End of Days
With the world appearing more and more a dangerous place, I'm wondering what Judaism has to say about the possibility of an apocalyptic final event. Does such a concept exist, and how will that play out?
The Aish Rabbi Replies:
The Jewish people believe in what's called the End of Days. This isn't the final end of the world – but merely the end of history as we know it. After the End of Days the world will continue as usual, with the big exception that there will be world peace.
As the End of the Days approach, there are two paths that the world could take. The first is filled with kindness and miracles, with the Messiah "given dominion, honor and kinship so that all peoples, nations and languages would serve him; his dominion would be an everlasting dominion that would never pass, and his kingship would never be destroyed." (Daniel 7:13-14) This scenario could be brought at any moment, if we'd just get our act together!
The other path is described as Messiah coming "humble and riding upon a donkey" (Zechariah 9:9). In this scenario, nature will take its course, and society will undergo a slow painful deterioration, with much suffering. God's presence will be hidden, and his guidance will not be perceivable.
According to this second path, there will be a valueless society in which religion will not only be chided, it will be used to promote immorality. Young people will not respect the old, and governments will become godless. This is why the Midrash says, "One third of the world's woes will come in the generation preceding the Messiah." (Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, "Handbook of Jewish Thought")
According to the Talmud, as the Messianic era approaches, the world will experience greater and greater turmoil: Vast economic fluctuations, social rebellion, and widespread despair. The culmination will be a world war of immense proportion led by King Gog from the land of Magog. This will be a war the likes of which have not been seen before. This will be the ultimate war of good against evil, in which evil will be entirely obliterated. (Ezekiel ch. 38, 39; Zechariah 21:2, 14:23; Talmud – Sukkah 52, Sanhedrin 97, Sotah 49)
What is the nature of this cataclysmic war? Traditional Jewish sources state that the nations of the world will descend against the Jews and Jerusalem. The Crusades, Pogroms and Arab Terrorism will pale in comparison. Eventually, when all the dust settles, the Jews will be defeated and led out in chains. The Torah will be proclaimed a falsehood.
Then, just when we think the story is over, the Messiah will come and lead the Jewish redemption. He will inspire all peoples to follow God, rebuild the Temple, gather in any remaining Jewish exiles to Israel, and re-establish the Sanhedrin. (Maimonides – Melachim ch. 11-12)
In many ways, the world is a depressing place. But life is like medicine. Imagine a person with a serious internal disease. Taking the right medication will detoxify the body by pushing all the impurities to the surface of the skin. The patient may look deathly ill – all covered in sores. But in truth, those surface sores are a positive sign of deeper healing.
The key is to maintain the hope of redemption.
Rabbi Azriel Tauber, a successful businessman and Torah scholar who lives in New York, is a survivor of the concentration camps. Rabbi Tauber says he was able to survive the camps because every day, his father would encourage him and say: "Don't despair, my son, for redemption can come at any moment."
The Torah provides our hope for the future. Maimonides says that every day, a Jew should yearn for the Messiah. Not in order that Jews should rule the world, or to be exalted amongst the nations, nor to eat, drink and rejoice. But rather we yearn for the Messiah so that we will have time for the wisdom of Torah, with nothing to disturb that pursuit.
The message should be clear: Keep focused on the Torah, for it is the voice of reason in our world of insanity. If we live with that knowledge today, then the Torah promises that the final resolution will come more quickly and painlessly. And at the very least, living with this understanding is sure to keep us among those who have preserved their sanity in this world of confusion.
Indeed, the world is in desperate need of Messianic redemption. War and pollution threaten our planet; ego and confusion erode family life. To the extent we are aware of the problems of society, is the extent we will yearn for redemption. As the Talmud says, one of the first questions a Jew is asked on Judgment Day is: "Did you yearn for the arrival of the Messiah?"
How can we hasten the coming of the Messiah? The best way is to love all humanity generously, to keep the mitzvot of the Torah (as best we can), and to encourage others to do so as well.
Despite the gloom, the world does seem headed toward redemption. One apparent sign is that the Jewish people have returned to the Land of Israel and made it bloom again. Additionally, a major movement is afoot of young Jews returning to Torah tradition.
By the way, Maimonides states that the popularity of Christianity and Islam is part of God's plan to spread the ideals of Torah throughout the world. This moves society closer to a perfected state of morality and toward a greater understanding of God. All this is in preparation for the Messianic age.
The Messiah can come at any moment, and it all depends on our actions. God is ready when we are. For as King David says: "Redemption will come today – if you hearken to His voice."