When will Mashiach come? That is up to us


One wonders whether the Mashiach and the redemption he is meant to bring still have not come because we are still waiting for him, or because he is still waiting for us.

There is a story (not to be taken literally) concerning the coming of the Mashiach that has always puzzled me, relating to this week’s portion, Metzora.

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 98a) relates that one day, Rabbi Yehoshuah Ben Levi was walking and “ran into” Eliahu HaNavi. After exchanging greetings, Rabbi Yehoshuah begs to ask a question: “Eimatai Ka’Ati Mar? When will the Master [the Mashiach] come?”

Elijah responds, “Ask him yourself!” Rabbi Yehoshuah asks, “But where can I find him?”

Elijah explains:

“If you will go to the entrance to the marketplace, you will see that all the lepers sit at the entrance to the market, with their bandages removed so that the warmth of the sun can heal their wounds. However, pay attention and you will notice that there is one beggar who only allows himself to remove one bandage at a time, so as to be ready to move at a moment’s notice, in the event that he is called. This is the Mashiach.”

So Rabbi Yehoshuah goes to the marketplace, and indeed finds such a person sitting amongst the lepers. And of course, he asks him the question, “Eimatai Ka’Ati Mar? When will the Master [the Mashiach] come?”

To which the leper responds with one simple, yet powerful word: “Hayom, today.

The Talmud doesn’t describe what Rabbi Yehoshua’s reaction was to this incredible news, but if you were one of the greatest rabbis in Jewish history, and you actually ran into Elijah, and he actually described to you where you could find the Mashiach, and you actually found him, and then this person who you now know to be the Mashiach actually tells you he is coming today, well, what would you do?

The next day, Rabbi Yehoshuah Ben Levi again “ran into” Elijah the Prophet. This time, Eliahu asks Rabbi Yehoshuah: “Nu, did you find him?” And Rabbi Yehoshuah responds: “Ken, Ve’Kah Shiker Li. Yes, I found him, but he lied to me. He told me he was coming ‘today’, but ‘today’ came and went, and the Mashiach never came.”

Eliahu Hanavi explains: “No, he didn’t say ‘HaYom.’ Rather, he was referring to the verse which says, ‘HaYom, Im Bekolo Tishma’u, Today, if you will but listen to His voice’.”

When will the Mashiach come? The decision is not his, it is ours. Hashem is just waiting for us to listen.

• • •

Such a powerful story, with such powerful imagery: redemption and world peace will come through the vestige of a leper, sitting as a beggar in the marketplace. What a beautiful message about how we have to learn to see our fellow human beings.

But I have always been bothered by one detail: Why did the Talmud need to portray the Mashiach as a leper? Why not just have him be a beggar? What secret message, relating to redemption is hidden in the concept of leprosy?

This week’s portion, Metzora, focuses on the issue of tzara’at, (a metzora often translated as leper — but not to be confused with leprosy, a disease that still exists in the world, with very different symptoms).

In ancient times, when we lived in the land of Israel with a Beit HaMikdash and an active priesthood of Kohanim this affliction did not send you to the doctor. Rather, the Torah tells us, when a person saw signs of tzara’at, he went to visit a Kohen.

Tradition teaches that tzara’at was the direct consequence of lashon hara (slander) and rechilut (tale-bearing), and as such it was an opportunity for a person to do some introspection and consider the error of his ways. To this end, once “diagnosed” with tza’ra’at, a person was meant to isolate himself from the community for seven days, before the Kohen could return and ascertain whether his condition of tza’ra’at was gone.

• • •

The Sefer HaChinuch points out (mitzvah 168) that this particular process enabled us to recognize the power of Divine Providence, and relates to the larger issues of destiny, and Divine consequences.

As an example, one of the many signs of tzara’at for which an expert Kohen had to be consulted, was when a hair on a person’s body turned a particular shade of white (“like snow”) or yellow (like winter grass; see VaYikra 13:30). And the challenge of the Kohen was not only to find the correct shade, but to be sure that indeed there were two hairs which had turned white, and not one, because when only one hair had turned white, the person was not confined but remained in a state of ritual purity.

The Midrash in Vayikra Rabbah (15:3) shares a magnificent insight related to this detail of halachah:

“You will not find a single strand of hair for which Hashem (G-d) did not create an appropriate follicle in the skin, in order that one (hair) should not benefit from what ‘belongs’ to another.”

On the one hand, consider the import of this Midrash: I can learn to become a more ethical human being simply by studying the hairs on my forearm! After all, if every hair on my arm has its place, then how much more must I consider that every human being, however challenging, annoying, and even evil they may be, has a place in G-d’s plan.

While one cannot argue the merits of gleaning such ethical messages, how does one find the balance? If I took the time to analyze every leaf, twig, insect and sound that came my way, I would never get to the synagogue in the morning. And yet, to ignore the many powerful messages that often cross our path is to risk living a life of callousness and to lose many opportunities to grow as a person and as a society.

• • •

Life really is all about balance — how to balance one’s professional life with one’s personal life; how to make time for friends as well as family, study as well as exercise; and, of course, spiritual growth alongside tangible action, all while making a difference in the world. 

Even the soul needs to be in balance, and Jewish tradition suggests it is not healthy for a person to do too much giving, without receiving. Significantly, it is not just that the person doing all the giving is putting him or herself off balance, they are equally responsible for causing others in the relationship to be off balance.

Perhaps this is the nature of these seven days during which the metzorah struggles to rectify the mistakes he has made, which have led him to this sorry state of affairs.

Clearly, we need to be willing to trust in Hashem that life will send us what we need to receive, and we need as well to be partners with Hashem in making that happen.

As the Vilna Gaon suggests in his Even Sheleimah, faith without hishtadlut (our attempts to do our bit, in partnership with G-d) is not really faith, it bespeaks a certain arrogance (who says I have earned the right to have faith that Hashem will help me)? On the other hand, the assumption that I can do it all and that it all depends on me, stems from this very same arrogance. Once I have done my bit, then I have the right to believe that Hashem will do His.

Life often sends us signals, but we don’t always listen, often because they are so obvious. Sometimes we get so run-down that our friends and loved ones notice we are working too hard long before we do. If your body is run down, it is because a part of your life is off balance, and you are being given a message. Maybe you are too focused on work, and need to recognize the need for finding time for your family? 

Maybe during these seven days a person who is off balance has the chance to lean towards the other extreme and get back in balance, and perhaps this very suggestion of processing in an imbalanced form (removing oneself from society for seven days is not balanced; it represents an extreme), is ultimately meant to remind us to make this “process of processing” more a part of our life on a regular basis.

Perhaps, like the metzora, we need to take some time for introspection, to consider how best to find that balance.