As Napoleon marched triumphantly through Europe, the Jews of the ghetto felt joyous by his arrival. Was Napoleon really the Messiah? Many of our ancestors thought so; but again, that was before Napoleon got defeated at the Battle of Waterloo. And then there was Franklin Delano Roosevelt better known to my parent’s generation as “FDR.” Many Jews living back in the gloomy days of WWII believed that FDR might have been the Messiah, but that was before we learned that FDR decided not to bomb Hitler’s crematoria.
To our surprise, the Messiah, it turns out, didn’t dress like an emperor, nor did he appear as a president. In Jewish tradition, the reality of deliverance comes disguised. At the Passover Seder, Jews express hope that the following year will be redemptive in character. By opening the door for Elijah, we keep the flame of hope alive that redemption is near at hand. Yet, for all the fanfare about the Messiah, the redeemer of Israel’s birth is uneventful and anonymous. Yet, curiously, he walks hidden among us.
When Moses first appeared to the Israelites, they never thought for a minute that this strange speaking man would be the savior of whom their ancestors had spoken. Here was a person who was originally discovered as a foundling in Pharaoh’s court, then as a shepherd who stammers and stutters before a burning bush. So, too, the ultimate messianic presence that we seek may lie hidden in the least likely person around.
Where will be able to find and identify him? Well, for a start, don’t look to the places where imperial and presidential power resides. Look first, says the Talmud, at the gates of the city, where the Messiah sits bandaging the festering sores of the sick (Sanhedrin 98a). I often wonder whether God’s chosen is a hospice nurse or a volunteer serving at an AIDS clinic, or some young person working at a soup-kitchen. Whenever we see the power of compassion making a difference in the lives of poor, the weak, and the disenfranchised – that is where you see the Messiah at work.
Jewish folklore, teaches that the world depends upon the merits of 36 (which in Yiddish are referred to as the “lamed-vovniks” (the Hebrew letters meaning “36”). According to legend, God allots 36 such men and women to every generation. They achieve no fame and amass no fortune; they are hardly ever recognized for the great people they are. Yet, day in and day out, their goodness continues to save a disbelieving world. Your neighbor may be one; but again, so might you.
I believe that my father was probably one of the chosen 36. He never gave up his capacity to hope even as he walked through the Valley of Darkness in Auschwitz. He taught me that we all need hope and optimism to survive. I personally think that the Messiah can be seen in the lives of people making a positive difference in the world around us. Do you know anyone close to you who might fit that description? Messiah may be more than a person, but is an archetypal reality present inside each human being who is determined to improve the condition of an impoverished world.
Judaism teaches us the importance of hope. “Hope springs eternal” says the poet. When looking for the Messiah, our tradition teaches us to look to our children.
Despite those folks who minimize the importance of the Messiah, I believe that Messianic doctrine reminds us that we all live in a world that is still unredeemed. Yet, at the same time, our faith teaches us that there is a little bit of the Messiah in each of us – just yearning and waiting to come out.