The Sages tell us that "Ain bein ha'olam ha'zeh liymot ha'mashiach ela shi'abud malkhuyot bilvad." "There is nothing between this world and the Messianic era but Shi'abud Malkhuyot alone."
"Shi'abud Malkhuyot" translates as "the enslavement of the kingdoms." We will get back to what exactly that means.
Some have understood the above statement as meaning that the only thing that will be different about the Messianic era will be that the Jewish people will not be subject to the power of the nations of the world. No miracles. No literal "lions laying down with lambs" or anything of that sort. Just being left alone by the non-Jews.
But the statement can be understood in a different way. Which is that the only thing between this world and the Messianic era, or in other words, the only thing standing in the way of the transition into the Messianic era, is Shi'abud Malkhuyot. In fact, this understanding better fits the actual wording in Hebrew.
In the Jewish view of history, there are four kingdoms which oppressed/are oppressing the Jewish people. These are Babylon, Medea/Persia, Greece and Rome. The sequence of these four nations is alluded to all over the Bible. In the second verse of Genesis. In God's covenant with Abraham. In the book of Daniel. These four kingdoms are called the Arba Malkhuyot (which is Hebrew for "four kingdoms"). We also speak of Arba Galuyot, or four exiles, denoting the periods of exile under each of these kingdoms, with the exile of Rome understood to continue to this day.
As a result of the parallel Arba Malkhuyot and Arba Galuyot, the two are often seen as the same. But this is not the case. We are said to live in a time of Shi'abud Malkhuyot. Yet "Malkhuyot" is plural. And we are certainly not living under Babylon or Medea/Persia or Greece any more. Or are we?
The answer to this puzzle lies in the Exile which is, for us, the paradigm of all Exile: The Exile of Egypt. When God freed us from Egyptian bondage, He used four terms of redemption. He said,
These Arba Leshonot Geulah, or four expressions of redemption, are parallel to the Arba Malkhuyot. The early experiences of the Jewish people are considered to foreshadow our later experiences in history. For us, history truly repeats itself. And so our Egyptian experience is a forerunner of all the later times we would be oppressed by the nations of the world.
The Jewish people was sovereign in its own land. Until the Babylonians came and destroyed the Temple and Jerusalem and took us off into Exile. This was the beginning of Shi'abud Malkhuyot. The Shi'abud in question, though, was not simply a physical subjugation. It was a psychological one. It was the negation of the first expression of redemption: "I will take you out (v'hotzeiti) of the Land of Egypt." Taking us out of Egypt was intended to be the equivalent of returning us to our own land, and had we not sinned, it would have been in fact as well. The result of the Babylonian Exile was not merely the destruction of the Temple and our physical exile; it was the creation of a new worldview in the minds of the Jewish people. A worldview that said there was nothing strange about us living outside of our own land. That didn't look at exile as something existentially wrong. but as a natural way of things. How many Jews today, even the fiercest of Zionists, actually look at the fact that there are Jews living outside of Israel and say, "How totally bizarre!" They don't like it. But they don't find it unnatural. This was the Shi'abud of Babylon, and it continues to this day.
We were willing exiles, but we still understood that God is the only One upon whom we can truly depend. Until the Medes and Persians came along. The story of Esther and Mordechai is one that shows that even when it seems as if we are saved by natural means, it is truly God operating behind the scenes, so to speak, who is responsible. This is the message that the Sages teach us. But what did the average Jew understand at the time it was happening? We were endangered by Haman, who worked through the temporal powers of the time (Ahasuerus) to try and destroy us. The answer? Mordechai working through the same temporal power to save us. What we learned, as a nation, and what worked its way into the very consciousness of the Jewish people, was that we are dependent upon the good will of the nations of the world. That in order to be safe, we must ingratiate ourselves with them. This was the negation of the second expression of redemption: "I will save you (v'hitzalti) from serving them." We forgot that it is God who saves us. How often do we hear even "religious" Jews, who lay claim to tremendous faith in God, saying things like, "But Israel needs America"? Try telling one of these people that all we need is God, and watch the incredulous looks. Some people will accept, in theory, that this is so. But in their guts, Jews "know" that we are dependent on nations such as America. This was the Shi'abud of Medea/Persia, and it too continues to this day.
We were comfortable with the idea that most of us lived outside of our land, and that we had to depend on our "hosts" for protection. But we still believed in ourselves. We still possessed the self-respect of a people that knows it is special. That possesses a sense of pride. And then Greece came along. And Hellenism came along. And Jews began to be embarrassed at how "backwards" we were compared to the "civilized" Hellenes. And they began to believe, in their heart of hearts, that Greek culture was superior to the culture of the Torah. The Maccabees fought a gallant fight against this phenomenon, but to no avail in the long run. The Hasmonean kings, descendants of the Maccabees, came to embrace Hellenism themselves. This was the negation of the third expression of redemption: "I will redeem you (v'gaalti) from slavery to freedom." In the Shemoneh Esrei prayer, the progression of the middle thirteen blessings is understood to be the order of events in the eventual redemption of the Jewish people. The blessing "Gaal Yisrael", or "Who redeems Israel", speaks of God fighting our battles. Of our special status as His people. The Shi'abud of Greece was the loss of this belief in the hearts of the Jewish people. Even as we continued to claim that we wereHis chosen people, a growing segment of the population just didn't really believe this anymore. Even many "religious" Jews today feel that they are "religious" because that's just what we do. It's our ethnicity. Does God really see us as special? Ask this question and you are likely to hear that it doesn't really matter one way or the other. This is what our fathers did, and this is what we'll do as well. The Shi'abud of Greece, like those before it, remains with us to this day.
The Jewish people was in a bad way. We had been uprooted from our land, made dependent on other nations, and had lost any real faith in our purpose. But we at least remained a single, united people. Because we had the Torah. And the Torah mandated system of courts that insured that it was the same Torah for the entire people. That the same rules applied to everyone, no matter who they were or where they lived. The pinnacle of this system, the apex, the crown, was the Sanhedrin. It was the Sanhedrin which had the final word on what Jewish law in fact was. It was the Sanhedrin which served as the linchpin, holding the entire Jewish people, scattered as it was, together. And then Rome came along.
The Romans were smart. They understood the importance of the Sanhedrin. To give "credit" where it is due, they were informed of this by turncoat Jews, but the source of the knowledge is unimportant. Seeing that even in exile, even strewn to the four corners of the world, the Jewish people stubbornly retained its national identity, they went for the jugular. They disbanded the Sanhedrin and instituted capital punishment for any Jew daring to give smicha-ordination to another. The special ordination that carried with it the unimpeachable authority stretching in an unbroken chain from Sinai.
The Romans were successful. But much, much more than they could have dreamed of. Because they didn't merely eliminate the Sanhedrin, and destroy the pure authority that had united the Jewish people and made it whole, but like their predecessors, they taught us the most awful of lessons. They taught us that this was normal. That it was natural for us to be without a central authority. How often have you heard Jews actually bragging, "We don't have a single authority like the Catholics, with their Pope. We're pluralistic, we are." And today, even with the return of so many Jews to the Land of Israel, even with a growing number of rabbis speaking out about how the failure to convene a central authority to determine a unified law for all Jews is a breach of Torah law, nothing is done.
Today, there is no Jewish people. Merely a sad collection of Jewish communities, with scarcely more than a memory of what we once were and one day will be again. This is what Rome did to us. This is the Shi'abud of Rome, and like the Shi'abud of Babylon, the Shi'abud of Medea/Persia and the Shi'abud of Greece, it is with us to this day.
And this is why we speak of the Shi'abud Malkhuyot, in plural. Because they are all with us, lessons that we learned in our souls and have clung to as stubbornly as we have to our traditions.
But this is not the end of the story. By no means. As the Shi'abud Malkhuyot came, so will they go, and that process has already begun. The problem is that the process of ridding ourselves of these "lessons" is a cumulative one.
In the 18th century, the Vilna Gaon announced that the time to return to the Land of Israel had come. Following his direction, many of his students moved to Israel, desolate as it was. This began a trickle of return which increased even more with the birth of the secular movement of Zionism. With all of its faults, Zionism was a basic negation of the Shi'abud of Babylon. And a partial fulfillment of God's promise: "I will take you out (v'hotzeiti) of the land of Egypt."
But Zionism petered out. So long as we still believed that we were dependent on the non-Jewish nations, so long as we failed to believe in our special purpose, so long as we remained a fragmented people, a religion rather than a nation, the draw to Israel was seriously limited.
And then the State of Israel was born. In the face of opposition from most of the world, we stood up to them and said: "We don't need you." The sentiment was flawed, in that it failed to recall that we do need God, but it was a start. And miraculously, the same nations that had oppressed us for so long chose to support us in our independence. With all of its faults, the fight for and establishment of the State of Israel was a basic negation of the Shi'abud of Medea/Persia. And a partial fulfillment of God's promise: "And I will save you (v'hitzalti) from serving them."
And the attainment of this second level of redemption added to the previous one as well. With the rise of the State of Israel, Jews flooded into the Land.
But the State was rotten within from its very inception. So long as we failed to believe in our special purpose we were just one more colonial creation in an area where we weren't wanted. So long as we remained a collection of religious communities the world over, there was no raison d'etre for the state. And not only did the flow of Jews to Israel slow down to a sad crawl, but the proud stand of the Jews of Israel in the face of the nations of the world was worn away to nothing.
And then the Teshuva Movement began. Are there even words for such a miracle? For the first time since Sinai, Jews in large and increasing numbers, raised knowing nothing at all of Judaism and of Torah, began to seek out their roots and return to the ways of their fathers. It was the very antithesis of the Shi'abud of Greece. Where the Hellenized Jews had fled Judaism and Jewishness, Jews young and old turned around and came home. Our Sages teach that "There is no freedom but the yoke of heaven." And the Teshuva Movement was a partial fulfillment of God's promise: "And I will redeem you (v'gaalti) from slavery to freedom."
Nor was the Teshuva Movement ineffective in battling the Shi'abudim of Babylon and Medea/Persia. For years, the bulk of those Jews who returned to the Land of Israel were religious Jews. Those Jews who support the stand of Israel against world pressure to surrender are almost entirely religious as well. The Jews who resisted the return to Judaism were the same Jews who dreamed only to leave Israel or to remake it in the image of the western nations they idolized.
But the Teshuva Movement could only go so far. And although it has not stopped, it has slowed to a trickle. Because the four expressions of redemption are cumulative. And none of them can reach their culmination without the next one. Today, even growing segments of the religious community, segments that were once at the forefront of the fight for Israel as a special place, a place where Jews would stand tall and be what we were intended to be, even here, there is a growing sentiment that says, "Perhaps we truly are dependent on the non-Jews after all. Perhaps we really do need to bow to their notions of propriety."
And this should come as no surprise. Because none of the levels of redemption can be fulfilled in their entirety so long as Shi'abud Malkhuyot remains.
The key, the final element and expression of redemption, is the reestablishment of the Sanhedrin. The one act that will constitute a fulfillment of God's promise: "And I will take you (v'lakachti) to Me as a nation." The verb "to take" has the connotation in Jewish law of marriage. The Revelation at Sinai is considered by the Sages to have been a marriage of God and Israel. It was there that we truly became His people.
The Arba Leshonot Geula, or four expressions of redemption, were promises for the time of our forefathers, and not only a prophecy of things to come. God did take us out of Egypt. At the Red Sea, He taught us that He is the source of our salvation and that we can rely on no other. At Rephidim, when the Amalekites attacked us, He taught us that only when we looked towards heaven and recalled our special relationship with God could we prevail. And at Sinai, He made us His own people.
It is this last element that keeps us from the final redemption. It doesn't matter if the central authority is made up of rabbis with true smicha-ordination or not. God never asks of us that which cannot be done. But so long as we have no unified identity, the vast majority of Jews will have no interest in Judaism. So long as we remain a mostly secular people, the vast majority of Jews will never believe that we can stand against the world. And so long as we have no sense of pride, the vast majority of Jews will go on living out their lives among the nations of the world and see nothing at all wrong with it.
There is a pattern to history. It is there for all to see. We will achieve this final expression of redemption. May it be God's will that we do so before more needless suffering comes to pass.
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