Parasha Tzav: The Anointed One

Once again, the entire world looked on in horror this week as terrorist attacks struck the city of Brussels. This past year alone we have seen violence, destruction and an unspeakable disregard for innocent human beings seemingly everywhere – from the intractable conflicts in Iraq and Syria, to Libya and Africa, to Paris and San Bernadino, in our own nation, and now Belgium. We continue to see random stabbings in Israel. We ask ourselves – what is becoming of our world? Throughout history, when things appear to be spinning out of control, people look for leaders who appear to offer hope and, at times, claim to have answers that will restore order to the chaos.

As a minority living among an often hostile majority, the Jewish people have seen more than our share of violence directed against us throughout history. In the year 1648-1649 alone, Jewish communities in Ukraine were terrorized by the followers of a Ukrainian nationalist named Bogdan Chmielnicki. He led a Cossack and peasant uprising that sought to end Polish rule in Ukraine. Chmielnicki was bent on eradicating the Jewish presence in Ukraine. Over the course of that one year tens or thousands of Jews perished in his terror campaign. One chronicle of the time estimated that 100,000 Jews were killed and 300 communities were destroyed. As we might imagine, the problem of refugees was severe.

Hope came to these devastated communities in the form of a man who declared himself to be the Messiah, or Mashiach, in Hebrew. His name was Shabbatai Zvi . He was born in 1626 in Smyrna, an ancient Greek city in Anatolia, then under Ottoman rule. He was well versed in Talmud and was ordained as a rabbi when he was 18. His deeper interest was Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism, and he soon attracted a small following. When he was 22 years old he declared himself the Messiah, but nobody paid him much attention. During his twenties and thirties he traveled through Asia and the Middle East. At times he was expelled from Jewish communities for his bizarre, peculiar and even blasphemous behavior. At other times he settled down and led a quiet life.

His life changed when he was forty years old. While in Jerusalem he sought out a well-known intellectual and mystic named Nathan of Gaza. He hoped that Nathan of Gaza would help him with the spiritual malaise he was experiencing at that time. Nathan of Gaza convinced Shabbatai Zvi that he was indeed the Messiah. With the help of Nathan of Gaza, messianic fervor spread throughout the Jewish communities of Europe, Asia, and Africa. It spread not only in places like Ukraine, which had been devastated by terror, but in cities and countries that had known no violence as well. People fasted, repented, and offered Messianic prayers written by Nathan of Gaza. Some sold all their belongings and made plans to travel to the Land of Israel. Others slept in their clothing, expecting any time that that they would be miraculously transported to Israel in clouds. The entire Jewish world was aflame, divided between believers in this self-proclaimed Messiah and his opponents.

Ultimately, Shabbetai Zvi was brought before the Ottoman Sultan and given the choice of converting to Islam or being put to death. He chose to convert to Islam and was given a pension by the Sultan. From then on he outwardly professed the Muslim faith but secretly practiced Judaism until his death at age fifty.

In our Torah reading for this week, we find the word for Messiah – Mashiach — although it has nothing to do with being a savior of any sort. In our Torah reading this week “mashiach” or “Messiah” simply means “anointed one”, and it is used in conjunction with Aaron’s investiture as the High Priest. Moses inducts Aaron into the priesthood by dressing him in his priestly clothing and pouring consecrated oil over his head. Later on in the development of Judaism, this “anointed one” or Mashiach becomes the term used for a descendent of King David. This descendent of David, usually conceived as a military hero, will lead Israel to victory over all of her enemies. He will oversee a return of Zion’s exiles to the Land of Israel and will establish a Kingdom where the Jewish people can live in peace and tranquility. A King Messiah who is kind, wise, and righteous will rule the world justly. All people on earth will live securely, with plenty for everyone.

Although the concept of “Messiah” has been an important part of Jewish thought throughout the ages, Judaism has taken a patient and passive approach to these beliefs. However, in the 1990s, Messianic fervor gripped at least a segment of the Jewish world. As the last Lubavitcher Rebbe neared the end of his life, many Chabad Lubavitch followers began to believe that he was the Messiah. When he died in 1994, some of his followers held that he would come back to life and reveal himself as the Messiah. To this day they have not found a leader for the Lubavitch movement to replace their beloved Rebbe.

Our prayer book takes an entirely different approach to Messianic yearnings. The traditional Amidah contains language that prays for a “Redeemer” for the Children of Abraham – the Messiah in the form of a person. Our prayer book substitutes the hope for a redeemer with the hope for redemption. There is only a difference of one Hebrew letter, but that one letter makes a world of difference. By adding that letter, our prayer book rejects the idea of the Messiah as a heroic conqueror. Rather, for us, redemption is to be gained through working together to end oppression, to promote justice, to feed the hungry, to shelter the homeless, to relieve human suffering.

Messianic times are an ideal that we all should aspire to bring on, to struggle toward. May our yearning for Messianic times keep us from being complacent, from being satisfied with the way things are. May we all work for a better world, a world, free of violence, free of suffering, free of terror — In the words of the prophet Micah, a world where “every person shall sit under his vine and under his fig-tree; and none shall make them afraid”.
Shabbat Shalom