We were fortunate to be guests at two warm and spirited seders this year. As designated song-leader, I tried to ensure that the singing was fulsome and sufficiently rowdy to rescue late-night flagging energy levels. One heartfelt moment was singing Ani Ma’amin. Based on Maimonides’ 13 Principles of Faith, the song declares, “I believe, with complete faith, in the coming of the Messiah.” It’s a song familiar to attendees of Jewish summer camp and Holocaust remembrance ceremonies. It’s beautiful and haunting and, with its concise lyrics, contagious for group sing-alongs.
There was an Israeli-Canadian couple at the seder and so, after singing about the Messiah’s hoped-for arrival, I grabbed the opportunity to insert another song from my favorite genre: Israeli ’70s and ’80s pop music. Shalom Hanoch’s 1985 hit, “Waiting for the Messiah,” launched onto the Israeli music scene an iconoclastic cry of frustration: “The Messiah isn’t coming – and neither is he phoning.” The few at the seder who knew it sang and air-banded for a bit before turning solemn as we wound down the seder with Hatikvah.
In Ani Ma’amin there is the belief that the world will one day improve, if only we are patient. Hanoch’s song, by contrast, is an attempt at hard-edged realism.
In 1985, Israel was gripped by hyperinflation. “The stock market crashed,” he sang. “People jumped from the roof; the Messiah also jumped, and they announced that he was killed….” Serious political ills were also ramping up, with the Lebanon War fresh in the memory of an increasingly restless nation. And, with the intifada breaking out two years later, more would follow.
Even in the absence of belief, messianiam is an ever-present notion in Jewish culture. In the 17th century, there was Shabbetai Tzvi, known as the false Messiah; later, there was the rejection of modern Zionism among the ultra-Orthodox who believed – and still do – that the experiment in Jewish sovereignty should wait for the Messiah’s arrival. Then there is the belief of some within the Chabad movement that the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson may himself have been the Messiah. For my part, given that I speak only Hebrew to my kids, I’m stuck with phrases that I normally wouldn’t use in English – and which don’t always reflect my worldview – phrases like “what are you waiting for – the Messiah to come?” when my then toddlers would rest in a snowbank between their JCC preschool and the parking lot.
But what really struck me that night at the seder as we sang Hanoch’s lyrics was a two-fold question. First, which stance better fulfils the Judaic imperative of tikkun olam: the traditional belief in messianic redemption, or the belief that it is all up to us? And second, how can we agree on what of the many problems in the world are deserving of fixing in the first place?
Clearly, the world is in disrepair. Just within the last few weeks, for example, two infants died in unregulated South Tel Aviv day cares serving African refugees; Islamic militants of the al-Shabab Somali group slaughtered 148 Christian students at a university in Garissa, Kenya; bloodshed continues in Syria and Yemen; antisemitic attacks are on the rise, especially in France; and, in Canada, according to Make Poverty History, one in 10 children here lives below the poverty line.
Certainly, none of us in our lifetime will solve all the world’s ills, and with humanity’s imperfections, including our own mental and emotional flaws, our lust for power and the natural drive for accumulation amid scarcity, it’s hard to believe that widespread suffering will ever be overcome. Some believe that messianic yearnings lead to passivity; others that it spurs us to action.
But perhaps the biggest conundrum is how to agree on which of the world’s ills we should actually care about. For some, the criterion is whether the problem is local; for others it is the perception of how the solution will implicate their own well-being; for others it hinges on whether they think the problem is actually the fault of the sufferer. Whether or not one believes in the possibility of messianic redemption, or whether one believes that it is up to us mortals to repair the world, we would do well to start with something that is hard to contest: the importance of compassion for suffering wherever it is found.
Mira Sucharov is an associate professor of political science at Carleton University. She blogs at Haaretz and the Jewish Daily Forward. This article was originally published in the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin.