In our Besorah reading this week Yeshua speaks of the birth pangs of Messiah. He warns his talmidim that there will be great troubles in the days before his return. There will be faminines, wars, earthquakes, and religious persecution. Children will turn on their parents and vice versa. There will be false prophets pretending to be the Messiah. He sums it up by saying that it will be the worst trouble since the beginning of the world.
Within our tradition this is called Chevlei Mashiach. The Talmud says that it will be a time of impudence, famine, rejection of Torah scholars, rampant immorality, political corruption, and heavy inflation.
Tractate Sotah (49b) sums it up this way:
In the times of the footsteps of the Messiah... the wisdom of scribes will putrefy, and people who fear sin will be held in disgust, and the truth will be absent. The youth will shame the face of elders, elders will stand before minors. Normal family relations will be ruined: A son will disgrace a father; a daughter will rise up against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. A man’s enemies will be the members of his household. The face of the generation will be like the face of a dog; a son will no longer be ashamed before his father. And upon what is there for us to rely? Only upon our Father in heaven.
Rabbi Yochanan, a major figure of the Talmud, speaking about the birth pangs of the Messiah, exclaimed: “Let [the Messiah] come, but may I not see it!” He wanted redemption to appear but he dreaded the Chevlei Mashiach.
There have been many times throughout the centuries where it certainly felt like we were in the midst of Chevlei Mashiach; Destruction of our Temple, the incredible violence of the Crusades, the Black Plague where millions died, persecution by the Church, Pogroms, two world wars, the Shoah.
Right now it certainly feels like we are in the midst of Chevlei Mashiach. This pandemic has taken so many lives, especially of the sick and elderly, our most vulnerable populations. A political environment where everyone is so polarized; hurling invectives and insults rather than listening to one another. And the continued endemic racism in our country as made so painfully obvious in the brutal killing of George Floyd by policemen who violated their oath to serve and protect. And this most recent event has also signaled a rise in antisemitism as well with vandalism against synagogues and Jewish cemeteries. Believe it or not, I even read a social media post this past week that blamed all racism and Black slavery on the Jews!
I attended a virtual protest at work yesterday where people of color shared their stories of fear and anguish. A medical student shared how her teenage sister, who was having a panic attacked, was shot four times by police. (Baruch Hashem, she survived!) A doctor shared a story of being pulled over by the police and he was the only one put into the police car despite the fact that there were several other people in the car with him, all of whom were white. Another medical student shared how he had to be conscious every day of how he carried himself and what he said so as to combat the implicit assumption of many that he was dangerous and a threat. It was heartbreaking and painful to listen to, but we all need to hear such stories.
About 15 years ago, I decided to wear a yarmulke every day. I was very nervous of how people would react, what they would say, and how they would act around me. While I wore it openly at work and in my home, when I went into the public I almost always covered it with a hat. Some years ago I got a new boss who was an Israeli. She asked me, “Is it ok to wear a kippah openly in America?” At that moment I realized that I was covering it because of my anxiety and I decided that this is indeed the Land of Freedom and I needed to wear it openly. But here’s the deal, people of color have no choice. I can hide my Jewishness, but they cannot. They cannot put on a hat to hide their distinctiveness when they go out in public. They are exposed 24/7. They are exposed to fearful looks, people avoiding them, saying unkind things, people making assumptions about who they are by the color of their skin. Racism is indeed an insidious blight upon humanity.
Are we in the midst of the birth pangs of Messiah? Maybe. People of every generation, experiencing the pains of this unredeemed world have claimed this. People of every generation have hoped that indeed it may be the case, that the Messiah would come to end this suffering. In the words of Fiddler on the Roof, “Rabbi, we've been waiting for the Messiah all our lives. Wouldn't this be a good time for him to come?”
Rav Shaul says that we have been in the midst of this since the beginning. He uses the birth imagery when he says “Creation has been groaning in labor pains” awaiting the redemption of the world. But he also says in that same passage “Creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the Children of God”.
It is during these difficult times, times that feel like the birth pangs of the Messiah, that we need to reveal ourselves as the Children of Hashem. We need to do all we can to fight for equality, fight for justice, fight against racism and hatred of all kinds.
AJ Heschel got involved in the Civil Rights movement because he realized that he could not write a book about the Prophet’s call to justice and then stand idly by at the injustice facing his society of the day. Heschel joined Martin Luther King, Jr’s march on Selma. Later recalling this event, he said, “My feet were praying”.
As Jewish followers of Messiah Yeshua, we need to pray with our feet and we need to reveal ourselves as Children of God. We need to address the groaning of Creation, and the groaning of the downtrodden, disenfranchised, and the marginalized of our society. We need to speak out and attend protests and fight for legal action to protect people from injustice.
But as Jewish followers of Messiah Yeshua, we need to address injustice with love and compassion. We cannot add to the cacophony of rancor, spite, and hatred that pervades our society today. Yeshua said, “Bless those who curse you, and pray for those who persecute you.” Let us take his teaching to heart and while speaking out against the evil in our world, also pray for the perpetrators of evil. Pray that they will realize the harm that they do with their words and deeds. Pray that they will do teshuvah and turn their faces to the God of Israel and the whole world.
These are indeed difficult times. In the Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo complained to Gandalf, “I wish it need not have happened in my time.”
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
Now is our time, a time to act, and time to pray, and time to mourn, and a time to speak out.
All of Creation truly groans in its labor pains, awaiting the return of the Messiah. Our society groans in pain and torment.
May we pray with our feet, put action to words, and do our part to address these ills.
May we be constantly aware of how our words and actions affect others around us.
May we bless those who curse us, and pray for those who persecute us.
And then we will truly be revealed as Children of God.