“And they lived happily ever after” is a great ending for a children’s story, but we cynical adults smirk at the thought. We’ve been around long enough to know there are no happy endings.
And yet, as Jews, it seems we are meant to get beyond that cynicism. We really do believe there will come a time when the “lion will lie down with the sheep,” “there will be no more tears,” “nations will turn their swords into ploughshares,” and the “world will be filled with knowledge of G-d.” That sure sounds like happily ever after.
And it’s not like this belief is a take-it-or-leave-it footnote to Judaism. Maimonides lists belief in the coming of Messiah as one of the Thirteen Principles of Faith. That means one can do everything right— daven three times a day, keep Shabbat, eat kosher — but if one doesn’t believe in a “happy ending” one has missed the boat. It isn’t even enough to believe that, theoretically, this could happen one day in the distant future. We are supposed to live with a constant sense of anticipation, that, any moment now, existence as we know it will change dramatically.
Why is this belief so important?
A Life of Longing
Yearning for Messisah means I understand there is a game plan. Life is not an endless flipping of calendar pages, emerging out of nothingness and hurtling straight towards more nothingness.
There was a beginning—Yetzias Mitraymim–which we are required to remember each day. And there will be an end, a time when we reclaim the relationship of love that started then. During the long middle of this story, during the ebbs and flow of history, we hold on to the vision we were shown at Sinai, hold on it for dear life. We experienced that love once, and forever more we yearn for it.
Its like the wife of a famous refusenik from the former Soviet Union. She was allowed out of Russia before her husband, and during those years, there was not a day that she didn’t spend agitating for her husband’s release. She was living in the free world—surely she ate and slept during those years, perhaps she went shopping occasionally, but her entire existence was defined by her yearning to reunite with her husband
Yearning for Messiah is a cornerstone of Judaism because it shows we understand what life is all about. If we don’t mind that You are there, and we are here, we betray the intimacy of our experience at Sinai. Yes, we have lives to live, and jobs to do—and of course, part of our job is to live our lives joyfully.
But through it all, the Jew never forgets that this is not the way it is supposed to be. Even at a wedding, moments before we break into song and dance, we shatter a glass to remind us that though this wedding is a joyous glimpse of the unity of the future—there will always be a corner in our heart that refuses to be reconciled with Your absence. A part of us will always ache for You.
Right before he left this world, our forefather Jacob wanted to reveal to his sons the secret of the End of Time. How many years of pain and suffering, how many lulls, marked by the peace and prosperity that don’t really deliver, will the Jewish people have to live through before they can finally reunite with Hashem? When will this happy ending take place?
But just before the answer was revealed, as the world waited with bated breath, the curtain dropped. Ruach Hakodesh (the spirit of prophecy) departed, and the Jewish people were thrust into the fog of uncertainty. They would have to live in a constant state of yearning for something that remains elusively out of reach.
The Maharal tells us that the knowledge of when the Redemption would come would in itself constitute the redemption. When you know there is an end in sight you can relax back into your seat and enjoy the scenery. When you aren’t sure when you will reach your destination,, you live uncomfortably, squirming in your seat.
G-d wanted His beloved people to be in a constant state of vulnerability. For the minute we get too comfortable here, the connection to Him is weakened.
Nature Abhors a Vacuum
It is a rule of nature that a vacuum gets filled up. And it is the depth of the ache that we feel, the amount of hole we allow in our lives, which will determine the level of revelation we merit. By allowing ourselves to yearn—to feel the lack in our lives—we actively draw revelation into our world.
When a nursing mother doesn’t have enough milk, her lactation counselor will tell her to keep nursing the baby as much as possible. This is counter intuitive. If there isn’t enough milk, maybe what’s left should be rationed. But the opposite is true. The more the baby hungers, the more milk there will be. The depth of the vacuum determines the abundance.
Isiah, the prophet, tells us that in the end of days, “knowledge of Hashem will fill the world, like water covers the sea.” Water covers the sea bed, but under the water, there are valleys and mountain peaks. Where the ocean water is very deep, it is because under the roiling surface, the ground below is very concave. The water is shallow when under the surface the ground rises up high.
True, Messiah will bring with him awareness of Hashem, but the depth of revelation each individual will experience will be determined by how much space he’s left in his life available to fill up. Those who emptied themselves the most, who were willing to live with the bottomless pit of constant yearning for something out of reach — they will draw the flood of the joy of connection into the empty space in their aching hearts.
We are told that after death, we will be asked , “Tzipita L’yeshua?” “Did you yearn for redemption?” G-d will say — I missed you so much. Did you miss Me? Did you wait every day for Me to return? Did you agonize over My absence? And it will be in direct proportion to our willingness to be concave, to be empty, that we will be able to become filled.
“My soul thirsts for you, my very flesh yearns for you… and in proportion to that yearning, was I able to behold You in Your Sanctuary.” (Psalms, 63;2-3).
Recognizing the Jail
Rabbeinu Yonah, in the beginning of his classic Shaarei Teshuva, brings a midrash. The king sentenced some bandits to imprisonment. Once in prison, the prisoners managed to dig themselves a tunnel to freedom. Most of them took the opportunity to escape but one stayed behind. The jailer came in and beats the remaining prisoner. “The way is open before you! Why have you not escaped?”
We can imagine the prisoner protesting, “Wait a minute! You should find the escapees and beat them. What are you yelling at me for? I am the good one who stayed where you put me!”
And the jailer would respond, “No! You are the problem. The others realized they were in jail, they saw that life was not as it should be, and they took the first opportunity to escape. You, by staying here, have declared that this situation is not all that bad. By not escaping you have negated the whole concept of jail!”
We cheerfully sit around in exile—we decorate the cell, we pipe in some music—we’re having a grand old time.
And G-d can’t force us to turn to Him. Everything is in His hands, except that. So in His great love for us, He makes our lives a little less comfortable. Wake up! Smell the coffee! We notice it’s getting hotter and we run to adjust the air conditioning. We’re OK. We’ve got it all under control.
G-d waits. He waits for us to notice that we are in prison. He waits for us to let the pain catapult us into His arms.
“I will remove your heart of stone and replace it with a heart of flesh,” Ezekiel says.
But who needs a heart of flesh? A heart of stone is much more comfortable. Who wants to care so much? Who wants to mourn? Who wants to be so aware of what we are missing? Get with the program! Put that smile back on your face and get back on stage.
Zecharia, the Prophet, calls us Asirie Tikva —those bound by ropes of hope. Being in a constant state of hope and longing is a hard way to live. It’s difficult to live in this world like strangers in a strange land. We never totally fit in, never completely feel at home. Everyone else is dancing to the music, doing just fine. Only we stand there, eyes pinned to the door, bound by love, with ropes of hope, to another world, another reality. Yet when that blinding reality arrives, those ropes will connect us to the most joyous life possible.
Miriam Kosman is an international lecturer for Nefesh Yehudi, and teaches Jewish thought to hundreds of Israeli university students on a weekly basis. She is the author of the book Circle, Arrow, Spiral, Exploring Gender in Judaism. Her book is available on Amazon. To read an excerpt and learn more about her book, visit