As a Rabbi, I feel incredibly honoured to have been invited to speak to you today by my dear friend David Gifford, and I want to thank you all for the opportunity to speak to you today.
My training to become a Rabbi involved time in England, Israel and America. While in the United States, I was introduced to Winston Churchill’s humorous observation, that Britain and America are ‘two countries divided by one language’. As I consider the relationship between our two religions; I wonder if I could adapt his words and claim that we Jews and Christians, are two religions divided by one Messiah.
At the core of our two traditions we share the Five Books of Moses, we both adhere to the 10 Commandments as centrally instructive, and we all believe in the one God. The major difference, at least originally, appears to be over the question of the Messiah.
Rabbi Irving Greenberg, who was a keen advocate of interfaith dialogue, suggested that we Jews and Christians should stop worrying about our different beliefs in the Messiah. And when, in the future, the Messiah eventually comes, we can simply use the popular chat up line: “Do you come here often?” to find out if this is his first or second visit.
For Jews there has been a hope and expectation that a Messiah will one day come to earth, and on that day the world will be redeemed by God. This was such an important belief within Jewish tradition that it was included in the 13 articles of faith articulated by arguably the greatest Rabbi of all time, Moses Maimonides, he claimed: ‘At the end of days, an anointed one will come redeeming those who wait for God to save.’
However, over the years the Jewish expectation for the Messiah to arrive has diminished. And while the door is opened in anticipation every Passover for a messenger to announce the coming of the Messiah, very few really expect to find Elijah standing at the door. This lack of belief in the immanent arrival of the Messiah was such that a popular story developed.
In a small Russian Jewish village, the community council decided that they should pay a poor Jewish peasant, one ruble a week to sit at the town’s entrance, to be the first person to greet the Messiah when he arrived.
The man’s brother came to see him, and was puzzled about why he had accepted such a low-paying job.
“It’s true,” the poor man responded, “the pay is low. But” he added, “the job is permanent.”
Whether the Messiah is coming for the first or second time, both of our religions share a belief that the Messiah will one day come, and together we wait for that day.
If you will permit me a moment, I would like to offer my rabbinic understanding of the passage which was read today from the Book of Acts. The people around Jesus appear eager to experience the re-establishment of the Kingdom to Israel, or at least to know when it might be. I am sure all of us would like to witness the coming of the Messiah, and if not witness it; at least know when to expect his arrival. But to this request Jesus responds: ‘It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority.’ There is frustration that the date is not for humans to know, but there is also consolation as God will be responsible for sending the Messiah at a specific time in the future.
This situation is not so different from the one we find ourselves in today. We believe that the Messiah will come, but we have no idea when that coming will be. The challenge is what to do while we wait.
And to this the passage offers us a telling response. The two men dressed in white, standing beside the people, instruct them: ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven.’
I understand these men as telling the people, stop looking up at the sky waiting for the Messiah to come down to you. The Messiah will come, but waiting passively for his arrival will neither accelerate his coming, nor make the world worthy for him to redeem it. These two men recognised that the danger of the messianic ideal was that people would wait passively for the saviour, rather than working to help save themselves and the world in the interim.
While we wait for a Messiah to come, we cannot be absolved of our responsibilities to the world in which we are currently living.
In the first century Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, who is generally considered to have been the saviour of Judaism when the Second Temple was destroyed, taught: ‘If you should happen to be holding a sapling in your hand when someone comes to tell you that the Messiah has arrived; finish planting the sapling, and only then go and greet the Messiah.’ There is an element of caution over false messiahs, but more significantly there is a reminder that even with a Messiah we have an obligation to the world in which we are living.
One of the most important ideas which Reform Judaism highlighted within Jewish tradition is the concept not just of a Messiah, but of a Messianic Age. This idea suggests that rather than waiting for a Messiah to come down from Heaven to save us, we should be working to redeem this world, and make it a world fitting for a Messiah, rather than a world which requires a Messiah.
In both of our religious traditions we have many texts which tell us about what the redeemed world will look like. In Judaism, one of the central prayers, the Aleinu, paints a picture of what God’s kingdom on earth will look like: ‘Soon let us witness the glory of Your power; when the worship of material things shall pass away from the earth, and prejudice and superstition shall at last be cut off; when the world will be set right by the rule of God, and all humanity shall speak out in Your name, and all the wicked of the earth shall turn to You.’
With the picture of what the redeemed world looks like, we need to listen to those men of Acts who told us to stop ‘gazing up into heaven’ and instead we need to work today to redeem our world.
In Judaism this idea of working to make the world a better place is given the term: ‘Tikkun olam’ translated either as ‘healing the world’ or ‘repairing the world’. When we look around at the world in which we live, it is clear that this world is not perfect, this world is not complete, this world needs our help. And in this way we are called upon to be active in making the world a better place rather than waiting for a Messiah to save us.
The idea of repairing the whole world may at first seem rather daunting, but we are not called upon to complete this work on our own. Instead we are simply asked to play our part and to help in the way which we are able to. No two people in this Abbey can repair the world in the same way because no two people are the same. We have to consider our individual skills, our passions and the way in which we can make a difference.
Together our small individual actions will accumulate to have an impact beyond what we initially could have imagined. Within Judaism there is an idea that the observance of every good deed matters and the Rabbi I mentioned earlier, Moses Maimonides, used to say; imagine the world is balanced on a scale between good and evil. With a single action you have the power to tip the scale for good and for evil.
Like Moses we may not see the Promised Land towards which we are journeying, but as the Rabbis of old taught, lo alecha hamlacha ligmor, velo atah ben chorine lehitpatel mimena – It is not your duty to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.
As Jews and as Christians, we can be the builders of a Messianic Age.
We can be the masters of our destiny.
We will not wait for the world to become a better place; we will begin the work of making our world better.
The wait for a Messiah can encourage passivity; the need for a Messianic Age can be a call to action. We, collectively, need to hear the call, and we need to respond!
And perhaps when we have taken responsibility for making this world a better place, maybe then the Messiah will come down to help us in our task. While we Jews and Christians wait for the Messiah to come we need to be active in making his job easier. We need to create a world which is not crying out in need of a Messiah, but rather a world which is worthy of God’s anointed.