On Eagles’ Wings
and the World to Come
FOR MILLENNIA THE Jewish people have awaited Moshiach. We have prayed for him and longed for his appearance. But how many of us know what part he will play in Jewish destiny, how to identify him, what the messianic era will be like, or why we need Moshiach at all?
Though a plethora of sources touch on many aspects of the messianic era, the information is scattered throughout the traditional writings and is very difficult to access. In this important and groundbreaking work, Rabbi Hershel Brand gathers together the teachings of the Sages on the subject and presents them in an illuminating and thought-provoking question-and-answer format.
Awaiting the Moshiach is one of the underpinnings of Jewish belief, one of Maimonides’s thirteen principles of faith. On Eagles’ Wings takes the lofty yearnings of the Jewish people and brings them firmly down into today’s world.
Praise from Rabbi Aharon Feldman, rosh yeshivah of Yeshivas Ner Israel:
Particularly in our times, to define who Moshiach is not, is as vital as to define who he is. The concept of Moshiach has in recent years been perverted by irresponsible elements of Jewry by the introduction of foreign concepts; for example, that the Moshiach will be resurrected from the dead or, alternatively, that he is an embodiment of the Divine. Your book shows that these concepts have no basis in Jewish mesorah (tradition).
May your book bring the Jewish people closer to true emunah (faith), and may we be worthy to witness the coming of Moshiach speedily in our days.
This presentation also includes the significance and implications of awaiting anxiously the coming of Moshiach, and the effect it must have on one’s outlook on life in general. The Rambam says that the details of this topic are obscure and were not revealed neither to the prophets in the written Torah nor to the sages in the oral Torah. Therefore, due to this obscurity much confusion exists concerning Moshiach and many misconceptions and distortions have developed.
The author presents a very lucid, detailed discussion that gives one a solid understanding of the various opinions as to what is entailed in belief of Moshiach.
The format utilized, a discussion between Rabbi and student, (following the style of Rav Yehudah HaLevi in the Kuzari) is very effective and contributes to the understanding of the issues.
I recommend this work to yeshivah students and laymen alike since the information contained in it is crucial to one’s full belief and understanding of this principle of faith.
May the author be blessed with life, health, and prosperity, enabling him to continue to merit the community with further works of Torah.
ONE AFTERNOON RABBI Cohen finds Daniel sitting in a corner of the beis midrash, frowning at a large stack of sefarim.
RABBI COHEN: Is everything all right?
DANIEL: Yes…I mean, no. I was studying the Rambam’s thirteen principles of faith this morning, and I realized that I know next to nothing about one of the principles—the obligation to await the arrival of the Moshiach. I’ve been doing research all morning, but nothing I’ve found makes sense to me. It’s like trying to assemble a puzzle with only half the pieces.
Here’s an example. The Rambam says that the Moshiach himself will rebuild the Beis HaMikdash. Okay, I thought. That sounds pretty straightforward. Then someone told me that the third Beis HaMikdash is already built in Heaven and will descend to its place when the redemption arrives.
- In the future, the Moshiach will…rebuild the Beis HaMikdash.
(Rambam, Hilchos Melachim 11:1)
However, the future Mikdash that we await is already built and completed; it will fall from the Heavens, as it says, “The Sanctuary, my Lord, which Your hands established” (Shemos 15:17).
(Rashi, Sukkah 41a, s.v. “iy nami”)
So which is it? One of them has to be right. But it’s much more than that. I don’t really understand what the Moshiach is all about. Who is he? When is he coming? Why do we need him anyway? I’m very confused.
RABBI COHEN: I can certainly understand your confusion. Sometimes the subject perplexes me, too.
DANIEL: It does?
RABBI COHEN: Of course. After all, the Rambam also wrote that although the Sages teach us about the Moshiach, much of the truth will remain hidden until the events actually take place. And since the Sages knew about the era of the Moshiach only from their insight into the verses that discuss it, they disagreed about some of the specifics.
And in all these things [the concept of the Moshiach and the details of his arrival], no one knows for certain what will take place until it actually occurs, because these things were left cryptic by the prophets. The Sages also had no specific tradition regarding these matters except for what they could understand of the passages [in Tanach that discuss the Moshiach]. Therefore the Sages disagreed about certain aspects of these matters.
(Rambam, Hilchos Melachim 12:2)
DANIEL: Great. Now there’s really no hope. If the concept of the Moshiach was unclear to the Sages, what chance do I have to ever understand it?
RABBI COHEN: Well, the situation is not all that grim. I just mean to show you that no matter how deeply you delve into the subject, there will always remain points that are impossible to predict. But I think you might be surprised at how much the Sages really understood from verses in Tanach. A research physicist, for example, might tell you that he doesn’t truly understand super-string theory. Yet he would certainly be able to teach a class in advanced physics.
DANIEL: But if the Sages argued about so many points, how much can we really know about the subject? Who’s going to rebuild the Beis HaMikdash? It’s a machlokes. How will the Moshiach arrive? It’s a machlokes. It’s all disagreements.
RABBI COHEN: It’s true that the Sages disagreed about some of these ideas, though less than you probably think. However, it’s often the disagreements themselves that grant us the greatest insight.
DANIEL: The disagreements themselves? Now I’m really confused.
RABBI COHEN: I mean that when we examine the disagreements closely, it becomes clear that they agreed on many underlying points and themes. Coupled with facts that are universally agreed on, there is much that we can understand about the Moshiach.
DANIEL: I see…sort of. But doesn’t it say that—
RABBI COHEN: I’ll tell you what, Daniel. Why don’t we sit down once a week to learn about the subject in detail?
DANIEL: Really? That would be great.
RABBI COHEN: There’s just one thing I want you to do before next week.
DANIEL: Homework already?
RABBI COHEN: Not exactly. I merely want you to write down every question you have on the topic of the Moshiach and the period of his arrival. Next week we’ll start at the top of your list and work our way down.
DANIEL: No problem. But don’t say you weren’t warned. I’ve got tons of questions.
RABBI COHEN: So much the better. I’ll see you next week.
IN WHICH DANIEL LEARNS WHY THE JEWISH NATION NEEDS A MOSHIACH
RABBI COHEN: Did you prepare your list?
DANIEL: You bet. At first I thought I would ask you what the Moshiach is supposed to do once he gets here. Then I realized that I don’t even understand why he’s coming in the first place. I mean, God already gave the Torah to the Jewish nation; He already told us what He expects from us. What is the world lacking? Why do we need a Moshiach?
RABBI COHEN: An excellent question and a fine place to start. Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato, the Ramchal, explains that as part of God’s ultimate plan the world and creation at large must reach a state of perfection. That cannot happen, however, until the Jewish people themselves reach their optimal state. The purpose of the Moshiach is to bring the Jewish nation close to God and to assist it in all ways to attain the requisite perfection. In turn, the entire creation will become sanctified and perfected. In essence, the Moshiach is the instrument through which the world will fulfill its destiny.
You must know that even though true good is acquired by each person according to his deeds, creation as a whole cannot be perfected until the entire chosen nation exists in its optimum state. They must be perfected through every possible aspect, and the Divine Presence must attach itself to them. Subsequently the entire world will be able to attain a perfect state, and each person will attain what he earned according to his deeds….
The Highest Wisdom set a time limit for the effort of man and his quest for perfection to six thousand years. After that time the world will be renewed in a different form, appropriate to its ultimate destiny, which is the eternal pleasure of those people who merit it. Before this six-thousand-year period comes to an end, the chosen nation must attain perfection in order that the world can be transformed into its final state.
We have been guaranteed that this will take place no matter what happens. The catalyst for this will be a descendant of King David, whom God will choose specifically for this task and help him to succeed. This person will be the Moshiach.
(Ramchal, Ma’amar HaIkarim, “BaGeulah”)
DANIEL: That makes sense. But it only partially answers the question. Why can’t the Jewish nation achieve perfection on its own?
RABBI COHEN: The Rambam tells us that the reason we hope for the arrival of the Moshiach is not so that we can eat, drink, and be merry. I would say that’s probably the most common misconception about the Moshiach. Nor do we desire the arrival of the Moshiach so that we can rule over the gentiles or take revenge on them for past faults. Rather, we await the Moshiach in order that we will be able to concentrate on learning Torah and serving God without distraction.
In other words, the Rambam is telling us that the Moshiach will assist the Jewish nation to do what it is supposed to be doing anyway—studying the Torah and serving God. Unfortunately, the current state of exile hampers the Jewish nation. The constant wars, oppression, and myriad forms of misery we experience in exile distract us from our goal. By removing all the elements of the exile, the Moshiach will allow us to focus our energy once more on attaining a state of perfection. And, as I said before, when the Jewish people attain perfection, the entire creation will reach its destiny.
- The prophets and the Sages did not desire the days of the Moshiach in order to rule the world, to persecute the nations, to be exalted by the nations, or to eat, drink, and be merry. Rather, they desired the arrival of the Moshiach in order that they would be free to concentrate on the Torah and its wisdom without oppression or disruption, in order to merit life in the World to Come.
(Rambam, Hilchos Melachim 12:4)
DANIEL: All right, I think I understand the idea. Can you tell me anything specific that the Moshiach will do?
RABBI COHEN: Of course. Though once you understand the underlying idea, you’ll be able to guess many of them anyway.
DANIEL: Like gathering the exiles.
RABBI COHEN: Exactly. One of the first tasks of the Moshiach will be to bring every Jew to Eretz Yisrael. This concept is mentioned explicitly in both the Torah and the Prophets.
- Hashem, your God, will return your captivity and have mercy upon you, and He will return and gather you in from all the peoples to which Hashem your God has scattered you. If your dispersed will be at the ends of heaven, from there Hashem, your God, will gather you in, and from there He will take you. Hashem, your God, will bring you to the land that your forefathers inherited, and you shall inherit it.
- He will gather the castaways of Israel, and He will assemble the dispersed ones of Yehudah from the four corners of the earth.
- Therefore, behold, days are coming, says God, when people will no longer say, “the Living God, Who brought the children of Israel up from the land of Egypt,” but rather, “the Living God, Who brought up and returned the offspring of the House of Israel from the land of the north and from all the lands wherein He had dispersed them,” and they will return to their own land.
Along the same lines, once the Jewish nation returns to Eretz Yisrael, the Moshiach will also reestablish the Jewish kingdom, with himself as king.
- The original kingdom will return, the kingdom of the daughter of Jerusalem.
- In the future the Moshiach will arise and reestablish the kingdom of the House of David to its original rulership.
(Rambam, Hilchos Melachim 11:1)
DANIEL: When the Jewish people last had a king, wasn’t the nation actually divided into two separate kingdoms, Yisrael and Yehudah?
RABBI COHEN: Correct. The Moshiach, however, will rule over a unified Jewish nation.
- And I will make them into one nation in the land, upon mountains of Israel, and one king will rule over them all; they will no longer be two nations, and they will not be divided into two kingdoms ever again.
Can you think of any other tasks that fit with our theme of the Moshiach giving the Jewish nation a chance to concentrate on their service to God?
DANIEL: Well, the Moshiach would also have to protect the Jewish people from enemies.
RABBI COHEN: Correct. A nation that is being oppressed can hardly function at full capacity. Therefore the Moshiach will also protect the Jewish people from any harm.
DANIEL: Hmmm…no disrespect intended, but how exactly is that going to happen? Even if we assume that the Moshiach will be a political genius, how will he protect the Jewish nation from an enemy that insists on attacking us? Do you mean that he will raise a massive army or invent some sort of new weapon or defense shield? I assume he’s not going to go out and fight them single-handedly.
RABBI COHEN: Not at all. Remember that the Moshiach has friends in high places. In fact, the Moshiach will not even have to wage conventional warfare against the enemies of the Jewish nation.
- This will be the plague with which God will strike all the peoples that have gathered against Jerusalem: Each one’s flesh will melt away while he is standing on his feet, each one’s eyes will melt away in their sockets, and each one’s tongue will melt away in their mouths.
- Among the wonders attributed to the Moshiach is that he will fight his wars without exertion and destroy his enemies with neither sword nor spear. This difference is attributed to the Moshiach, as it says, “He will strike [the wicked] of the world with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked” (Yeshayahu 11:4), which the Sages explained applies to the War of Gog U’Magog.
(Abarbanel, Yeshuos Meshicho 1:3)
The Ramban compares this aspect of the Moshiach to that of Moshe Rabbeinu, who single-handedly defeated Egypt, a super power of the ancient world. You can imagine how Pharaoh and his court must have laughed when Moshe and Aharon, two elderly men, came to the palace with the demand that Egypt free an entire population of slaves. But they weren’t laughing for long. The Moshiach will defeat today’s world powers in the same way.
- The Moshiach will not fight with armies or might, but rather with his spirit, which trusts in God. Similarly [Moshe] the original savior came with his staff and his haversack to Pharaoh and defeated his country with the rod of his mouth.
(Ramban, Kisvei HaRamban, vol. 1, p. 322)
DANIEL: I assume the Moshiach will also act as a teacher of the Jewish people.
RABBI COHEN: Of course. Ultimately that is the primary way in which the Moshiach will influence the Jewish nation—as a teacher and spiritual mentor. And, according to the Rambam, this is one of the ways to identify a potential Moshiach. Before we recognize a person as the Moshiach, he must be wise in all aspects of the Torah and influence the entire Jewish people to keep the Torah and do teshuvah. There are other necessary qualifications, but we can discuss those at another time.
- And if a king of the House of David, who is versed in Torah and occupied with mitzvos as David his ancestor, in both the Written Torah and the Oral Law, rises and influences the entire Jewish people to walk in the [Torah’s] path and strengthen their observance…we can assume he is the Moshiach.
(Rambam, Hilchos Melachim 11:4)
And while it’s true that the Moshiach’s primary task will be to bring the Jewish nation closer to God, the Moshiach will also convince the entire world of the existence of God and the truth of the Torah.
- It will happen in the end of days that the mountain of the Temple of God will be firmly established as the highest of the mountains and be exalted above the hills, and all the nations will stream to it. Many peoples will go and say, “Come, let us go up to the Mountain of God, to the Temple of the God of Yaakov, and he [the Moshiach] will teach us His ways, and we will walk in His paths.” For from Zion the Torah will go forth and the Word of God from Jerusalem.
- For then I will change the nations to [speak] a pure language, to call upon the Name of God, to serve Him with united resolve.
- Therefore [the Moshiach] will instruct the entire [Jewish] people and teach them the way of God, and all of the nations will come to listen.…
(Rambam, Hilchos Teshuvah 9:2)
DANIEL: Is there anything else?
RABBI COHEN: Most of the remaining tasks of the Moshiach are related to the reinstitution of the mitzvos. In exile, the Jewish nation is able to keep only a portion of the 613 commandments. Since the coming of the Moshiach heralds our return to the Land of Israel and the rebuilding of the Beis HaMikdash, we will again merit to keep every mitzvah. Clearly the rebuilding of the Beis HaMikdash will be one of the Moshiach’s first tasks.
- The Moshiach, who was placed in the north, will arrive and build the Beis HaMikdash, which was placed in the south.
(Midrash Rabbah, Vayikra 9:6)
- In the future, the Moshiach will…rebuild the Beis HaMikdash.
(Rambam, Hilchos Melachim 11:1)
DANIEL: So you’re saying that the Moshiach will be responsible for rebuilding the Beis HaMikdash. That’s what I always thought. But, like I said last week, someone told me that the third Beis HaMikdash is fully built in Heaven. When the Moshiach arrives, it will descend to its place down here. So which is it?
- However, the future Mikdash that we await is already built and completed; it will fall from the Heavens, as it says, “The Sanctuary, my Lord, which Your hands established” (Shemos 15:17).
(Rashi, Sukkah 41a, s.v. “iy nami”)
RABBI COHEN: That’s an excellent question, and I will tackle it in two ways. First, the Aruch L’Ner suggests that the two midrashim are not contradictory at all. Although the Moshiach will rebuild the “body” of the Beis HaMikdash—the stones and mortar that compose its physical structure—the “soul” of the Beis HaMikdash, its intangible spiritual component, will descend from Heaven.
- Therefore, in my humble opinion, the Beis HaMikdash of the future will be a real building constructed by man. The verse “The Sanctuary, my Lord, that Your hands established” (Shemos 15:17), which the Midrash Tanchuma explains [as referring to the Beis HaMikdash of the future, which] will descend from above, is referring to a spiritual Beis HaMikdash, which will enter the physical Beis HaMikdash as a soul resides in its body….
(Aruch L’Ner, Sukkah 4la, s.v. “sham divrei hamaschil iy nami”)
DANIEL: That’s a fascinating idea.
RABBI COHEN: I agree. And the comparison to a human soul is particularly apt. A person might live his entire life without ever recognizing that he has a soul, yet that is precisely what makes him alive. So, too, the Beis HaMikdash appears as a building composed of stones and cement. However, it also contains a deeper, inner aspect that brings it “alive.” This “soul” is the Beis HaMikdash that is already prepared in Heaven.
DANIEL: So what’s the second answer?
RABBI COHEN: I think we’ll hold off on that for a little while.
DANIEL: I have a feeling I’ll be hearing that a lot.
RABBI COHEN: I can understand your impatience, but there’s an important concept we need to discuss first. Don’t worry. I promise we’ll get back to it.
RABBI COHEN: So, as we were saying, the Moshiach will rebuild the Beis HaMikdash. Now, in order that we can know who is supposed to serve in what capacity in the Beis HaMikdash, the Moshiach will also determine which tribe every Jew belongs to. He will determine the legitimacy of each Kohen and Levi.
- During the days of the Moshiach, when his kingdom has become established and he has gathered the entire Jewish nation, he will classify their lineage using the ruach hakodesh [divine inspiration] that rests upon him…. However, the Moshiach will classify them only according to which tribe they belong….
(Rambam, Hilchos Melachim 12:3)
And the remainder of the mitzvos that we don’t fulfill presently, such as the mitzvos of shemittah and yovel, and the reinstitution of the Sanhedrin will also return during the time of the Moshiach.
- In the future…all the courts will operate as they did originally, and they will observe the shemittah and yovel like all mitzvos mentioned in the Torah.
(Rambam, Hilchos Melachim 11:1)
DANIEL: All right, it’s very clear now. Let me try to sum up what we’ve learned so far. In order for God’s plans for creation to be realized, the Jewish nation must first reach a state of complete holiness and perfection. However, the trials and tribulations of the exile distract and prevent them from attaining this goal. By ending the exile, the Moshiach—king, teacher, and spiritual mentor—will be the catalyst that will ensure the Jewish people attain perfection.
The rebuilding of the Beis HaMikdash, the restoration of the Sanhedrin, and the reinstitution of certain mitzvos of the Torah are all tasks the Moshiach will accomplish as part of the ultimate plan of bringing the Jewish nation to perfection.
RABBI COHEN: Beautiful. I couldn’t have said it better myself. You see? It’s not all that difficult to understand.
DANIEL: Ah, but you haven’t heard my next question.
RABBI COHEN: I think we’ve learned enough for one day. Save your question, and we’ll deal with it first thing next week.
DANIEL: Terrific. I’ll see you then.
© Hershel Brand