Parshas Vayigash (5773)
As I am sure you have all heard or read about in the news, there are those who claim – based on the Mesoamerican Long Count Calendar associated with the Maya civilization – that the world will be coming to an end on December 21, 2012 – which is today. (Others say the world will end on December 23rd.) Yikes!
Truth be told, the Mayans are not the only civilization that believes in a doomsday and an end to the world as we know it. Many, if not all, religions subscribe to the idea of an “end of time”, and Judaism is no different. In fact, there is a whole branch of philosophy which involves the study of the end of the world called Eschatology.
[Eschatology (from the Greek eschatos meaning "last" and -logy meaning "the study of”) is a part of theology and futurology concerned with what are believed to be the final events of history, the ultimate destiny of humanity — commonly referred to as the "end of the world" or "end time".]
What does Judaism teach about what is going to happen at the end of time?
It has been a part of our tradition since time immemorial to believe in the coming of the Messiah (known in Hebrew as the Moshiach, a word meaning "the anointed one") who will herald the Messianic Age. The books of the Prophets are full of references to the final Redemption and the coming of the Messiah (particularly Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Obadiah, and Zechariah). Such references are also found in the Torah (e.g. Deuteronomy 30:1-10, 32:36-43).
Belief in the Messiah's arrival is one of the thirteen articles of faith enumerated by Maimonides in his introduction to the eleventh chapter of Tractate Sanhedrin in the Talmud. In the Siddur (Prayer Book), this principle of faith is expressed thus: "Ani ma'amin be'emunah sheleimah .... I believe with complete faith in the coming of the Messiah, and even though he may delay, nevertheless I long for him each day, [hoping] that he will come."
The belief in the coming of the Messiah is not only mentioned in the Torah and the Prophets, it is also discussed at length in the Talmud, the Zohar, as well as in the great works of philosophy of Saadiah Gaon, Maimonides, Crescas, Albo, Luzzatto,etc. And it has been a very basic element of our Jewish tradition which all Jews believed in for well over 3000 years, that one day, in the hopefully not-too-distant future, the Messiah will arrive (probably when we least expect it) and we will all go out to greet him with great happiness and joy.
The Jewish people will regain their independence when the Messiah - a human being of flesh and blood and a descendant of the royal family of David - reestablishes the Davidic dynasty over Israel. Under his leadership, the Temple will be rebuilt (on the site where the Dome of the Rock is presently situated), all the Jews will return to the Land of Israel, and all the laws of the Torah will be restored to their former levels of observance.
A sage wiser than Solomon, and a prophet whose greatness approaches that of Moses, the Messianic king will teach the way of G-d to the world. He will inspire all of humanity to worship the One True G-d together.
In the Messianic era there will be neither hunger nor war, neither jealousy nor competition. G-d will bestow such abundance that it will be possible to procure one's livelihood with minimal effort. Freed from worry and anxiety, people will enjoy long lives. The occupation of the world will be solely that of acquiring knowledge of G-d.
So far, so good, eh? It seems that Judaism doesn’t believe in some apocalyptic war where everyone but the good guys gets killed. Well, not exactly.
You see, there is a tradition that there will be a great and cataclysmic war around the time of the coming of the Messiah. As Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan writes in his Handbook of Jewish Thought (Volume 2 Chapter 24): “The great Prophets spoke of a ‘War of Gog and Magog’ around Jerusalem. According to this tradition, when the nations hear of the successes of the Jewish people in rebuilding their Land, they will gather to do battle against them near Jerusalem, led by ‘Gog, the king of Magog’. The battle will symbolize the final war between good and evil. In Jerusalem, all evil will eventually be vanquished”.
I bet you're wondering as you're reading this ..... okay, this all sounds kind of nice (except maybe the part about moving to Israel - who wants to put up with those rude cab drivers?). But when does tradition say the whole Messiah thing is supposed to happen? I mean, we have been in exile for almost 2000 years, and still not a sign of the Messiah! How can we really be expected to believe that the Messiah can come at any time?
Well, let me tell you what the traditional sources say about that. There is a time frame in which the Messiah has to come. The Talmud in Tractate Sanhedrin 97a says the following:
"The academy of Eliyahu taught the following Baraisa: The world is destined to exist for six thousand years: The first two thousand years were of nothingness; the second two thousand years were of Torah; the third two thousand years should have been the days of the Messiah, but because of our sins, which are numerous, the years that have gone from [the Messianic Era] have gone."
From this passage in the Talmud we learn three things. First of all, we learn that the world as we know it will only last for 6000 years. I guess you can call it: Y6K - The Jewish Doomsday. [There are various traditions as to what is going to happen after the year 6000 – see the Talmud in Sanhedrin 97a. All agree, however, that Olam HaZeh, the physical world as we know it, will not last forever. Rather, those who merit it will morph into a new spiritual reality known as Olam HaBa, the “World to Come”, where they will bask in the splendor of G-d’s Divine Presence for all eternity.]
Secondly, we learn that the Messiah could have arrived to redeem us and bring us all to Israel as early as the year 4000 in the Hebrew calendar (which corresponds to the year 240 CE in the Julian calendar). Unfortunately, since we haven't been good boys and girls, it is already the year 5773 and the Messiah still hasn't shown up!
Most importantly, we learn that the Messiah has to come before the year 6000 - which means that he will definitely arrive within the next 227 years! Who knows, if we don't get to see the Messianic Era, maybe our children or grandchildren or great-grandchildren will!
The truth is that we might be closer to witnessing the Messianic Age than we think. You see, there is a major chronological discrepancy between rabbinic chronologists for the destruction of the First Temple in 423 BCE and the modern secular dating for it in 586 BCE – a difference of 163 years!
[Click on http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Missing_years_%28Jewish_calendar%29 to learn more about this discrepancy between the Jewish and conventional chronologies as well as the various attempts from Rabbis and historians over the years to reconcile them.]
This means that if the conventional chronology is correct, then we are actually in the year 5936 on the Jewish calendar, which is only 64 years away from the year 6000!! This means that many of us have a good chance of actually being there when the Messiah arrives. This is all very exciting!! I hope and pray that we all get to see the Messiah, may he come speedily and in our days. Amen!