The central idea of the Jewish tradition is the concept of the messiah. I’m not sure how many Jews think about the messiah other than that we well know that messianism dominates Christianity. But if you’ve not considered this, trust me. It’s true.
In Judaism, of course, messianism is different from Christianity, but critical nonetheless. I’m not about to go off on a brief history of the messiah in Judaism. I have one brief point to make to then make another point, so please stick around.
The reason I argue that the messiah is the most important Jewish concept is because the idea of the messiah is our greatest shove forward, our great spiritual engine. The messianic idea teaches us to look toward the future and understand and act on our role in building that future, in building a future that’s more whole than our present, as is always the case. The messianic idea is not the promise of any kind of end of history or the arrival of a supernatural regime, but a challenge to work toward that future moment that, when you look back, you can see how far you’ve come, how far we’ve come, but yet how far you have yet to go, how far we have yet to go.
We Jews, we American Jews, have participated with all Americans in the passing of power from one president and vice president to the next, from Donald Trump to Joe Biden, from Mike Pence to Kamala Harris. The start of a new administration. At a moment like this, we can justly and proudly celebrate the Jewish participation in building this nation. We can see that building as our participation in the great public square which, when it’s at its best, includes the many. And so, it is time now as a nation we all ought to put on those messianic lenses and look to the future, to see to the things that need getting done, getting done.
But even at this celebratory moment, we understand well the challenge in the opening of the poem by Amanda Gorman read at the inauguration: “Where can we find light in this never-ending shade?”
But we are capable of making light to fight off the shade. Though we face many issues, our biggest challenge, and our greatest potential accomplishment, is making us a united country. When we can look from one peak back toward a peak that lays behind us, and we can say with confidence and satisfaction that we have come a good distance from that peak – that will be an accomplishment worth high praise. That will be an accomplishment worthy of the Jewish concept of the messiah, the pushing toward a future in which we see through clearer eyes that each person is a human being just like me.
So join me in celebrating this new day, our new president and vice-president as they begin their jobs. In a moment like this we celebrate with pride our great role in building this country. But as we look to the past, let us also bear in mind the stubborn pull into the future of the messiah, the spirit that beckons us as bearers of light, to do that job.
With God’s help, let us celebrate our country and work for its future as a united people.
Rabbi Phil Cohen