The only truly indispensable prelude to the geulah,
says the Rosh Yeshivah,
is that our aveiros must be addressed
Labor Pains by Eytan Kobre
Not long ago, I observed on these pages that most of the commentary in the frum media on the recent resurgence of anti-Semitism was focused on the perpetrators of the violence, or on what law enforcement or government or the media were or weren’t saying or doing. Precious little ink has been expended, however, on taking the uptick in Jew-hatred as a prompt to turn the lens inward, toward communal and individual introspection.
I cited the famous first Rambam in the laws of Ta’aniyos, setting forth that the Jewish response to tragedy and persecution is to engage in soul-searching, and that when that doesn’t happen, the troubles just repeat themselves until the message is received. I also related that once, during a very difficult time for Jews, the Brisker Rav was sitting with a group of people, each of whom sought to ascribe their travails to yet another cause.
Then the Brisker Rav spoke: “The ship Yonah Hanavi was fleeing on was filled with wicked idolaters, and when a storm kicked up at sea and threatened to sink the ship, he could easily have attributed it to their behavior. But instead, Yonah said to his fellow shipmates, ‘Cast me into the sea and the sea will quiet, for I know that it is because of me that this great storm has come.’ That is the hashkafah of a Torah Jew: “Because of me, this great storm.’”
But there’s another type of common reaction to difficult, confusing times like the ones we’re all living through right now. When unprecedented, cataclysmic events like the ones now shaking the globe occur, there’s a tendency to speak of them as portents of Mashiach, sure signs that the geulah is nigh. And indeed they may well be just that. The upheavals of ikvesa d’Meshicha and the disorienting dislocations of chevlei Mashiach are certainly addressed in authentic Torah sources. What, then, could possibly be amiss in linking them to events in our world?
The issue, however, isn’t whether such concepts are true. It is instead whether focusing on them might be not just irrelevant but perhaps even spiritually inimical. In Tishrei 5734, as the Yom Kippur War raged, Rav Eliezer Menachem Shach stood before the aron kodesh of Yeshivas Ponevezh and told an overflowing beis medrash: The above-mentioned Rambam writes that when in troubled times, people aren’t moved to cry out in repentance to Hashem, but instead say “this is the minhag ha’olam, it’s the way the world works,” they are cruelly inviting further troubles.
Attributing one’s troubles to living in the era of Mashiach, the Rosh Yeshivah explained, is a way of saying “this is the minhag ha’olam,” that this is just the way things are in the days preceding yemos haMashiach. That kind of thinking is an example of what the Torah refers to as halichah b’keri, treating events as random, since if events at large are merely a function of this being Mashiach’s tzeiten, then it has nothing to do with me and there’s no Heavenly wake-up call to which I need respond.
Elaborating this idea, Rav Moshe Mordechai Shulzinger writes of the danger when people respond to baffling, painful current events by quoting the words of Yeshayahu HaNavi, “Ki lo machshevosai machshevoseichem velo darcheichem derachai, ne’um Hashem -- My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are My ways your ways, says Hashem.” Sometimes if we’re saying that what befalls us is the result of Divine mysteries to which only He is privy, it can let us humans off the hook, for how can we possibly be expected to decipher His lofty, inscrutable intentions?
Because we can, indeed, know what Hashem wants of us in sending difficulties our way: They serve as prods to bettering ourselves and making our way back to Him. At times it might be possible to use the Divining rod called middah k’neged middah to discern that Hashem is seeking something very specific from us. But even without that value-added yardstick, is there someone among us who really struggles to find an area or two -- or ten -- that needs major improvement?
In his commentary to Mishlei (16:4), the Vilna Gaon writes that although in days of yore, we had nevuah, and later, ruach hakodesh, to guide our decisions, now that we are bereft of such direct access to knowledge of the Divine will, our responsibility is a much more modest, yet well-defined one: To align ourselves with that Will by fulfilling the positive and negative mitzvos precisely as set forth in the Torah.
During one particularly rough period for Klal Yisrael, a group of Jews posed an anguished query to the Brisker Rav: “Rebbe, mah yih’yeh? What will be?” To which the Rav replied, “What will be, I don’t know, since I’m not a navi. But what I do know precisely is what must be done, what is muttar to do and what is assur to do…”
But the fact that the chevlei Mashiach cannot be invoked as some sort of free pass to shirk the responsibility we bear for our actions, has a deeply hopeful flip-side to it, too. In Machsheves Mussar (2:387), Rav Shach writes that the severe pre-Messianic birth-pangs are not a given, since Mashiach can appear at any moment, with or without those pains having preceded his arrival.
The only truly indispensable prelude to the geulah, says the Rosh Yeshivah, is that our aveiros must be addressed, and our spiritual slates wiped clean before we can be redeemed. If we do so through teshuvah – which, as the Rambam (Hilchos Teshuvah 7:5) states, Klal Yisrael will indeed do before the geulah -- we can spare ourselves the need for the soul-cleansing effects of the yissurim known as chevlei Mashiach. May it be so in our time.
Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 804. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at firstname.lastname@example.org