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The Valley of the Dry Bones and the Advent of the Redemption, Part 3

April 16, 2014

The following is from an article by Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, a great-nephew of Rabbi Joseph Soloveichik:

… The redemption cannot take place without repentance; the messiah will not come unless we are deserving of his arrival. Maimonides, the most influential of medieval Jewish philosophers, interprets the passage in its most literal sense, asserting in his Laws of Repentance that “Israel will be redeemed only if it repents.” (Laws of Repentance 7:5) Whether the messiah comes, Maimonides seems to be saying, is up to us; whether he redeems us depends on whether we become worthy of redemption. Yet Maimonides’ assertion, which is based on talmudic precedent, begs the following question: What if we never repent, and therefore never become worthy of redemption? If the messiah’s coming depends on our own worthiness, how can traditional Jews be so certain—indeed, why are we obligated to believe—that he will eventually come? This question was posed by one of the leading Jewish philosophers of the last century, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, in a lecture on the subject of repentance:

If one accepts Maimonides’ opinion… that the coming of the messiah is dependent upon repentance, and that if it does not take place then there will be no redemption; how is it possible to declare, “I believe with complete faith in the advent of the messiah and though he may tarry I will await his coming every day”? It is possible that he will tarry indefinitely if Israel does not repent; what sense is there in awaiting his coming daily? (Pinchas H. Peli, On Repentance: The Thought and Oral Discourses of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (Jerusalem: Oroth, 1980), pp. 134-135.)

Rabbi Soloveitchik’s answer is startling: Because the messiah will come only when Israel is worthy of his coming, the belief in the certainty of redemption is of necessity a belief that Israel will prove itself worthy of the messiah. Maimonides himself stresses that “The Tora has already assured us that Israel will finally repent at the end of its exile and immediately be redeemed.” (Mishneh Torah, ibid.) Thus, writes Rabbi Soloveitchik, the portion of the Jewish credo that expresses belief in the coming of the messiah is “based upon faith in kneset yisrael [the congregation of Israel]. It is not an easy faith.” Faith in the messiah is faith in ourselves, in our ability to bring the messiah by becoming worthy of his arrival…

I believe that there is a different answer to this question. Imagine say, 50,000 years into the future, and the Messiah has yet to come, this planet is barely habitable, and the Jewish people, like the rest of most of what is left of mankind, lives somewhere beyond our solar system. The Jews keep even less of the commandments that we keep today, finally and unequivocally agreeing amongst themselves that because they lack the proper knowledge, intentions, and/or spiritual level, they can not fulfill any of the positive commandments, yet they still pray for the day when God will redeem then. The weaker ones will complain that it has been far too long of a wait, and God will respond through His prophet, “the gates of repentance are still open.”

That is, the Redemption will only come when the Jews repent, and therefore it is not a certainty in our manner of speaking and understanding, but it is also certain that at any point in history, no matter how unlikely and impossible it seems that the Jews will be redeemed and restored to their homeland, it nevertheless is an article of our faith that it can always happen.  Even millions of years from now, if God forbid it has not happened, the Divine court can always retort that It is ready to bring the Redemption, if only we would do our part. Because God is not bound time, he always has this recourse. There will never be a point in time when we could say that Messiah never came and therefore never will come, because there is always the future.

Although this sounds depressing at first, I do believe it is a better resolution than the one attributed to Rabbi Soloveichik, which merely begs the question: why should we believe that we will one day repent if the choice is entirely ours? This, I believe, is the message at the end of Ezekiel’s vision: “‘Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel; behold, they say: Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are clean cut off. Therefore prophesy, and say unto them: Thus saith the Lord GOD: Behold, I will open your graves, and cause you to come up out of your graves, O My people; and I will bring you into the land of Israel.” No matter how desperate it seems, no matter how dead and buried we mat be, we still have that promise.

(Part 4)

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