Avoiding the Suffering of “Chevlei Mashiach”

By: Rabbi Elchonon Baron

Rosh Yeshiva, Ahavas Torah Baranovich

Words of inspiration, delivered before Rosh Hashanah 5762

(Several days after the Sept. 11 terror attacks in New York)

People all over the world are talking about the perfect
timing of the terrorists who managed to hijack a number of planes
simultaneously, and to effect precise almost simultaneous hits to the two
tallest – and most populous – buildings in New York. But we, as believing Jews,
take note of a different sort of precise timing in these events. We see that
the attacks took place precisely one week before Rosh Hashanah, the Day of
Judgment. This gives us occasion to reflect upon several ideas.

Upon contemplating the details of the horrific events of the
last few days, any thinking individual cannot help but find that several of the
basic principles of our faith have become reinforced in his mind. In the
technological, material – and cynical – world in which we live today, it is
often quite difficult  to imagine the
possibility that the situation described by Isaiah in chapter 11:9 could ever
arise: “The entire world will be full of knowledge [of God] as the water covers
the sea.” The world, after all, appears to be drifting ever further from spirituality,
towards a crass, and completely materialistic approach to life. It is also
difficult for us to picture the advent of our long-awaited Mashiach.
Immediately upon his arrival he will no doubt be interviewed on CNN, and the
correspondent will take pains to remind all the listeners and viewers that many
important and influential people do not accept that this is the real Messiah!
In previous generations, when the world was so much simpler and
unsophisticated, the belief in the coming of Mashiach was much more perceivable
and believable. Today, these basic beliefs seem farfetched and irrelevant. As a
result, people tend to subscribe to the understanding that all the events
associated with the Messianic era will suddenly “fall down upon us from heaven,”
as Rashi writes (Rosh Hashanah 30a, Sukkah 41a) regarding the rebuilding of the
Third Temple. Yet such sudden, radical change in the world order is even more
fantastic to imagine realistically. Therefore, the belief in these basic
principles, and in other related matters discussed in the books of the Prophets
and Sages, is weakened among us.

Now, however, we have witnessed the shocking and terrifying
events of the last few days – events that are so contrary to our understanding
of the way the world normally functions. We have witnessed events that are so
bizarre that they are almost beyond human comprehension. These incidents
demonstrate, in a horribly unsettling manner, just how puny society’s physical
and intellectual strength – in which we have developed such unwavering
confidence – really are. We are suddenly and mercilessly reminded of the
awesome power of God whose “strength and might fill the world,” and how He is
able, in a few short moments, to reduce mankind to a state of primeval chaos.
Now we can begin to imagine how such incidents can bring the entire human race
to the recognition of the existence and Oneness of God. Indeed, this theme
plays a central role in the prayers for the High Holy Days: “And thus, place
Your fear upon all Your creations… and let all creations fear You, and let
them all form a united group to do Your will with a full heart.” Only God,
through the awesome and terrifying display of His strength, can bring people to
a recognition of the truth. Similarly, in the Kedushah of Musaf we say “He will
cause us to hear once more, before the eyes of all the living, ‘I am Hashem,
your God.’” This implies that God will once again perform miracles like the
Splitting of the Sea that will fill all human beings, from one end of the world
to the other, with His awe. (I have read that since September 11, the idea of
prayer to the Creator has become more widespread and emphasized even among

I have heard in the name of R. Elchanan Wasserman  הי”ד זצ”ל,
who said in the name of the Chafetz Chaim זצ”ל  (who, as is well known, dealt extensively
with the topic of the “footsteps of Mashiach” period in his later years) that
towards the end of the pre-Messianic period the pace of world affairs would become
accelerated far beyond the norm of the past. Matters that once took several
generations to accomplish will be achieved in a short time. The Chafetz Chaim
lived to witness for himself the beginnings of the age of modern technology.
The swiftness of developments in our own day make this even more apparent.
Applying the Chafetz Chaim’s idea, we gain a deeper understanding of the verse
(Isaiah 60:22) in which the prophet describes the projected dawn of the
Messianic era: “In its time I will hasten it.” The Sages (Sanhedrin 98a)
already note the seemingly self-contradictory nature of this statement: If the
redemption will come “in its [prescribed] time” then it cannot be hastened, and
vice versa! According to the Chafetz Chaim, however, the verse is easily understood.
The Messianic era is indeed scheduled for a particular time. However, as that
time approaches, the pace of world events will accelerate to a dizzying speed.
This is what is meant by the words, “I will hasten it.” (I have heard some
attribute this interpretation to the Chafetz Chaim himself.) We have seen with
our own eyes how two tall towers, which represented the pride and glory of the
world’s superpower before whom all other countries cower in obeisance, and
which on a normal day boasted a workforce of 40-50 thousand people, collapsed
into a pile of twisted rubble in a matter of minutes. It is mind-boggling to
attempt to grasp the terrible swiftness of this change. According to the pre
September 11 world order, logic dictated that such a radical change would take
at least several months or even years. These events also lend substantiation to
our belief that “the salvation of God comes in the blink of an eye.” Now we can
better understand the view of the Sages that the decisive period in the pre-Messianic
“War of Gog and Magog” (Ezekiel 38-39) will be very short – a matter of hours
(or, as some say in the name of the Vilna Gaon, several minutes). We are also
now able to appreciate that a few terrible, earth-shattering events can change
the strategic and security-related outlook of the entire world overnight. We
can now perceive, more than ever, how such upheavals can lead to a widespread
acceptance of the concept of Mashiach.

As is known, the advent of Mashiach will be preceded by
exceedingly difficult hardships, known as “the pains of Mashiach”. It was due
to these hardships that R. Yochanan, Ulla and Rabba all wished, “Let him come,
but let me not see it!” (Sanhedrin 98b). They were willing to forgo the
opportunity to greet Mashiach, due to their great fear of the terrible
afflictions that will accompany his advent. The Yad Rama”h explains that
the choice of words to describe these pains – חבלי משיח
– alludes to the pangs of labor (חבלי לידה)
that precede the birth of a baby. (Indeed, the discussion immediately preceding
this Talmudic passage compares the period preceding Mashiach’s coming to the
process of gestation and birth.) Now, one might wonder: Why is there a need to
precede the advent of the glorious, blissful Messianic era with such terrible
trials and tragedies? The answer is that if the world would earn the right to
redemption on its own, through producing “a generation that is completely
worthy,” through keeping two Sabbaths, or similar situations which, our Sages
state can lead to immediate redemption, perhaps it would indeed not be
necessary to undergo such traumatic events. However, this is not the case, and
mankind is turning ever further away from the state of  “and the world will be full of knowledge of
[God]” and “God will be King over all the land”. It is therefore necessary for
God to forcefully instill within man’s heart the awesome truth!

I recently told my family, “I am no longer concerned about
terrorists, an outbreak of war in the Middle East, the mighty army of the
United States, or even about the start of World War III (God forbid). Now I am
filled with the dread of the awesome power of the Almighty!” Where can we all
run to now? Shall we search for a peaceful island in a remote corner of the
world where there is no sign of Islamic fundamentalism, and no trace of the
armies of America and its allies? What can we do to be saved from the awesome
pangs of Mashiach?

In Sanhedrin (ibid.) we are told that the students of R.
Elazar asked him, “What should a man do to be saved from the pangs of the
Mashiach?” His reply was: “He should involve himself with Torah study and acts
of kindness.” This passage is somewhat difficult to understand. Every person,
at all times, is supposed to involve himself with Torah and acts of kindness! Why,
then, is this specific course of action considered to be a means to avoid the
pangs of Mashiach?

According to the idea presented above, we can provide an
answer for this question. As we explained, the role of the “pains of Mashiach”
is to rectify the world through mankind’s recognition and acceptance of God.
Clearly, any person who has already achieved this state of recognition and
fully comprehends these matters, has no need for such traumatic shocks.
Anyone  who disdains the foolish,
fleeting pleasures of this world, and devotes himself totally to Torah study
and kindness towards others, declares openly that his entire existence is based
on the spiritual world. This person is already part of the world in which
“Hashem, our God is one,” and “the whole world is full of His glory.” It is
obvious, then, that our task at this time and our “scheme” to be saved from the
“pains of Mashiach” is to instill in ourselves the clarity of His Oneness, and
a fear of the Almighty. We must strive to avoid becoming infatuated with the
futile pursuits of vain physical comforts and pleasures, and rather dedicate
ourselves wholly to Torah and kindness.

 Rav Chaim Volozhiner זצ”ל writes in Nefesh Hachaim (Shaar 1, Chap.
8), that when people devote time to their physical necessities – as everyone
does, in order to survive – they should still focus their thoughts upon Torah
and the fear of God. In this manner even one’s working hours are acts of
sanctification of God’s name. If, however, a person’s thoughts are channeled
solely toward his own livelyhood, he has lost a precious opportunity to serve
God and sanctify His name.

Only by following this path will we be lead to a proper
recognition and fear of God. The higher the intensity of one’s fear of God, the
more one acquires protection from trials and tribulations, and the “pains of
Mashiach.” The Nefesh Hachaim writes further (Shaar 3, Chap. 12) that if one
concetrates his thoughts on the concept that “there is nothing but [God]” (אין עוד מלבדו), he will not be subject at all to the
whims of others.

Our greatest enemy at this time is an attitude of
indifference and complacency. I recently heard an interesting insight from a
Talmid Chacham in New York, in connection with the verse, “This nation
approaches Me, and honors Me with their mouth and their lips, but their heart
is far from Me; their fear of Me is like a habitual following of orders”
(Isaiah 29:13). Would it not be more appropriate, he asked, for the verse to
complain that the people’s deeds are carried out through dry routine and habit?
How can it be said of fear of God that it is practiced through rote? The
answer, he cited in the name of his rabbis, is that it is actually possible to
train a person to superficially fear God. This artificially instilled fear is
nothing but “an habitual following of orders.” It is as if instructions would
be written in the Siddur in a particular place in the prayers, “At this point
one must fear!” It is a profound and startling concept that it is possible to
refer even to fear of God as “mere rote” if that fear does not emanate from the
deepest wellsprings of the heart.

This idea is apparently the thought that lies behind the
statement, “A person must always fear God, in private as well as in public”
(morning liturgy). How is it possible to distinguish between private and public
feelings when it comes to fear of God? One’s fear of God is not contingent upon
his surroundings! We must therefore conclude that there is a type  of fear of God that is expressed only in
public. This is the superficial fear that can develop through training, rather
than arising from the depths of the soul. Fear of heaven in private, however,
comes from a deep feeling of awe that lies within, one that has been implanted
there through a constant, heartfelt awareness of God’s awesome greatness.

We must draw a conclusion from this discussion in this
difficult hour, especially during the High Holy Days, when one of the main
themes is God’s kingship. We must realise that it is imperative that we awaken
to these truths. We must internalise our newfound fear of the omnipotent God,
and translate that fear into an inner awe of His power and exaltedness. This
will hopefully cause us to dedicate every aspect of our lives to the
sanctification of God’s name through Torah and acts of kindness. Through this
we show God’s kingship upon ourselves as the One and only Master of all that
exists. May God grant that we merit to sanctify His name in the eyes of the
world and accept His kingship over ourselves. Through this we will merit that
the coming year will bring only good, that we will be protected from the “pains
of  Mashiach,” and be able to greet him
quickly in our time – Amen.