by R. Gidon Rothstein
Maharal’s Yemot HaMashiach: Getting at the Roots
Part of what I find interesting in studying different Torah scholars’ perspectives on the same topic is that juxtaposing them gives us a clearer picture of their varying foci. Rambam was interested in the Messianic era as a time when the world could better focus on service of Hashem, and Abarbanel on it as a time when the Jewish people could finally prove to the rest of the world the truth of the claims we’ve been making about Hashem and how best to serve Hashem.
Maharal takes us in yet another direction, more concerned with the fundamental workings of the world, and how those will change in the Messianic era.
Transitions are Hard
I am taking this from chapters in Netzach Yisrael, an essay of Maharal’s that discusses both the Exodus from Egypt and the future redemption (part of his point is that the future redemption will be similar in some ways to the first one). I am taking only that which addressed our topic, so this should not be taken as a representative summary. For example, we’ll start at chapter 36, ignoring the first 35 chapters, because that is where Maharal takes up the future redemption.
He says there will have to be a loss or destruction of the old order and the ushering in a different way for the world to work (he calls it the havayah hachadashah, the new existence). A little later in the chapter, Maharal explains that our current world is extremely physical, while the Messianic reality will be more nivdal, separated from physicality. Moving from one type of world to the other will not be simple, and is what the Gemara labels chevlei Mashiach.
Literally, that means the birth pangs of Mashiach, which Maharal see as an apt metaphor. The mother’s pain, he says, is from bringing forth a new existence, the baby’s. So, too, the great changes that come with the Messianic era cause birth pangs.
Avoiding the Troubles
Sanhedrin 98b lists some ways to avoid these troubles, and quotes several Amoraim who express their yearning for the days of Mashiach while praying they not suffer the chevlei Mashiach.
Maharal understands R. Yosef to say that he recognized that he, too, was caught up in the physical, like this world, so that the best he could hope for was to be able to partake somewhat of the times of Mashiach, despite his physicality [Maharal reads a reference in R. Yosef’s words to a chamor, donkey, as indicating chomer, materiality; here, I’m less interested here in his textual readings, how he arrives at his conclusions, than in the substance, so I’ll mostly skip them].
That same Gemara has Abbaye reminding Rabbah that a person who is involved in Torah and acts of kindness can feel confident that s/he will be spared the troubles of Yemot HaMashiach. For Maharal, that’s because Torah is a non-physical good, while kindnesses are done in the physical world; a person who does both is combining the two so well that a move from a largely physical world to one where that’s not the central factor will not be as traumatic as for others.
Change, Simplicity, and Three Meals on Shabbat
Two assumptions important to Maharal’s views here are that change is always difficult and, largely, undesirable, and that the highest level is simplicity. Torah and acts of kindness, in his view, have the quality of peshitut, simplicity, and involve no change, so that one involved in those two has reached a stable high level.
Rambam, too, thought that perfection was static and unchanging, but Maharal seems to me to go a significant step further, in that he is saying that change is bad in this world, because it shows a lack of simplicity [I could have imagined change being good, because it takes us closer to the ultimate perfection, as in the change from the ordinary world to the Messianic one. If we saw change that way, it theoretically could come without pain or trouble; that’s not Maharal’s view].
The rubric of change and trouble explains to Maharal the view of R. Yehoshu’a b. Levi (Shabbat 118a, quoted by R. Shimon b. Pazi) that eating three meals on Shabbat protects against chevlei Mashiach, Gehinom, and the war of Gog and Magog. In the Gemara itself, the connection is technical, that each of those are referred to as a yom, a day, and the source for eating three meals is the word hayom, this day, used for the extra manna that fell on Friday.
Maharal gives a more fundamental reason, that Shabbat signifies the overall perfection of creation, which leads to oneg, enjoyment, the opposite of tsa’ar, distress. At three junctures, the world won’t be perfect, however. Gog and Magog will be a time when thre will be too much of the nations of the world [it’s not clear to me if he means there will be too many of them, or they’ll think too highly of themselves]; Gehinnom is a time or place that addresses people’s lacks, and chevlei Mashiach brings into actuality that which was only potential.
All three should involve pain, but the person who partakes of three meals, showing his or her belief in a world of perfection, avoids those sufferings [there’s much lacking in this explanation, but Maharal doesn’t elaborate, and I won’t speculate].
The next point of Maharal’s that I want to note isn’t long enough for its own heading, even though it deserves it. Maharal closes this discussion by saying “and understand these words very well, and there is no doubt in this interpretation.” I noticed several similar comments in these chapters, where he offers an idea and then tells us how certain he is that it is the correct way to see the issue.
I greet such certainty with mixed feelings, since what he has to say is not the only way that giants of Jewish thought have seen these issues or interpreted these texts. More, I tend to find his ideas interesting, but not in any way obvious or automatically compelling. It makes me wonder about how sure any of us should feel about ideas that come to us, even when they seem very good, even when they seem the best way to explain the sources at hand.
For another time.
Gog and Magog
Maharal devotes chapter 37 to the war of Gog and Magog (which came up as one of the troubles that eating three meals on Shabbat helps avoid). Maharal assumes that will occur in the time of Mashiach, but kodem malchuto, which I think means before he rules over the whole world (if he’s not ruling at all, it’s not clear how it’s the time of Mashiach). All the nations will come to do battle, Mashiach will defeat them, and become the single king [note that for Maharal, Mashiach won’t just be respected by all, he’ll actually rule over them].
The war will occur because nothing starts out at its fullest level of development or perfection (here, change is growth towards perfection, but also shows perfection has not yet been reached). The nations will oppose Mashiach because he will be a force towards a more unified world, whereas the nations are always multitudes.
The Death of Mashiach b. Yosef
The first element of the war is the death of Mashiach b. Yosef. Maharal says the Jewish people are like a single individual with twelve limbs (the twelve tribes). Yehudah and its kings rule from the head or mind (in that they follow Hashem’s Torah, I think he means). Yosef is more like the heart (in that the Northern kings tended to follow their hearts more, to give themselves and the people what they wanted).
The heart is the center of the body, the focal point of most other body parts, as will be Mashiach b. Yosef. But since it’s based on the heart, it comes to an end, and the other nations, trying to maintain their plurality and pluralism in the face of Mashiach’s movement to unity, will be able to kill him. Then, Mashiach b. David will overcome them, removing all their power, and build the new world.
The Final Defeat of Separatism in Favor of Diversity Within Unity
The second aspect of the war (which Maharal closes by saying, “this now has explained to you the issue of the war of Gog and Magog”) is of the nations’ desire to be multiple and separate, while the Jews strive for unity. [I pause to note that he cannot mean sameness, since he himself had said that the twelve tribes are like twelve different body parts. I think he means that the rest of the world sees each nation as its own separate, distinct entity, with no need or reason to unify around the truths of the world, as do the Jewish people].
That’s what will be at stake in this final war. The non-Jews will seek to defeat and destroy Mashiach, whose move to unity threatens their picture of world order, in which each nation is its own sovereign, independent, and separate entity. The goal of a world that worships Hashem, following the lead of the nation unified by its worship of Hashem, asks the rest of the world to buy in to a different picture than they’ve had until now.
They will resist; in defeating them, Mashiach will more firmly establish his rule while taking the world a giant step closer to its ultimate perfection.
As our first step in Maharal’s view of Yemot haMashiach, we’ve seen the stress he placed on the change from one kind of world to another, physical to not, multifold to singular, and the struggles that comes with undergoing that transition.
Next time, we’ll see the factors that will help complete it, and begin the discussion of what will be true of the Messianic era itself.