Periods of great social unrest and political turmoil are usually rife with talk about the end of the world. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all have last-days prophecies. According to a recent survey, 17 percent of Americans believe this event will take place in their lifetime. No doubt many of those are fundamentalist Christians who are obssessed with the Rapture and have gobbled up books in the Left Behind series.
In this fascinating work, Robert N. Levine, senior rabbi of Temple Rodeph Sholom in Manhattan, takes a look at the messiah tradition in Judaism and what it means to usher in "the kingdom of God." Many images have been used to describe this "anointed one of God" including a dying man of pain, a swashbuckling hero, and a spark of the divine that is sent into the world in every generation. For Isaac Luria (1534-1572), the great Kabbalah sage, the messiah is "an ideal symbolizing the completion of the process of tikkun, when the whole world will taste the fruits of redemption."
Using illustrations from the Bible, the Talmud, rabbinic sources and modern-day sources, Levine covers this complex subject in a rounded way, even including a look at some false messiahs in Jewish history. He believes that Judaism's great gift to the world is the idea of God and human beings collaborating in the world to make it a better and more just place. "For the Hebrew God, human beings had the power to help God save the world, to effect justice, to make weighty decisions-even to enter covenants. Each of us, then, is God's masterpiece."
Within Judaism, however, many have not been able to accept this positive and responsibility engendering view of themselves. It is much easier to look outside to some messiah who is coming to liberate humanity. Levine writes forcefully: "In arguably the Torah's most important verse, the entire community of Israel is commanded, 'You shall be holy, for I, the eternal God, am holy.' What an incredible gift. What power to rise above base, narcissistic instincts and make the world a better place."
Levine challenges Jews to rise to the occasion and fulfill their calling in the spirit of Moses and many others in the Hebrew Scriptures. With a vibrancy, the author takes it one step further by emphasizing the importance of mitzvot and spiritual practice:
"You are what you do. And you don't have to wait for anyone else.
"You can restore self-worth to those who think they are worthless.
"You can break the chains of bondage.
"You can feed those hungry for food or human contact.
"You can pray for people who are sick, then go and visit them.
"You can save a life. Maybe your own."