I know so many people whose lives are driven by the question ‘How can I make the world better?’ They do such different things, they’re teachers, healers, musicians, listeners, bread-bakers; basically they’re truly human beings. They’re driven by the supreme value, chesed, loving-kindness. I only wish they were the ones making the big decisions about the world’s future.
Maybe that’s why I’m drawn over and again to the Talmud’s mysterious vignette about the coming of the Messiah:
‘When will the Messiah come?’ Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi asks Elijah in one of their many fleeting encounters.
‘Ask him yourself!’ replies the prophet unhelpfully.
‘But where will I find him?’ the rabbi persists.
‘Among the poor and sick at the gates of the great city (Rome, the capital of empire).’
‘And how am I to know which one of those it is?’
‘All the others will be busy taking off their bandages and putting them back on. The one you’re after will take off just one bandage and put it back on quickly thinking “maybe I am needed.”’
I admire people who don’t just bemoan the world’s ills but look at the wounds and say maybe I’m needed to help make things better.
Today is the new moon of the month of Av, the first half of which culminates in Tisha B’Av, the bleak fast of the Ninth, commemorating the destruction of both temples in Jerusalem. But the day is also in a small way a festival because, according to tradition, it’s when the Messiah is born. Out of destruction comes hope, out of anguish the commitment to heal.
The nine days before Tisha B’Av are characterised by a lot of don’t do’s: one conducts less business transactions; one doesn’t build for cheerful reasons like making a wedding canopy for one’s children or creating anything beautiful or grand; one doesn’t plant pleasure gardens with shaded walks for royals to relax…(Orach Chaim 551:2, Joseph Caro’s 16th century code of law).
But, the rule continues, ‘if your wall looks like falling you’re allowed to rebuild it.’ In other words, we stop trying to make fun new things and concentrate on repairing what’s broken in the world.
Everyday I read reports about people who do just that, who reach remote villages unserved by roads and bring vaccines; who teach healthcare to local women who become regional nurses for hundreds of square miles; who advise on animal welfare to families dependent on the labour of their donkey. I learn about children born in virtual destitution who become impassioned visionaries transforming the lives of their communities and role-models for the wealthier world, showing them what can and should be done. It’s humbling and greatly motivating.
Returning to the Talmud, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi travels magically back from the great city to resume his dialogue with Elijah:
‘Did you find him?’
‘What did he say?’
‘He promised to come this very day, but he’s failed to show up!’
‘You’ve misunderstood,’ Elijah explains. ‘What he actually said was: “This very day if you listen to God’s voice.”’
I don’t believe in one single personal messiah who’ll save the whole world. But I do firmly believe that there’s a portion of the messiah within each of us, challenging us with the question ‘Maybe you’re needed?’ There’s only one answer, ‘Yes, this very day!’
Every one of us is needed. Across the world lots of walls look like falling and we’re all required to help rebuild them.