Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Gratitude-The Messianic Ideal

The Passover season brings to mind thoughts of redemption and freedom, renewal and  rebirth, and the prospect for achieving the ideal in life.  Ancient stories of redemption flow into hopes for freedom in our own time; the process of human betterment remains on-going , elusive , yet very much a part of our faith in the possibility of its realization. Messianic impulses infuse our cherished Passover rituals and sacred practices-Elijah the Prophet , Miriam  the sister of Moses- always invited to every Seder table with the dream of eventual redemption shining in the eyes of every participant. The final words of the Seder -”Next Year in Jerusalem”-reflect the hope of redemption and the advent of the Messianic Age, the end of an exile of homelessness and persecution, the restoration of collective Jewish glory , and the emergence of a world order based on harmony, justice and peace.
The Messianic idea lies at the very  heart of the Jewish experience. This  notion of human improvement also  reverberates in almost  every other religious or spiritual orientation.  Cultural conceptions  may vary,  yet in the  nature of being human is embedded  the evolutionary  idea  and awareness of a future that can represent an improvement over the present, both individually and collectively. 
Beginning with the early prophets of Israel, the end of days would be characterized by peace and harmony, justice and well-being, among humans and in fact among all living things. “But a shoot shall grow out of the stump of Jesse...the spirit of the Lord shall alight upon him...justice shall be the girdle of his loins ..the wolf will dwell with the lamb...in all My sacred mount nothing evil or vile shall be done.”
 Another example of this promise and  vision  is the following: “...in the days to come.....they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.”

What , in the opinion of the later Rabbinic tradition, is the nature of the Messianic Era?  In the Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 151,b, we are informed of two prominent opinions in this regard. Samuel says : The only difference between normal times and the days of the Messiah is שיעבוד מלכויות-the end of Israel’s oppression by the kingdoms of the world ; Rabbi Yochanan is of the opinion that the messianic era will be characterized as a timeשאין בו זכות ואין בו חובה - ‘ there will be no sense of merit  ie. reward or liability and guilt, ie. punishment.‘  Rashi, the great 11th century commentator, interprets “merit and obligation” as pointing to a time when all people will be sufficiently affluent ie. without material need, so that there will be no necessity to limit one’s generosity and tighten one’s hand and heart out of fear of not having enough for oneself.
  Whether the Messianic era was viewed as entirely supernatural- the product of God’s mercy with humanity’s contribution secondary  or the more naturalistic and rational understanding of a time of Israel’s subjugation by the gentiles coming to an end, the inescapable reality of messianic times are those that reflect a human condition of amelioration and blessing.

The rabbinic tradition expands imaginatively in its projections on this end of days as encompassing a myriad of new and unprecedented human realities. “In the time to come, the Holy One will innovate ten things- He will illumine the whole world.. even when  a man is sick, God will order the sun to heal him...the second thing, He will bring out living waters from Jerusalem to heal all those who have a disease...the third thing, He will make the trees yield their fruit each month...the fourth thing, all the waste cities will be rebuilt...the fifth thing, He will rebuild Jerusalem with sapphire stones...the sixth, the cow and the bear shall feed together...the seventh, He will bring all the wild beasts, birds, and creeping things and make a covenant with them and with all Israel...the eighth, there be no more weeping and wailing in the world...the ninth, there will be no more death in the world...and the tenth is that there will no longer be any sighing, wailing or anguish, but all will be rejoicing.”

From the aforementioned it is obvious  that the end of days or in the time to come or the messianic era - whichever term one prefers- all convey  a reality in which all human frailty and need, the instinctual and inborn inclinations leading to wrong doing, self-destruction and the harm of others will all miraculously vanish , and a new being will emerge, utterly joyful and immortal. Sinful man will be restored to his glorious Edenic  existence.
An interesting outgrowth of this envisioned reality is the rendering obsolete of  the entire structure of the religious edifice that in this world is indispensable for human survival in a moral and civilized way. If conditions are such that all those factors that render the human vulnerable to wrongdoing and suffering are no longer in place, then in fact the antidotes against these proclivities likewise can be viewed as no longer necessary. Once the  body is healed of its infection, antibiotics are useless. 
Thus, in the mind of the rabbis, it follows that in the time to come all the appurtenances of religion will no longer be required -prayer, ritual, Torah  guides of proper conduct , will have  all become obsolete.
 Yet, according to an extraordinary Midrash presented  below,  while all cultic offering will be abolished at the end of time, one will survive, the thanksgiving offering.  This offering was not obligatory; it was not occasioned by sinfulness or guilt nor even by “the motives that induced Israelites to pledge votive sacrifices when confronted by danger.”

So significant was this offering that the Sages bestowed upon both offering and prayer whose purpose and intention is to express gratitude, an everlasting place in the spiritual experience of the Jewish people , transcending  all time and space.
In Leviticus Rabbah, chapter 9, section 7 we read:
......לעתיד לבוא כל הקרבנות בטלין וקרבן תודה אינו בטל כל התפילות בטלות ההודאה אינה בטלה הדא הוא  דכתיב(ירמיהו לג, יא )   “קול ששון וקול שמחה קול חתן וקול  כלה קול  אומרים  הודו את  יי צבאות וגו”  זו הודאה “מביאים תודה בית ה’ זה קרבן תודה וכן דוד אומר (תהילים נו,יג ) “עלי אלהים נדריךאשלם תודות לך “ תודה אין כתיב כאן אלא “תודות” ההודאה וקרבן תודה.”
“In time to come ie. Messianic age, all offerings will be eliminated; however, the thanksgiving offering will not ; furthermore, all prayers will be abolished but not the prayer of thanksgiving. As it is written- Jeremiah 33,11- “ the sound of mirth and gladness, the voice of bridegroom and bride, the voice of those who call out, ‘Give thanks to the Lord of Hosts etc.’ “ this is a prayer of thanksgiving, “as they bring thanksgiving offerings to the House of the Lord.” This is a thanksgiving offering.  Likewise David declares- Psalm 56,13-” I must pay my vows to You, O God; I will render thank offerings to You”-It is not written offering(in singular form) but offerings- plural-which includes both prayers of thanksgiving and a thanksgiving offering.”
How are we to understand this challenging midrash! Moreover, if  Messianic times refer to an eschatological transformation of cosmic proportions, the question of the need for the continuance of the thanksgiving offering becomes even more perplexing.
Assuming that the Messianic era will be such to obviate the need for offerings and prayers entirely, why will the one offering or prayer connected to gratitude persist?
Why the need to somehow connect to gratefulness when one finds oneself in a spiritual state of perfection? I would answer that the power of gratitude is such that it transcends all boundaries of our mortality and finitude. Whether in the here-and -now or some utopian future time, awareness of life as a gift is the unchangeable constant. Moreover, one could argue that under conditions of utter, utopian  fulfillment the response of gratitude is even more compelling!
It is believed  by many  that messianic expectations should be held in abeyance until some distant far away time; it is utopian in nature, and dependent on the miraculous intervention of a divine source. To intervene would suggest the lack of faith if not an actual act of heresy. All we can do is prepare ourselves spiritually to be receptive  to and deserving of the Messiah’s appearance. 
I cannot help but hear the echos of a popular refrain of the Chabad movement -”We want Mashiach now!” This insistence finds expression in the  militant activity of this movement to increase and expand all forms of Jewish religious  behavior among the Jewish people.

While precedents abound dictating the above mentioned  responses to the eventual advent of Messiah’s coming, I would prefer to understand the messianic reality in the framework of this world and in the context of everyday living.
The remarkable midrash that declares the thanksgiving offering to endure for all time suggests to me that when we are able to capture and cultivate moments of gratitude in our spiritual lives, footsteps of the Messiah echo in our ordinary experience. I would further maintain, in the spirit of the midrash that states with utter confidence the future  abolition of offerings and prayers that are related to human desires and need,  that prayers of petition are of secondary importance, if not  ultimately unnecessary, if we strive to touch messianic strains in our ordinary lives. To the contrary! As long as our prayer is dominated by our needs, we are inhibited from translating our yearnings toward the transcendent in ways that reflect our thanksgiving and gratitude! The offering and prayers of thanksgiving will remain an integral part of the messianic reality, what ever that may mean. It is clear to me that our Rabbis understood that the essence of Jewish worship is inextricably linked to our capacity to view and respond to a transcendent reality from the perspective of experiencing all things as gifts for which to be thankful and grateful. It is said that the Sabbath is “a foretaste of eternity.”
If we wish to gain another flavor of messianic time, the taste is not in heaven or beyond the sea but in our hearts and minds to rediscover daily  the power of “modeh ani,” “ I thank You,” of infusing the first moments of our daily awakening with the richness of gratitude and thanksgiving,
 and allow that awareness to flow along the river of our lives. Perhaps the freedom celebrated and yearned for on Passover  is  indeed within the grasp of a grateful heart.
(see The Gratefulness Prayer Book- Siddur Modeh Ani-Glazer-Xlibris-2013)

I wish to express my deep gratitude to my son, Jeremiah, for his invaluable comments and insights.

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