the two men embraced and wept. Then they sat and studied Torah together until it was time for the Abbot to leave. As he left, he asked the Rabbi, “Is there anything more that you can tell us?” “Yes,” the Rabbi replied, “One of you is the Messiah!”
The Abbot went back to the monastery and told his brother monks what the Rabbi had said. During the next weeks, they all thought about it and wondered, “If the Rabbi’s words are true, which one of us is the Messiah?” As they thought about it, they realized that each of the brothers had a quality that might mean that he was the Messiah. Brother Thomas was very kind. The Abbot was their leader and the holiest among them. Brother Timothy had taken a vow of silence, so perhaps that qualified him. And could it even be Brother Joseph, who had a sharp and critical tongue, but whose judgments were always accurate.
With this in mind, the monks began to treat each other with greater respect, because they saw their brothers as if each could be the Messiah. And their attitude toward themselves improved as well, because although one was so bold as to think that he was the Messiah, still it was possible. So they learned respect, which means “to take a second look,” and in so doing took a second look at one another.
And this new attitude changed the whole atmosphere at the monastery. The grounds were fixed up. People started coming by to speak to the monks. The monastery reconnected with the world and became a place where people could reconnect with one another. And they always remembered the Rabbi’s special gift to them.
I think of this story this week in particular, as Parashat Vayechi, with which we conclude this year’s reading of the Book of Genesis, tells us: “Jacob called for his sons and said, ‘Assemble yourselves and I will tell you what will befall you in the end of days” (Genesis 49:1). The Talmudic sages wonder how Jacob could tell the future. Was he prophetic, perhaps even messianic? Ultimately, the sages conclude that Jacob had no messianic power, suggesting in a Midrash that he was about to reveal the secrets of the “End of Days,” but at the last moment God withheld this secret knowledge from him. Instead, Jacob describes the character of his sons in his deathbed blessings to them. From this we may learn that while the Talmudic sages certainly believed in the End of Days and the Messiah, they preferred to downplay the possibility that God’s Messiah bore responsibility for making the world a better place. No Divine miracle, no Messiah, will make the world into a place fit for the presence of God. That job, they taught us, is ours alone.
Each one of us has the power to make the world a better place. In that sense, anyone of us could be the “Messiah.” As the title of a book by Rabbi Robert Levine on the Messianic concept in Judaism suggests, “there’s no Messiah, and you’re it.”
Think about it…and then get started making a difference.
P.S. I wish each of you a happy, healthy and fulfilling “Gregorian” New Year, and hope that we spend much of it together here at Oheb Shalom!