For the past several weeks I have been discussing the various crises currently engulfing us. With this column I will conclude the series (at least for now). What I write is based not on whim or opinion but on that which is rooted and documented in our Torah.
There is an amazing prophecy in the Yalkut Shimoni – a Midrashic compilation that eerily foretells the events of today: Rabbi Yitzchok said, “The year in which Melech HaMashiach will be revealed, all the nations of the world will be provoking each other. The king of Persia (Iran) will provoke the king of Arabia (Saudi Arabia). The king of Arabia will go to the King of Edom (the leader of the Christian nations – the president of the United States) to take counsel, and the king of Persia (Ahmadinejad) will threaten to destroy the entire world.
The nations of the world will be outraged. They will fall on their faces in panic and experience pains like birth pangs. Israel too, will be outraged and in a state of panic ask, Where do we go?
“But say unto them, ‘My children, do not fear. The time of your redemption has come…. and this last redemption shall be different from the first that was followed by further bondage and pain. After this last redemption, you will not experience any further pain or subjection” (Yalkut Shemoni, Isaiah 59).
The Klausenberger Rebbe, zt”l, referring to this teaching, said, “Remember these words. They are perhaps not understood now, but in time they will be and be a source of strength to our people.”
Had you heard these prophecies centuries ago, when they were written, you might have scoffed. Even if you read them as recently as 1970, you would have been hard put to believe it, for of all the Muslim countries the Shah’s Iran was probably the friendliest to the U.S. and Israel. But today the impossible has become possible, and events are unfolding so rapidly we have difficulty absorbing their impact. How are we to understand it all?
The Yalkut compares our suffering to birth pangs. But birth pangs are deceptive; when the contractions begin, it’s easy to ignore them because they are mild and occur at long intervals. As birth becomes immanent, however, the contractions intensify and the pain becomes more intense. And just when it appears the woman can no longer endure the pain, the baby is born and new life enters the world.
It is these labor pains to which we are witness today. How long will they last? It’s anyone’s guess, but one thing is certain – please G-d, the birth is sure to take place. In the interim, however, we may ask, “Is it possible to ease the suffering? Is it possible to protect ourselves from these painful contractions?”
For that too, our sages have an answer: “Let he who wishes to be spared the birth pangs of Messiah occupy himself with Torah and gemilas chasadim (acts of loving-kindness) and let him be scrupulous about Seudah Shlishis – the third Sabbath meal.”
The first two recommendations – Torah and gemilas chasadim – are self-explanatory and do not require much elaboration, for he who is committed to Torah and mitzvos and to reaching out with loving kindness must, of necessity, become a better, more spiritual person.
But eating a third Sabbath meal is not as readily comprehensible. We are enjoined to have three seudos – Sabbath eve, Sabbath noon, and the third seudah in the late afternoon as the Sabbath Queen prepares to depart. Through these three meals we honor the three Patriarchs, the three sections of our scriptures and the three Sabbath meals of manna G-d provided us during our sojourn in the wilderness (Exodus 16:25).
This final Sabbath seudah is called Shalosh Seudos, which translated literally means “Three Meals” rather than Seudah Shlishis – the third meal. Our Sages explain that the reason for this is that all three Sabbath seudos are embodied in this one.
This third meal presents a most auspicious time for prayer. And to this very day, when I close my eyes, I can hear the sweet voices of my revered father and my beloved husband, of blessed memory, leading their congregants in singing Psalm 23, the psalm traditionally chanted at the Shalosh Seudas: “The L-rd is my Shepherd, I shall not want…”
The task of the shepherd is a lowly and lonely one. Day in and day out he is destined to wander from place to place, seeking pasture for his flock, and yet David did not hesitate to refer to G-d as a Shepherd, for he perceived that G-d’s love is so total, so encompassing, that when it comes to caring for His children, nothing is beneath Him.
What a magnificent and fortifying thought – for no matter where life takes us, even if we have to walk in the treacherous valley overshadowed by death, we need not fear, for G-d, our Shepherd, will always be there to lead us to greener pastures, even if at first we do not recognize the pasture is green.
Still, it is difficult to comprehend how the mere eating of a third meal, singing Psalm 23, and discussing Words of Torah can actually protect us from the suffering that will accompany the birth pangs.
But there is a profound lesson at the root of this teaching. The first two Sabbath seudos are eaten when we are hungry, but after a festive noontime seudah we are hardly in the mood for yet another meal. So it is not to satiate our hunger that we gather around the Shalosh Seudos table. Rather, it is to celebrate the Sabbath and sing her praises, and that is why the Third Meal encompasses them all.
The Third Meal is symbolic of the conversion of the physical to the spiritual. Ultimately, that is our purpose – to become spiritual beings and to free ourselves from the shackles of materialism. It is something our generation, obsessed with materialism and the pursuit of pleasure, has yet to learn.
You might of course wonder, Why must we experience birth pangs in order for Messiah to come? Why can’t he just announce his presence? But the Messianic period will be very much like Shalosh Seudos, when we sit around the table not to satiate our physical hunger nor to glory in our material achievements, but to celebrate our spiritual attainments.
In order for that to happen, we will have to divest ourselves of all the icons we hold dear. Therefore, our hallowed institutions, the bastions of strength in which we placed our trust, will have to fall away. It is that painful disintegration to which we are witness today. The corporate world, government, religious institutions, science, medicine – all have failed us. And worse, we no longer feel safe or secure in our daily lives. Terrorists and suicide bombers have become a reality of our existence and no army or police force is capable of defending us from them.
Additionally, we are witness to constant horrific natural disasters; we see the devaluation of our assets, be it the dollar or the Euro; we see dictators who for generations ruled with an iron fist falling like dominos as they are overtaken by Muslim fanatics. Yes, prophecy is unfolding before our eyes.
How long will these birth pangs last? Until we recognize the simple truth – that we can rely on no one but our Heavenly Father. So let us sound the shofar, awaken ourselves from our lethargy, and heed the voice of our Father calling us. And that is the only answer to the question What are we to do?
Even as I write these words, I realize it may seem like a simplistic response and will disappoint and irritate many. But there is no way that we, the Jewish people, can escape our destiny. G-d appointed us to be His light on this planet, a light that illuminates the world with His Torah; a light that proclaims G-d is One and His Name is One.
That is our calling and we cannot escape it.