What's This about Messiah?

Dear Reb Shohama, This time of year the theme of Messiah rings in my ears constantly, due to the Christmas season. And then I notice that many of the prayers in my synagogue’s prayer book also talk about the coming of the Messiah. I am a modern person. How do I make sense of this idea? Puzzled in Omaha, Jeremy

Dear Jeremy, I puzzled over this issue for many years, as it defies logic. However, I have come to understand that many religious traditions celebrate Messianic figures, people who brought extraordinary blessing and wisdom into the world, and that there is much of value in this.

Traditional Judaism counts belief in mashiakh Imashiach), or messiah as one of its main principles, and Christianity learned this from Jewish teachings. Judaism teaches that there have been many candidates for Messiah over the millennia, but that the true Messiah will be recognized because he will bring with him an era of peace and plenty, a time when the lion will lie down with the lamb.

For Christians, Jesus is the Messiah whose return they await. One contemporary group of Jews is also Messiah-centered. The late Lubavitcher Rebbe, is seen by many of his followers as the Messiah. Lubavitcher Hassidim (followers) pray to him, asking him to intercede on their behalf. It is possible to fax letters with requests for spiritual guidance and intervention to his grave, which is a sacred site for visits by those who revere him either as a great spiritual leader or as the messiah.

Believing someone to be a messiah occurs occasionally in Jewish life. Rabbi Akiva, during Roman times, believed the Jewish military leader, Bar Kochba to be the messiah. Bar Kochba fit the biblical understanding of messiah, which was to be a person who would lead the Jewish people back to freedom in the promised land of Israel.That did not happen, and later during the Ottoman Empire, another candidate for messiah arose named Shabbati Tzi. When the Caliph offered him death or conversion to Islam, he converted. So far no one in history has proven to actually be the messiah.

Many contemporary Jews, including myself, belief in a Messianic Age rather than an individual Messiah. Rabbi Goldie Milgram interprets the Kabbalistic teaching on this as follows: The original light of creation is present as the soul spark within every aspect of creation. In a human this is your soul spark. This spark gets covered over by a klippah, a husk or shell. This husk is made out of the by-product of a broken or traumatized heart, unawareness, as in environmental insensitivity, and much more.

When you do the work of lifting the klippot [pl] from your life, your light is able to shine out. When enough of us do this, we will bring messiah consciousness so that the energy on the planet shifts irrevocably towards goodness, love and cooperation. There is research dedicated to this, described in the story that follows.

The Hundredth Monkey

This is a paraphrase of a report by Ken Keyes, Jr. in his book The Hundredth Monkey; it is my favorite messianic story:

In 1952 on the Japanese island of Koshima scientists were providing monkeys with sweet potatoes dropped in the sand. The monkeys liked the taste of the raw sweet potatoes, but they found the dirt unpleasant. An 18 month old female found she could solve the problem by washing the potatoes in a nearby stream. She taught this trick to her mother. Her playmates also learned this new way and they taught their mothers, too.

This cultural innovation was gradually copied by various monkeys as the scientists kept watching them. Between 1952 and 1958, a certain number of Koshima monkeys learned to wash the sandy sweet potatoes to make them more tasty. Only the adults who imitated their children learned this social improvement.

Then something startling took place. In the autumn of 1958, a certain number of Koshima monkeys were washing sweet potatoes—the exact number is not known. Let us suppose that when the sun rose one morning there were 99 monkeys on Koshima Island who had learned to wash their sweet potatoes. Let’s further suppose that later that morning, the hundredth monkey learned to wash potatoes. THEN IT HAPPENED!

By that evening almost everyone in the tribe was washing sweet potatoes before eating them. The added energy of this hundredth monkey somehow created an ideological breakthrough. But the most surprising thing observed by these scientists was that the habit of washing sweet potatoes then spontaneously leapt over the sea—colonies of monkeys on other islands and the mainland troop of monkeys began washing their sweet potatoes.

Thus, when a certain critical number achieves an awareness, this new awareness may be communicated from mind to mind. Although the exact number may vary, the Hundredth Monkey Phenomenon means that when only a limited number of people know of a new way, it may remain the conscious property of these people. But there is a point at which if only one more person tunes in to this awareness, the field is strong enough so that this awareness reaches almost everyone.

The underlying belief behind Messiah is that humans are G*d’s partners in perfecting the world.

Jeremy, may you shine your golden light of love and compassion, and be part of the Messianic transformation of our world.

Reb Shohama

PS There is a new book on the market that I think you would find interesting—There is No Messiah…And You’re It, the Stunning Transformation of Judaism’s Most Provocative Idea, by Robert N. Levine, published by Jewish Lights.