When I lived in the Old City of Jerusalem it was a joke amongst the residents how many messiahs we had in our midst. In every corner of the city you could find someone claiming to be the messiah. A clinical psychologist explained to me that when a person has a terrible self-image, the reality is so difficult to deal with that the person slips into a fantasy of being someone great. For some it’s Napoleon, for others it’s the messiah. I guess deep down inside some people would really like to be the messiah.
Actually, who wouldn’t want to bring peace to the world, cure cancer, AIDS, and feed the poor? Every one of us would like to, we just can’t figure out how to do it. That desire to perfect the world is a part of the soul. The soul is a source of unbounded goodness. It desires only perfection and closeness to God, and therefore wants desperately to see the world in a better state. We all have the potential to be the messiah because we all have that desire inside us. Only one person, however, will be able to tap into that desire, and help the rest of us tap into what’s laying dormant within us.
Peace and harmony are the way things are supposed to be. God put this potential into the world, but we’re not actualizing that potential. How much time does each well-meaning individual you know put into creating more love and peace? A study was done in Washington D.C. that came to the conclusion there is a 1:1 ratio of food to people in the world. This means that God makes it possible that no person on the planet goes hungry, but we’re not getting the food around. If we’re not going to bring the world to a more perfect state, God will have to – by bringing us a messiah.
Of course we don’t define who God is and what He does, but it would be inconsistent for a wise and good infinite being to allow this world to exist in a flawed state. The concept of the messiah is therefore part of our belief in God. It’s not a separate commandment to believe in the messiah, because it’s already included in the very first of the Ten Commandments. As a point of philosophy it is a separate principle as indicated by the list of thirteen principles of Jewish thought, enumerated by Maimonides. We are waiting, hoping, praying and anticipating the coming of the messiah.
Because we have the tools to make a more perfect world, there’s no need for the Messianic Era to be miraculous or other worldly, as it says in the Talmud, “There is no difference between this world and the Messianic Age, except with the regard to our subjugation by other governments” (Tractate Berachos 34b). The writings of the prophets are filled with references to the Messianic Era; many of them being metaphoric or poetic, like “the wolf shall live with the sheep,” or “the lion shall eat hay like the ox.” Some refer to a war of Gog and Magog, or to Elijah the prophet returning to introduce the messiah. Many of the exact details of the Messianic Era are difficult to discern. It seems we weren’t meant to know everything.
Several aspects of this Era, however, are well known. The exiles will return to the land of Israel, the high court will start to function again, prophecy will reappear, and the Holy Temple will be rebuilt. A normal human being who is a direct descendant of King David will emerge as a leader of the Nation of Israel, and cause a resurgence of enthusiasm for the tradition and observance of all the laws of the Torah. God-consciousness will permeate the world as it says, “All the world will be filled with knowledge” (Isaiah 11:9) and “nation shall no longer lift up sword against nation” (Isaiah 2:4)
Since the messiah can be almost anyone, a number of potential messiahs have gathered a following over the course of history. Some were holy and wise, some not. To name a few, Bar Kochba was a military leader that had a following as the messiah in Talmudic times, the Christian movement claims Jesus as messiah, in the 1600’s a man named Shabbatai Tzvi had a large following, and in recent times Rabbi Shneerson was believed by his followers to be the messiah. The only way to tell if someone really is the messiah or not is if they accomplish the mission. If they don’t return the exiles, inspire us to follow the Torah, and build the temple, they weren’t the messiah, as it says, “He shall not fail nor be crushed until he has set right the world” (Isaiah 42:4)
Years ago it sounded surreal to talk about global consciousness, but now the World Wide Web spreads ideas all over the globe with ease. When you combine this fact with the long awaited prophecy of the ingathering of the Nation of Israel into the Land of Israel, you come to the conclusion, as most sages have come to, that we are witnessing the beginning of the Messianic Era.
Our tradition says that the messiah has a fixed period of time in which to emerge. There are only 238 more years left in this time period. He can come at any moment, but he doesn’t have much time left.
The stage is set; all we need now is the star of the show.