Parshas Shemos (5777)
The philosopher Martin Buber once quipped:
The Christians claim that the true Messiah, Jesus, has already come, and are now awaiting his Second Coming, while the Jews maintain that Jesus is not the true Messiah, and that the real Messiah has yet to come. So it's simple. When the Messiah finally gets here, we'll just ask him, "Have you been here before?". And if he's a diplomat, he'll probably answer, "I don't remember".
This exact question – has the real Messiah come yet or not - was one of the main subjects of the famous debate that occurred in the Middle Ages known as “The Disputation at Barcelona”.
In 1263 at Barcelona, Spain, James I of Aragon and Raymond of Penaforte held a major disputation between Pablo Christiani, a convert from Judaism, and Moses Nachmanides, Moses ben Nachman, or "Ramban" (1195-1270), the outstanding rabbi, Bible commentator, kabbalist, and leader of his generation.
The disputation was held in four separate sessions - the first was on Friday, July 20, 1263 - and all that transpired was faithfully recorded and preserved by Ramban himself, and has since been published under the title The Disputation at Barcelona.
Although Ramban clearly bested his apostate opponent, and showed how all of Pablo Christiani's alleged proofs were nothing more than misreadings or misunderstandings of the Scriptural text, he was "rewarded" for his efforts by being forced to abandon his home in Spain, leaving the country that he had lived in all his life. [In 1267, Ramban settled in the Land of Israel where he founded a synagogue in the Old City of Jerusalem, the Ramban Synagogue, which still stands today.]
At one point in the debate, Pablo Christiani claimed that in the Talmud it is said that the messiah has already come. He cited the story in Midrash Eichah (Lamentations) 1:57 concerning a man who was plowing and whose ox bellowed. An Arab passed and said to him: "Jew, Jew, unhitch your ox, unhitch your ploughshare, unhitch your plough for the Temple has been destroyed." He unhitched his ox, unhitched his ploughshare, and unhitched his plough. The ox bellowed a second time. The Arab then said to him: "Hitch up your ox, hitch up your ploughshare, hitch up your plough, for your messiah has been born."
Ramban responded: "Truly I do not believe this Midrash that the messiah was born on the day of the destruction of the Temple. Thus this story is not true or else it has another meaning drawn from the secrets of the sages. However I shall accept it at its simple meaning as you claim, for it is a proof for my case. Behold it says that on the day of destruction, after the Second Temple was destroyed (in the year 68 CE), the messiah was born. Thus Jesus was not the messiah, as you claim. For according to all accounts, he was born and killed prior to the destruction of the Temple.” This silenced Christiani.
Then Master William, the royal judge, said: "The dispute does not now concern Jesus. The question is whether the messiah has come or not. You say that he has not come, and this book of yours says that he has come."
Ramban said to him: "You choose, as is your custom, to respond craftily. Nonetheless I shall answer you. The sages [in the Midrash] did not say that the messiah has come. Rather they said that he was born. So [for example], on the day that our teacher Moses was born, he did not ‘come’ and redeem us. However, when he came before Pharaoh at the command of G-d and said to him: “…so says the L-ord, ‘Send out My people!'” (see this week’s Torah portion, Parshas Shemos, Exodus 5:1), then he may be said to have arrived. Likewise, the messiah - when he shall come before the Pope and shall say to him at G-d's command: 'Send out My people,' then he may be said to have truly come. However, to this day he has not yet come and is in no sense the [anointed] messiah. For King David on the day that he was born was not the anointed one. Only when Samuel anointed him was he the anointed one. On the day that Elijah will anoint the messiah at G-d's command may he be called the messiah. On the day that he will subsequently come before the Pope to redeem us, then he may be said to have arrived."
Now you are probably wondering that if, as the Midrash claims, the messiah was indeed born on the day that the Second Temple was destroyed over 1900 years ago, yet we believe that he still hasn’t ‘come’, then how can he possibly arrive now after all these years?! After all, nobody lives that long!
Interestingly, King James I of Aragon himself challenged Ramban with that exact question during the Disputation. And Ramban responded that it is not so unreasonable to believe that the messiah is still alive after all these years, for already among early man Adam and Methuselah lived almost to a thousand years, and Elijah and Enoch more than that, for life [and longevity] lies in the hands of G-d."
As an alternative to the Ramban’s answer, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky shlit”a, one of the greatest Torah scholars of our generation, suggests that on the day that the Temple was destroyed, the messiah was born and his soul inhabited the body of a live person. When that person died, the messiah’s soul entered the body of another live person, and so it continues throughout the centuries and millennia until the time comes for him to reveal himself and to come and redeem us. (Who knows, maybe the messiah will first come to President Donald Trump?!).
One more thing which I think you will find fascinating as I did … Rabbi Kanievsky writes that the messiah – whoever he might be – is living among us today and is aware that he is the messiah, just that he can’t reveal his true identity until such time that G-d wills it! Wow! May we all merit to see that day!