Rabbi Israel Chait
The Jewish Press
338 Third Ave.
Brooklyn, NY 11215
21 June 1992
20 Sivan 5752
To the Editor:
I was asked to respond to a letter written to The Jewish Press, and I wish to respond to this letter as well as to other articles I have noticed over the past two weeks. Let me say at the outset that I did not intend to target any specific group as my article was not political in nature.
I wished to point out that there is a correct awaiting for Moshiach and an incorrect one. The correct one is as Rambam describes, to look forward to a time when one will be able to involve one’s self in Torah to the highest possible degree. The incorrect one or the one that falls short of the mark of perfection is characterized by a preoccupation with Midrashim and predictions concerning Moshiach. This preoccupation is symptomatic of an unhealthy attitude towards the messianic era. It indicates the person is being drawn towards the idea of Moshiach for an inappropriate reason. He finds in it a panacea for all his problems.
Rambam explains in several of his writings that most people’s unhappiness is due to their imperfections, not to their lack of material goods. This can be clearly seen in our society where luxuries abound, yet people remain unhappy. If people take flight into fantasy concerning the coming of Moshiach instead of realizing the true source of their unhappiness, they are forfeiting the true good Torah offers them and are wasting their lives. They are approaching neither a “fear of” nor a “love of G-d”.
The true good for man must be known by every Jew, scholar or otherwise. Every Jew must believe in all thirteen principles of faith, not just the twelfth, which is the coming of the Messiah. The eleventh, that of reward and punishment, demands a knowledge of the true good as is obvious from Rambam’s formulation of this principle in his commentary on the Mishnah in Sanhedrin. It is for this reason he prefaced the thirteen principles of faith with a lengthy discussion of the true good for man. We do not tell the ordinary person to indulge in materialistic fantasies that are harmful to his soul, so that he await the coming of the Messiah. Rather, we tell him to adjust his sights to Torah, that he realize there is a true good for man which is the study of Torah and that this good will be available to the highest degree with the coming of the Messiah.
It should be clear that a mitzvah of the Torah is a very delicate matter. Each mitzvah and each idea is formulated with the utmost precision. Any deviation from true Torah concepts by ignorant and misguided people no matter how well intentioned can only lead to great harm. The ignorant cannot truly be righteous is a basic tenet of our faith. Those without knowledge must turn to the scholars for guidance. The mere performance of a mitzvah is no guarantee of its efficacy. Even the greatest mitzvah, learning Torah, is of no value if done improperly. The Talmud states that if one studies Torah for the express purpose of refuting others, it would be better if he were never born.
Not only Rambam, but Rashi places a limitation on one’s activities regarding the coming of the Messiah. In Ketubot 111a Rashi states, “they [the Jews of the diaspora] should not press (for the end of time); they should not make too many supplications for this [the coming of the Messiah], more than is necessary.” From Rashi it is clear that an unrestrained petitioning for the coming of Messiah is prohibited.
Ramban in his famous disputation at Barcelona criticized the king for his mystical overestimation of the Messiah, which caused the king to be totally blinded from seeing the purpose of man’s earthly existence (Disputation at Barcelona, 47).
The subject of Moshiach is fraught with potential disaster if it is unbridled by Torah knowledge. Our history reveals a long series of such disasters, from the famous Shabbtai Zvi to other less famous false messiahs. A major religion that has all but devoured our people was founded on a false notion of the Messiah. These people gave way to primitive emotions, idolatrous in nature, against which the Torah has warned us. Even today hundreds of our youth are being converted to alien religious cults in the name of messianism. These movements are characterized not by Chochma, or knowledge, but by fervor and emotional appeal. To say there is no wrong or dangerous way of perceiving Messiah is not only to go against our Torah scholars, but to deny reality. In this mitzvah as with any other we must be guided totally by Torah knowledge.
The aforementioned writer states further, “there are times when a Jew cannot rely on his intellect or emotions and must rely totally upon something higher as with his will.” Similarly, he states, “there are special times such as during an act of mesiras nefesh [sacrificing one’s life] when sechel [intelligence] may not be the deciding factor between right and wrong.” I maintain that such an idea is erroneous and against everything we believe in Torah. All mitzvos and especially mesiras nefesh where one’s life is at stake must be done only with the careful understanding of halacha, or else one is michayav benafsho, culpable at the expense of his life. According to the writer we can do away with the suggyos in shas [categorical areas in Talmud] that deal with guarding one’s life and when and how one is to be moser nefesh [sacrifice life] and rely instead on “something higher.” There is nothing higher in Yahadus than the Tzelem Elokim [intellect] which Rishonim have defined as the sechel of man, that which permits him to perceive G-d’s knowledge to the degree that man is capable of perceiving it. (For a brief secondary source see Eyun Tefilla on the brocha asher yatzar es haadam betzelmo.)
A recent article mentioned that many Rishonim including Rambam made predictions of Moshiach. Actually, Rambam did not make a prediction of Moshiach but of the return of prophecy to Israel. Rambam explains in Iggeres Taiman that Saadia Gaon, due to specific circumstances, was coerced into breaking the rule of predicting Moshiach. This does not mean in any way that the halacha of the Rambam and the scholars is compromised or that we need not understand or pay heed to their admonition. These Rishonim were operating on the principle of Ais laasos lashem heferu Torasecha which means that at certain times it is in the hands of the gedolim to determine that a law created to safeguard Torah be broken since a greater threat to Torah would be created by keeping this law. It is incorrect to suggest that we imitate these sages and not follow the halacha of the Rambam. Rambam warns against the practice of imitating great sages in his eight chapters (chapter 4). One should be cautious when presenting to people who do not know the ins and outs of halacha, facts that lead them to conclude that our sages were hypocritical; that Rambam, for instance, said one thing and did just the opposite. This makes a mockery of Torah and leads people to believe that our Torah system makes no sense.
On another point, when Rambam states, “anyone who does not believe in him [Moshiach] or who doesn’t wait for his coming not only denies the other prophets, but the Torah and our teacher Moshe,” he does not mean that anyone who does not eagerly await the Messiah is one who denies Torah. To deny something is to say it is not true. If one is not perfected enough to anxiously look forward to the Messiah he is not yet a kofer, one who denies. The word mechakeh means to wait for; the word metzapeh means to await anxiously. What Rambam means by aino mechakeh is that the person has lost patience waiting. He believes the arrival of the Messiah has been postponed and he will not appear in the immediate future. He ceases to wait for him. This is clear from the Rambam’s formulation in his twelfth principle where he states, “he [a person] should not think that he [the Messiah] has been delayed, but if he [the Messiah] tarries, wait for him.” Similarly we say in Ani Maamin, “and even though he tarries, in spite of this I wait for him each day that he may come.” The idea is that the length of time should not diminish one’s belief in the possibility of his coming in the immediate future. One is a kofer only if he denies the imminence of his coming, not if he fails to eagerly await him.
The writer also mentioned the mitzvah to love G-d, maintaining it is essentially emotional. According to Rambam it is based totally on knowledge as he explains clearly in laws concerning the foundations of Torah, chapter 2 law 2. For Rambam love of and fear of G-d are two sides of one coin. It is a desire to know G-d and an awe of Him that one experiences when he perceives G-d’s infinite wisdom. This state, which involves emotion cannot be induced by any other means than knowledge. Rambam continues to explain this in the last of the laws concerning repentance, where he says “and according to the knowledge will be the love; if [the knowledge] is little [the love] will be little, and if [the knowledge] great [the love will be] great.” In other words the love is directly proportional to the knowledge; it cannot exceed it.
May we be zocheh [meritorious] to see the day described by the prophet when the world will be filled with the knowledge of G-d “as the waters cover the sea” so that we may pursue the study of Torah with love and kindness towards one another.