There is a rabbinic text that comes to my mind as the year 2022 draws to a close. In the Babylonian Talmud, in the tractate Sanhedrin 98a, there is a story, an Aggadah, about a certain rabbi who learns that the Messiah is at the entrance of the city of Rome. He is sitting amongst the poor who are suffering with illnesses. The Rabbi, Yehoshua ben Levi, goes to the Messiah and asks when he will come and reveal himself. The reply is “today.” However, the Messiah did not appear on that day. R. Yehoshua has a mystical conversation with the prophet Elijah. He tells him, “The Messiah lied to me, since he said to me, ‘I am coming today,’ and he did not come.” To which Elijah responds, alluding to Psalm 95:7, ‘He said that he will come today if you listen to his voice.’”
“Hearing my voice” is an expression often used in the Bible to mean to obey or to understand a commandment. It includes the Hebrew verb lishmoa, to listen, or to obey a commandment (for example, in Deuteronomy 8:20; 13:19; 15:5), or to understand something said (as in Genesis 11:17). Therefore, the response of the people of Israel upon receiving God’s commandments in Exodus 24:7 is often translated, “All that the Lord has said we will do, and we will obey,” but it could also be rendered, “we will do, and we will understand.”
Applying this awareness to the Talmudic story suggests that the Messiah was saying to the rabbi that it is when the people finally understand and obey God’s commandments that messianic times will near. R. Yehoshua lived in the third century CE, in the aftermath of two bloody revolts that the Jews of Judea had mounted against the Roman Empire. The first, from 66-70 CE, had resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple. The second was the so-called Bar Kokhba revolt of 132-135 CE. After that conflict, the Emperor Hadrian depopulated Judea, renamed the region Syria Palaestina, and banned the greatly reduced local Jewish population from the site of the ruined Temple (except on their day to commemorate its destruction). The later rabbinic story about the Messiah and R. Yehoshua therefore addressed Jewish feelings of powerlessness over their situation. Jews must re-intensify their dedication to living according to God’s word in the Torah.
Notably, there had been decades of unrest in Judea under the weight of Roman domination before the first revolt of 66-70 CE. Many wondered when a Messiah might arise. It was in that painful first century that the New Testament was composed. It portrays both John the Baptist and Jesus calling on the people to repent and turn to God with increased fervor because the times of redemption were nearing. This same message was echoed centuries later in the tale of R. Yehoshua and the Messiah at the gates of Rome.
It seems to me that Jews and Christians hold in common the conviction that an individual’s and a community’s actions contribute to God’s redemption. Jews speak of the coming of a messianic time (Yemot HaMashiach), while Christians expect the parousia or the return of Christ. But as a Vatican document stated in 1985, we Jews and Christians “must accept our responsibility to prepare the world for the coming of the Messiah by working together for social justice, respect for the rights of persons and nations, and for social and international reconciliation.” We both trust that one day all people will “hear the voice” of their Creator.
Every day, Jews pray for the advent of the time of redemption. They especially long for it on Passover, remembering the first redemption of the Hebrews when God freed them from slavery in Egypt. Every day, Christians pray to the heavenly Father, “Thy kingdom come.” At every liturgy, they celebrate their belief in the “Passover” of Christ from the slavery of death to new life. I believe the spiritual kinship evident in these parallels is more important today than ever.
The war in Ukraine bears too many similarities to the time of the Second World War with all its abominations. While poverty and hunger multiply in the world due to the neglect and indifference of many who hold power, we are all faced with nuclear and environmental perils. We Jews and Christians have a religious responsibility to work together to address these problems, along with other people of good will. The ability to reform, to hear God’s voice, is always within our power. Our distinctive but resonant messianic hopes give meaning to the existence of the cosmos and of each one of us.
I hope these reflections from a Jewish brother will in some way contribute to the observances of those about to commemorate the nativity of Jesus. Shalom!
*Georgetown University, Washington DC