Today is the holiday of Tisha b’Av, the saddest day of the Jewish calendar. Commemorating the destruction of both the first and second Beit HaMikdash (Temple), among other calamities of Jewish history, we spend the day in mourning. In addition to refraining from eating, drinking, greeting one another, adorning ourselves, sexual intimacy, wearing leather, and bathing, we refrain from learning Torah, because Torah gives us joy. (The exception to this is pieces of Torah relevant to the destruction of the Temples, the Book of Job, and the laws of mourning.)
With this prohibition in mind, it might seem strange to send a newsletter that has Torah in its name today. However, there is a tradition that tells us that the Mashiach (the Messiah) will be born on Tisha b’Av, after chatzot, midday, marking the great joy that will come from our redemption from the greatest depths of our sadness. With that in mind, I wanted to take this opportunity to share a few thoughts on one of my favorite stories with you. This story appears on Sanhedrin 98a, and you can find the original here:
R. Yehoshua ben Levi happened upon Eliyahu, who was standing at the opening of R. Shimon ben Yochai’s grave. He said to him, Will I go to the World to Come? He said to him, if this Master desires it. R. Yehoshua b. Levi said, I saw two, but I heard the voice of three.
He said to him, When will Mashiach come? He said to him, Go and ask him yourself. [R. Yehoshua ben Levi asked,] Where does he sit? [Eliyahu answered], At the gate of the city. [R. Yehoshua ben Levi asked,] How will I recognize him? [Eliyahu replied], He sits among the poor lepers. All of them take off and reapply their bandages at one time. This one takes off one and re-bandages one. He says, perhaps I will be needed, and I do not want to delay.
[R. Yehoshua ben Levi] went to him and said to him, Peace be upon you, my teacher and master. He said to him, Peace be upon you, the son of Levi. R. Yehoshua said to Mashiach, when are you coming, Master? He said to him, today.
[R. Yehoshua b. Levi] returned to Eliyahu. Eliyahu said to him, What did he say to you? He said to him, Peace be upon you, the son of Levi. Eliyahu said to R. Yehoshua, You and your father are guaranteed a place in the world to come.
[R. Yehoshua said to Eliyahu,] He lied to me! Because he said to me, I will come today, and he did not come. [Eliyahu] said to him, He said to you, Today, if you hear God’s voice.
The image of Mashiach among the lepers is indelible in my mind. He is not ministering to the lepers, nor healing them. Instead, he himself is a leper as well, or at least disguised as one. It is only the small detail of the way that he unties and re-ties his bandages that marks him as other from the other desperate people who surround him. How many people would notice this tiny detail? How many people would expect to see Mashiach as a leper, giving only the smallest sign that he can come and change everything?
A world where nobody gives the lepers enough attention to notice that one is different is a world where Mashiach cannot come. He is ready to come at any moment—he even ties his bandages so he won’t have to delay—but it is easy to imagine hundreds of people walking by him every day without even seeing him. This human instinct is normal. As a New Yorker, I know that I pass the same homeless people day after day, and I know little about them. It’s because really seeing them hurts me, and so it is easier to look away. But perhaps one of them is like Mashiach. Perhaps this choice that I, and many many like me, make every day is preventing us from making a better world for them, yes, but also for me and my family and friends and loved ones. Redemption cannot come for anyone, until it comes for everyone.
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi feels betrayed when Mashiach doesn’t come when he is supposed to. Imagine thinking that Mashiach himself has lied to you. If he does not come when he says he will, perhaps that means he will not come at all. However, Eliyahu reminds Rabbi Yehoshua that Mashiach, even if he is a person, is not someone who comes and changes the world. Instead, when the world changes, he will come. He does not bring the redemption, he is a sign that we have done the work we need to do to redeem ourselves. At the moment when people really see the lepers at the gate, and pay them enough attention to notice that one is different, the world will begin to change. The poor and sick and vulnerable will not be other, because we will recognize them as being created in God’s image, just as we ourselves were. When we hear God’s voice, when we hear the cries of the lepers, when we see our weaknesses and strive to fix them—that is when we will be redeemed. And that is when we will merit the redemption, because we will have created it ourselves.