I don’t believe in the coming of the Messiah. Despite the moving and inspirational affirmations of generations of Jews across the centuries who expressed their faith in the Mashiach (Hebrew for Messiah), I cannot bring myself to believe in a personal Messiah who will deliver us from catastrophe and usher in an era of peace, serenity and faith. What I do believe in is the possibility of a Messianic era which, in my mind, is nothing less than all of humanity creating an existence marked by tolerance, co-existence, acceptance of the other and peace. We’re clearly not there yet, nor do I necessarily believe that humankind will reach that state of being in my lifetime. But I am convinced that we have the potential to get there and that religion, at its best, can inspire its adherents to work for such an existence. The task of reaching that existence is squarely in our hands, and we shouldn’t expect Divine intervention to make it happen for us.
The Torah teaches this same idea. In this week’s parasha, Beshalach, we read the final chapter in the story of the Exodus from Egypt, the rescue of the Israelites at the shore of the sea as they were being pursued by the Egyptian army. As the story goes, Moses responds to his people’s cries of despair by telling them to “stand by and witness the deliverance the Lord will work for you today.” But in the next verse, God rebuts Moses’ assertion that the people need only stand by to achieve redemption: “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward.” To paraphrase God’s rebuke, He says to Moses something like: “You think that they can just sit by and have no skin in this game? You think they just have to stand by and I’ll solve their problems? Think again!”
Responding to the idea that Moses advised the Israelites to simply stand by and wait for God to save them, a Chasidic master (whose name has been lost to history but whose teaching has endured) taught the following:
“The Kotzker rebbe greeted his teacher, Rabbi Shlomo Leib: ‘I love you deeply, but why is it that you cry out to the Holy One each day to send the Messiah? Why don’t you cry out to our brethren, the people Israel, to repent their evil ways? Then the messiah will actually come! This is the meaning of ‘Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites.'”
Judaism has never supported the idea that we need only rely on God to make our world and our lives whole. That’s our job. Indeed, we already have quite an arsenal of Divine gifts to make it happen—wisdom, compassion, scientific knowledge and skill, and love. In the words of a well-known proverbial saying that originated in ancient Greece and found its way into the Bible (both Jewish and Christian), “God helps those who help themselves.” We are expected to solve our own problems, using the resources and gifts at our disposal.
That is a message that should resonate in the times in which we are living. Whatever problems and challenges we are facing in our country and in the world, don’t wait for someone else (especially God) to solve them.
Each of us must become an activist. Pick your cause. Pick your strategy.
As God said to Moses and the Israelites, “Don’t cry out to me…go forward!”