Many people are speaking like it’s the end of days.
We know these people. Sometimes, we are these people. The way our world is talking has escalated our existence from the already wearisome struggles of everyday life to the exasperating level of world-ending scenarios. But sometimes what seems like an apocalypse is just everyday life.
Jewish history is filled with people predicting the apocalypse. Amongst the first of those was the last of our Prophets, Malachi. His final prophecy warned of the approaching day of Divine judgment that like a “smelter’s fire” would purge Israel: Who can endure the day of this arrival, Malachi wonders. Doom and gloom, destruction and suffering, are the imagery of the prophet’s visions. Like many prophetic peers, Malachi saw his own time period as the literal “end of days”.
But Malachi’s 4th Century was hardly the end of days… in fact, it was the beginning of a wonderful period of expansion of Jewish thought, literature, and even political power! The prophet’s perceived apocalypse in fact was the dawn of a far better day than he ever imagined.
Our Rabbis actually lived through a far more violent time than did Malachi: they were eyewitness to multiple failed insurrections in Judea, massacres in the Jewish diaspora, and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Despite all this, our Rabbis couldn’t have cared less about any apocalypse. They needed simply to get through the day, to find a viable way for Jewish values and Jewish life to continue.
Our Rabbis read Malachi, especially the prophet’s final vision. In fact, they maintained Malachi’s message, but steered it away from a prophecy of doom towards an oracle of hope. They shifted our communal focus from a violence-ridden apocalyptic end-of-days to a messianic age of hope and glory. How did they do so? They aggrandized Malachi’s image of Elijah returning as the herald of an edenic age. As a result of this Rabbinic revolution, Elijah has since stood as the paradigm of possibility for a world not only repaired, but perfected. Thus do we make room for the hopeful optimism of Elijah every Passover, and intone only the positive part of the picture painted by Malachi: Behold, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the great and awesome day of God. Elijah shall turn the hearts of parents to children and the hearts of children to parents.
Our Rabbis pivoted from awaiting a day doom towards working for a season of hope. We need to do the same.
And there’s no better time than right now. Our High Holy Day season, centered around the possibility of turning towards our better selves, makes clear that the choice we should make in these troubled times is to do everything within our power to restore hope and promise to our world. In fact, the premise of the High Holy Days could never be more clearly stated than the very words of Malachi: Turn back to Me, and I will turn back to you, declares Adonai. Our entire season of turning helps us focus first our intentions and then our deeds so that we can reorient our lives towards the better people we know we can be.
There’s no doubt there were troubles the in Malachi’s time, or in the age of our Rabbis. And I would be the last to say there isn’t a lot broken with our world today, both here in America and overseas in Israel. But especially in difficult days, Judaism reminds us we must make a powerful choice: we can see things as the end of days and turn inward, or we can work towards a messianic era and reach out our hands to fix our broken world. In today’s times of trouble, in our Holy Day season of turning towards the purest paths, may we all move away from talking about the apocalypse and instead dedicate ourselves even more deeply to the work of tikkun olam, of bringing hope and healing to all.
Rabbi Seth M. Limmer, serves Chicago Sinai Congregation. He is also the immediate past Chair of the Justice and Peace Committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and also Vice-Chair of the policy-setting body of the Union for Reform Judaism, its Commission on Social Action, and currently serves on the board of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. He is also the co-editor of the forthcoming Moral Resistance and Spiritual Authority: Our Jewish Obligation to Social Justice from CCAR Press., now available for pre-order.