Ever hear that you are not supposed to cry over spilt milk? Why do the Jews sit there on the floor every year on the ninth of Av, mourning the Destruction of the Temple that happened eons ago? And while, “they lived happily ever after” is a great ending for a children’s story, we cynical adults smirk at the thought. We’ve been around long enough to know there are no happy endings, so what is this naïve hoping for Messiah?

And it’s not like this hoping is a take-it-or-leave-it footnote to Judaism, either. Maimonides lists belief in the coming of Messiah as one of the Thirteen Principles of Faith. Why is it so fundamental?

A Life of Longing

Getting beyond the cynicism to yearn for Messiah 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 – the Exodus from Egypt – 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, we hold on to the vision we were shown at Sinai, hold on to it for dear life. We experienced that love once, and forever more we yearn for it.

It’s like the wife of a famous refusenik who was allowed out of the former Soviet Union years before her husband. 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

I missed you so much. Did you miss Me? Did you wait every day for Me to return?

We are told that after death, we will be asked, “Tzipita Lyeshua?” “Did you yearn for redemption?” God 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 yearning that we experience the joy of re-connection. 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, jobs to do – and of course, we live our lives joyfully. But through it all, the Jew never forgets that there is something missing. 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.

Recognizing the Jail

Rabbeinu Yonah, (d. 1263) in his classic book, Shaarei Teshuva, cites 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 comes 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! Go 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! It is you by staying here, who have betrayed freedom. You are the problem! The others realized they were in jail; they took the first opportunity to escape. You, by staying put, have declared that you are comfortable with the way things are. You’ve negated the jail!”

We cheerfully sit around in exile and we decorate the cell, we pipe in some music – we’re having a grand old time.

“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 the dance floor! Yet, sometimes it is pain and mourning for what was that peels us off our infatuation with the superficial and forces us to dig deeper for the source of real joy.

God waits for us to notice that we are in prison.

So God makes exile a little less comfortable. We notice it’s getting hotter and we run to adjust the air conditioning. We’re okay. We’ve got it. Everything is under control.

God 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.

The prophet Zecharia calls us Asirie Tikva – “prisoners 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 (even while dancing) have our eyes pinned to the door, bound by love, with ropes of hope to another world, another reality. Yet when that reality arrives, it is all those years of yearning – those years of mourning what was, and years of hope for the future – which will bind us to the Source of all Joy.

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This article originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post.