LAST WEEK I learned 97a in Maseches Sanhedrin, a page with which I am quite familiar. It starts an End-of-Days section, and I have already referenced it many times. Nevertheless, like with respect to many sections of Talmud, it is always possible to gain a deeper appreciation of the familiar just by reviewing it once again.
It just takes something to change a little bit to alter the way you see something. The material stays the same, but we constantly change, and so does the world in which we live. And those adjustments adjust the way we see the same thing, making it easier, and sometimes less easy, to appreciate an idea.
The Talmud focuses on a couple of “signs” that Moshiach is imminent. One of them is an extreme lack of truth, another is a large increase in arrogance, and a third is how governments will become heretical. When the world reaches such a point, the Talmud says, then a person should get their Shabbos clothes ready to be ready to greet Moshiach.
In the course of the discussion, the Talmud gives a year-by-year description of what to expect just in advance of Moshiach’s arrival. It predicts that there will be talk of his coming in the sixth year, and war during the seventh year, the Shmittah year, which begins this Rosh Hashanah, b”H. Moshiach Ben Dovid is supposed to come in the eighth year, right after the Shmittah year ends.
The Talmud itself questions that many Shmittah cycles have come and gone and Moshiach has yet to reveal himself. I say “reveal” because tradition says that there is a potential Moshiach Ben Yosef and Moshiach Ben Dovid in every generation waiting to be actualized when the time is right. The problem is getting to the “right” time.
In any case, the Talmud says that the signs have to follow the order mentioned in the Talmud, but haven’t. When the time is finally right, then they will, and Moshiach will come as prophesied and anticipated.
How great would it be if that time was now?
UNTIL NOW THE time has been more wrong than right. Predictions have been made which have been ignored by history. Potential moments for Moshiach’s arrival have passed unactualized, resulting in another sign the Talmud mentions, the giving up on the arrival of Moshiach altogether.
One thing is for certain: divine patience far outlasts human patience. But then again, when one day for G–D equals one thousand years for man, Moshiach’s arrival is destined to occur, to G–D, within the same week Creation was made. And it doesn’t hurt to be the One Who gets to decide when he comes, knowing exactly what has to be accomplished before he does.
Take Menashe for example, Chizkiah Hamelech’s son. Chizkiah was righteous and had a prophecy that his son would be the opposite. Therefore, he chose to avoid marriage and children altogether, until Yeshayah told him he was making a grave mistake that would cost him his life in this world, and the next one (Brochos 10a). He promptly married and had Menashe, who ended up being every bit as evil as prophesied.
But then Menashe did the completely unpredictable, he did teshuvah, which was accepted by Heaven. According to the Talmud, Menashe’s teshuvah has acted as an example and inspiration to those who may have thought that they were too evil to do teshuvah and be accepted. Menashe’s case proves otherwise through the generations, something, apparently, that had not been told to Chizkiah when he got the bad news.
Similarly, in this week’s parsha, when the righteous soldiers who had been led by the Messianic-like Pinchas, returned from their battle with Midian, they caused Moshe Rabbeinu to become very angry. Rather than kill the women of Midian who caused so many Jewish men to sin, they brought them back as captives, and that upset their leader.
Consequently, Moshe lost his prophecy regarding the laws of kashering the booty with which the army returned. Déjà vu. Wasn’t this what happened with the rock at Mei Merivah, except that there it was the Erev Rav who annoyed him? These soldiers had been handpicked because of their righteousness. How could Moshe have doubted them?
Something similar had happened back in Parashas Shemini, after the deaths of Nadav and Avihu. When Aharon and his sons had not eaten a sacrifice they were supposed to eat, Moshe angrily questioned them. It turned out that their status as mourners had prompted a different halachah, and Moshe was forced to admit his error, which he happily did.
Granted that Moshe Rabbeinu was not perfect, yet he was the greatest prophet to have ever lived. Furthermore, as G–D Himself testified, he didn’t have a selfish bone in his body, giving heart and soul to the success of the Jewish mission. He gave up his personal life for the sake of his national life, and like Pinchas his grand-nephew, he only got jealous on behalf of G–D.
So where was G–D in all of this, and why didn’t He save Moshe from all of these “errors”?
SOMETIMES IT IS a free will issue, and a person has to be allowed to make their own decision and mistake, if necessary, although this has sub-clauses too. There are times that G–D even saves us from ourselves, from the dumb and reckless decisions that we make. But not enough to rely on it from the outset.
It was different for Moshe Rabbeinu however. He no longer needed to be tested. G–D may have fine-tuned him as a prophet and leader from time to time, but whatever tested his patience had more to do with the nation than with him. This is why even his “punishment” to die outside of Eretz Yisroel is explained in terms of the needs of the Jewish people and the Erev Rav.
When Menashe visited Rav Ashi, the author of the Talmud, many years later in a dream, the latter asked him, “If you were such a talmid chacham, why did you turn to idol worship?” Menashe answered him, “Had you been there, you would have run after me to do the same!”
Oh, well that answers the question, doesn’t it?
Not really. In fact, not at all. If anything, it sounds as if Menashe was telling Rav Ashi, “I really didn’t want to worship idols, but this irresistible force overcame our generation and compelled us to. Had you been there, you too would have become caught up in it, as smart and righteous as you are, and made the same grave error!”
Well, that’s scary. A person can spend their whole life becoming righteous, and then be made to stumble because of some outside factor that they can’t control, but G–D can? After Elisha ben Abuya became a heretic they asked, what went wrong? The answer given is that it had to do with an occurrence at his bris, which he certainly had not been responsible for.
Perhaps had Rebi Akiva known about this old “blemish,” he wouldn’t have chosen Elisha to accompany him into “Pardes." The risk was too great, and instead Elisha ben Abuya would have remained a respected talmid chacham and not the spurned epikores he became. Had it not been for his student Rebi Meir, Acher, as he became called, would have never made it to the World-to-Come!
And yet when G–D asked Hoshea Hanavi how to deal with his generation which was heavily involved in illicit relationships, and Hoshea said to wipe them out, G–D disagreed. Instead, G–D gave him an inside look at the negative spiritual energy of his time, so that he would instead have mercy on his generation, and pray for their salvation.
IF SOMEONE IS caught doing something offensive, we get angry at them. We assume from the start they should have known better, and that they simply acted recklessly. They need to be punished to teach them to behave better in the future.
RIf it turns out that if the person was orphaned since a young age and wandered the streets since then, our mercy is invoked. Yes, they acted terribly. But were they ever taught in any meaningful way how to behave better, or why? If not, how could they not have listened to their yetzer hara and do the yetzer hara thing?
There’s a lot of evil in the world today. But more than likely the people perpetrating it were not born evil. Something happened along the way that knocked them off course, or didn’t happen to put them on course. Society today is what a society becomes when it does not use the Torah as its guiding star.
Who is responsible? That’s a good question that only G–D can answer, especially since the answer might be G–D Himself. He has an agenda, only part of which He revealed to man through the Torah. It’s all good, and it is all for the good, but it has often included things that we have seen as “bad.” From G–D’s perspective, it is the only way to get to the greatest good.
For this reason, there are two “guns” that we have to holster. One is always making sure to do the thing that the Torah teaches us to do to the best of our ability. The other is belief in G–D’s plan for Creation and trust in His methods, especially for those times when we have shot straight with our other “gun” and still missed our target.
At the end of the day, Moshe deserved to know why G–D increased the slavery in Egypt before freeing the nation, so Moshe wouldn’t complain about it after and lose the right to enter Eretz Yisroel. He deserved to know why G–D had pulled His Shechinah away from the rock, so Moshe could have sanctified the name of G–D by remaining patient and only talking to the rock. He also deserved to be able to remain calm when seeing the captive women of Midian, so he could deal with the situation halachically, as he did shortly after.
But in each case, G–D had other plans. Do we know what they were? Not necessarily, the same way we’re having a difficult time fitting into the final redemption the events of today. Why must history look like this right before Moshiach comes? There are some answers, but who knows if any of them are right?
The only thing we do know, because we have been told, is that they are signs that redemption is imminent. We’ll have to wait until after it comes to understand why.