Rabbi Noah Weinberg, the founder of Aish, was a tremendous visionary and big thinker. When he talked about the Jewish people returning to Judaism he did not speak in terms of a few people here and there but of the entire Jewish nation. His vision was a complete renaissance of return to Torah, and anything short of perfecting the world with the Jewish people fulfilling its mission as a Light Unto Nations was incomplete.
In all the years I knew him I often wondered what practically he was after. When he talked about bringing every Jew back to their אבינו שבשמים “Father in Heaven” was this in fact reasonable and even possible? Yes it is true that many Jews with the most tenuous connection to their history, heritage and people have returned and are now very Jewishly involved, but how practical really was it to expect this across the board?
Now I know what Rav Noach would have said. “What, you don’t think the Almighty can do it? You don’t think He wants it? He can make a universe but He can’t help us reach every one of our brothers and sisters?!”
I think the reason that I never posed this query was because I had a certain fear of him. At any rate, many years later I did come across something that might have addressed my lack of faith on this topic and help me live with my personal inability to adopt his incredible and lofty vision.
The Messiah Will Arrive When…
In this week’s parsha, there is a turning point for the Israelites where their situation of slavery is about to change for the better. Redemption is at hand and the Torah narrates (Exodus 2:23-25)…
And it was during those many days (when the Jewish people were enslaved) that the king of Egypt died. And the people of Israel groaned from their enslaving labor and they cried out, and that cry ascended to God. God heard their moaning and He remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob. And God saw the children of Israel and God knew.
The Jerusalem Talmud parses these verses to list five factors that were essential to bring Redemption from Egypt. Now this is crucial because all throughout Jewish tradition we link the Egyptian Redemption to the Final or Messianic Redemption. What applies to one will be duplicated to the other and hence it is important to know what ingredients are necessary to bring Redemption – both past and future, what we would call Mashiach. So the Jerusalem Talmud explains…
- “And it was during those many days” refers to the simple fact that time was up. Redemption both in Egypt and the future have time clocks. Abraham was foretold how long the Israelites would be enslaved in Egypt and Jewish tradition says that the Messiah has to arrive by the Jewish calendar year 6000. That is the latest when he arrives; we are in 5777 – so hold onto your hats.
- “And the people of Israel groaned” refers to the pain the Israelites experienced in Egypt that caught God’s attention. Pain today? The Holocaust alone can vouch for that.
- “…and they cried out” refers to the expression of pain and the resulting prayers.
- “…and He remembered His covenant with Abraham…” refers to the merit of the Forefathers and Foremothers. God made promises to them all and has to fulfill them, so we are riding in on their coattails.
- “And God saw the people of Israel and God knew” refers to Teshuva/Repentance on the part of the Israelites.
Now this last one about the people repenting is the most difficult one to understand as it does not seem to have any clear reference relating to the verses as do the other four. It does not say exactly what God “saw” or what he “knew” and is very vague and obscure.
The Torah Temimah (work by Rabbi Baruch Epstein 1902) points out a Midrash that fills in the blanks and says that God “saw” the middle-of-the-road type Israelites (baynonim in Hebrew) doing Teshuva/Repentance while the “bad Israelites” (leaving aside what made them bad) merely having thoughts and contemplations of Teshuva. Hence the wording “and God knew” is in reference to the latter group because only God knows our thoughts; no one else is privy to that. And so when it comes to the final item on this list, Teshuva/Repentance – God saw some people improving their ways whilst others did not even do anything but merely contemplated as much.
And herein lies the key to what it takes on our part to bring Messiah. Other than #3, the only factor in our control is the fifth one, Teshuva. And it doesn’t mean that every single Jew has to become a full-fledged, card-carrying observant Jew before God brings the Messiah. There just has to be a significant enough critical mass that creates an overall awareness so the really far-off Jews have to merely consider doing Teshuva. Considering and thinking about it and no more, not even acting on it. This is what was good-enough for God in Egypt and ought to be good enough for our day and age as well. Not everyone then became super righteous, Orthodox, Torah-observant – whatever you want to call it – they did just enough to create the critical mass that defines a movement and overall consciousness of Teshuva.
And indeed this is what is happening today and I have personally witnessed it in my own lifetime. When I first started to study traditional Judaism in 1976 at a “black hat” Yeshiva in Toronto when I was 16, nobody ever heard of someone from a non-Orthodox background wanting to learn about Judaism. I was a weirdo and when I walked into Ner Israel Yeshiva with my jeans and red-haired jewfro, the whole place would stop and stare and wonder what I was doing there. It was pretty much non-existent back then that any non-Orthodox person would make their way to a Torah-observant institution or rabbi to learn Torah.
Fast-forward 40 years and today EVERYBODY knows someone who did not grow up religious but has changed their lives and now keeps Shabbat, keeps Kosher etc. Every single Jews knows of someone who takes a Torah class, goes to a Shabbat dinner, puts tefillin on or does some other mitzvot that they never did earlier in their life. What was unheard of 40 years ago is today common place.
So there you have it. We don’t need to wait until each and every Jew is doing every mitzvah perfectly – who amongst us can lay claim to that anyway? But merely have to do anything and everything in our power to expand the Jewish awareness movement. Movements are not created by just a few charismatic people – that is just the beginning. No they happen when there is a groundswell of like-minded individuals doing their part to make it a reality.
That is why Rav Noah used to urge every Jew, no matter what they knew about Judaism or what level they were at, to teach what they have learnt to another. If we follow his lead and his advice then, as this week’s Torah reading testifies, “God will see and God will know” … and Mashiach will not be far behind.
Good or bad baby
You can change it anyway you want
You can rearrange it
Enlightenment … it’s up to you