April 2, 2021
This Shabbat, we celebrate the end of Passover as well as remember our loved ones with Yizkor tomorrow morning. One of the texts we read at the end of this festival is from the prophetic book of Isaiah, “The wolf shall lie down with the lamb, the leopard lie down with the kid.” (Isaiah 11:6) There is an old story about the Biblical Zoo in Jerusalem. Tourists are amazed to see a cage where the lion lies down with the lamb. One of them asks the zookeeper, how do you manage that? The zookeeper replies, “It is simple. Every day we bring in another lamb.”
On the last day of Passover we chant a portion from the book of Isaiah. It speaks about the miraculous time of peace in the future, when even animals will not kill one another. Actually, it says nothing about the lion and the lamb. It speaks of a wolf lying with a lamb, a leopard with a baby goat, a cow and a bear grazing together, and a baby playing in a viper’s hole. In this perfect future, the animals will all become vegetarians, and harmony will reign. Nature itself will be transformed into something harmonious. I imagine it to be a time where the destructive forces in nature cease, a time with no hurricanes, earthquakes, or tsunamis, or pandemics.
Unfortunately, I do not think this will ever happen. In my mind, I cannot imagine the animals becoming vegetarian. If fact, when the Messiah comes I cannot even imagine humans becoming vegetarian, at least most humans. We were vegetarians in the Garden of Eden, but I do not think we humans “want to get ourselves back to the garden.” (Sorry Joni Mitchell.) We long for meat. There is a debate between rabbis as to the Messianic age. Some say that when the Messiah comes nature itself will be transformed. The world as we know it will be unrecognizable. But others such as Maimonides teach that the Messianic Age will be no different than today, except that nations will not be subject to other nations. It will be a time of peace.
How do I picture the time of the coming of the Messiah? A few weeks ago I read that Rabbi Michael Gold suggests that it is like an asymptote (a line that continually approaches a given curve but does not meet it at any finite distance) in mathematics. We come closer and closer, even if we never quite reach it. The Messianic Age is a time we are approaching, getting closer and closer to that perfect time. No, I do not believe that nature will change. Lions will still eat lambs. But I do believe that human nature will change. When the Messiah comes, every human on earth will recognize the humanity and dignity of every other human on earth.
There was a time in human history when people cared only for their own immediate clan, their own community. Everybody else was the “other,” a stranger, not to be protected. Children were taught not to trust people who were other. As Rodgers and Hammerstein famously wrote in South Pacific, “You’ve got to be taught to be afraid of people whose eyes are oddly made, and people whose skin is a different shade, you’ve got to be carefully taught.” The stranger was not to be trusted.
The Torah came along with a powerful message. “Love the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:19). Some Rabbis taught that the entire purpose of our slavery in Egypt was to teach us the importance of loving the stranger. The circle of moral respect went beyond one’s own community to the other. Nonetheless, it has taken centuries for that lesson to sink in. People with a different ethnicity, different race, different religion, different gender, and different sexual orientation were the “other.” They were not to be trusted. Slowly, we are opening to the other.
Why is recognizing the humanity of the other so important. Perhaps the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was murdered, put it best. “In a real sense all life is inter-related. All people are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.” King’s words still read true fifty years later. It is the prophetic vision we read on the last day of Passover.