As the moral and material infrastructure of civilization seems to unravel before our eyes, often the only thing that keeps us going is hope. It is something deep inside us which tells us to look for the better times around the corner.
But what is the source of this hope?
Some would argue that it’s just another tool in the survival kit of homo sapiens, packed into our genetic code along with the instructions for fear and adrenalin, but that it has no rational basis. When, in his Essay on Man, Alexander Pope wrote that “hope springs eternal in the human breast”, he was merely poeticizing a function of blind genetic material.
Yet, all of us know from personal experience that sometimes when everything looks bleak and hope a foolish naivete, the whole situation unexpectedly reverses itself, and hope is vindicated. As the saying goes, it is darkest before the dawn.
In the macrocosm, too, the ups and downs of history itself would seem to support the contention that hope is not just an involuntary response of the human organism, but that there is indeed reason to hope for a better future. Ancient idolatry was superseded by monotheism; the Dark Ages was followed eventually by the Renaissance; Nazism was vanquished by the Allies. The light may often be slow in coming, but darkness has never been a permanent decree.
It makes sense, then, to hope. We know from experience that things do have a way of getting better —at least sometimes.
Of course, history is not over yet, and why should anyone believe that the final outcome will see a triumph of light over darkness? Perhaps it will turn out the other way? With the UN Security Council on our side, the odds are not encouraging…
Actually, Jewish thought recognizes two kinds of hope. One is a hope that things will get better, even when we know it may not come to pass as we wish. This is called in Hebrew tikvah, and it may be identified as that which springs eternal in the human breast, that first kind of hope, which may have no rational basis. The other kind of hope is a yearning for the better life that we know with certainty the future does hold. This is called tocheles. Both are expressed in Psalms 130.
The belief in the coming of the messianic era belongs to that latter kind of hope. No less a part of Jewish tradition than kosher food or bris milah, (circumcision), faith in the coming of the Messiah is a central pillar of Judaism. Down through the ages, Jews everywhere have looked forward to the coming of the messianic era. As such, it is included in the 13 Principles of Faith, compiled by Maimonides and printed in every Jewish prayer book: “I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah; and even though he may delay, nevertheless, I anticipate every day that he will come.”
But what is that certainty based on? For one thing, there are prophecies about the messianic era in the Torah. Of the ultimate homecoming it says (Deuteronomy 30:1-6): “G-d will return your captivity and be merciful to you and gather you from among all the peoples where you have been scattered…and He will bring you to the land that your fathers inherited…And G-d will open your heart to love Him”. Of the Messiah himself it says: “A shoot shall come forth from the stem of Yishai, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord “(Isaiah 11:1-2).
It is more than a simple faith, however; a deep idea is at work here.
Rabbi Yitzchak ben Yosef, thirteenth century author of the classic Sefer Mitzvos Katan, explains that belief in the coming of The Messiah is a corollary to the belief in G-d itself. For it states in the first of the Ten Commandments: “I am the Lord, your G-d, who took you out of the land of Egypt…” The commentators point out that this is actually the commandment to believe in G-d—and that He is the G-d who took us out of Egypt. Furthermore, this belief in G-d is more than just belief. For it is based on historical experience. The whole Jewish people themselves witnessed the miracles of the exodus from Egypt. We know that He exists because we ourselves were redeemed by Him. Not just an abstract deism; Jewish monotheism teaches that the G-d of Israel acts in the arena of history. We know Him as the quintessential Redeemer.
Furthermore, G-d is not a physical being. As such, He transcends time. He is eternal. And if He is a redeemer, then He is always a redeemer. If He redeemed the Jewish people, that redemption cannot be temporary, and cannot be bound by time. The exile of the Jewish people from our homeland, and from our close relationship with G-d, then, cannot be a permanent condition, for that would be an historical contradiction, a contradiction of the essence of G-d, the Redeemer.
Thus, the whole history and prophetic tradition of the Jewish people serves as the bedrock of our faith in the Messiah. A Jew cannot truly have belief in G-d without also believing in the ultimate redemption.
So, there are two kinds of hope, and one is built on the other. One is natural, inherent in every human being, inseparable from the human personality. The other is transcendent, not the possession of everyone. One is an emotional endowment; the other is born of a deep knowledge of G-d and history. As such, it needs to be developed, to be kept strong.
The faith in the coming of the Messiah is the codification of the human capacity for hope. It is the affirmation that history is neither an open-ended spiral of human suffering, nor will it terminate in universal self-destruction; rather that it will culminate in the spiritual and material redemption of the Jewish people and of all humankind.
We are enjoined to await the imminent arrival of the Messiah. By anticipating his coming every day, we build up that messianic hope. By asking G-d in our prayers to bring the messianic era, we strengthen ourselves, both in our belief in G-d and in His redemptive power, both of which are really one.
This article first appeared in The Jewish Magazine