Chapter 3, Mishna 16
Messiah for Whom?
By Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld
"Rabbi Yishmael said, be yielding to a superior, gentle to the young
(lit., black of hair), and receive every person with cheerfulness."
This mishna offers some practical advice regarding how we should relate to
others. Almost all of us have both people who look up to us and those who
look down on us (whether they should or not is another matter...).
Regarding our superiors, R. Yishmael tells us to humble ourselves, to
accept their authority submissively. Our mishna here uses the Hebrew
word "kal", which we translated as "be yielding". The literal meaning of
this word is "light". The intention is that we should not feel "heavy" --
full of ourselves and our egos -- as we face authority. We must accept
that there are people who know better than us, or at least who possess the
authority before which we must submit. In a small way, this reminds us
that ultimately we are not our own masters. We must humble ourselves
before G-d just as we bow to temporal authorities.
At the same time, R. Yishmael instructs us to go easy on those beneath us
on the totem pole. Although we sometimes must wield our own authority over
others, we -- who have been in the shoes of the underling before -- should
make every effort to put our subordinates at ease. The Hebrew adjective
used here by our mishna is "noach" -- which means easy, gentle, relaxed.
(Unfortunately, nuances are always lost in the translation.) The
commentators (Maimonides, Rabbeinu Yonah) point out that we cannot always
be "light" with others as we must be with our superiors. Sometimes we must
wield authority over others -- whether our children, students or
employees -- and see to it that they follow orders properly. For their own
sakes as much as ours, they need to know who's boss. However, we must do
so gently. We are instructing, not humiliating or crushing. Our charges --
regardless of their age -- are human beings as we, and deserve the respect
due to beings fashioned in the image of G-d.
Human nature is sadly not always this way. We do not always take the
experience of being mistreated, of being lorded over by others, and learn
to treat our own subordinates any better. Psychologically, there is a
strong tendency to act out our own frustrations, to avenge the world for
our own pent up feelings of inferiority by playing god with our own
inferiors. The proportion of child abusers who were abused themselves in
their childhoods is striking -- and very telling. Deep down people with
crushed egos crave to be that hated and ruthless despot, before whom
others grovel in miserable helplessness.
On a more pedestrian level, if you were yelled at by the boss today,
chances are that much greater that you will yell at your kids. It's not
only because you're annoyed, but it serves as a psychological, if
illusory, means of restoring your own ego. I can crush people too. People
are almost inexplicably drawn to re-enacting -- with a vengeance -- the
harsh experiences life has dealt them. The freed slave becomes the most
Only the most noble of souls learns the lesson of our mishna -- seeing the
evil of his oppressors and consciously deciding this is what he will *not*
become. The Torah instructs us: "And you shall love the stranger, for
strangers you were in the land of Egypt" (Deut. 10:19). And earlier: "And
do not oppress a stranger, for you know the heart of a stranger, for you
were strangers in the land of Egypt" (Exodus 23:9). And again: "And when
you send him [the slave] free from you, do not send him empty-handed.
Liberally furnish him of your flock, your threshing floor, and your
winepress... And you shall remember that you were slaves in the land of
Egypt... therefore I command you in this matter today." (Deut. 15:13-15).
Take your worst experiences -- and we've all had them -- and learn how
*not* to treat others. Don't try to avenge your own suffering on the rest
of mankind. It will solve nothing -- other than perpetuating the same
vicious cycle of hatred and frustration.
And this is as well the lesson of our mishna. Learn positive lessons from
negative experiences. You may have inferiors, you may have to wield
authority, but do it in the way you would have wanted your own superiors
to have treated you. Realize that if your parents yelled (or yell) at you,
they were probably yelled at by their parents before them (regardless of
the image they depict of how parents were treated in the "old days" ;-),
and try not to continue the family tradition. The common theme in all our
relationships is, as our mishna concludes: "receive every person with
cheerfulness." Our basic approach -- of care and compassion for others --
does not vary regardless of whom we are interacting with.
I would now like to bring out this concept from a different yet perhaps
not-so-different perspective -- that of Jewish history. I believe an
equally powerful lesson will emerge.
Throughout history the Jews have arguably been the most oppressed minority
to have ever existed. (Others who have had it half so bad usually have not
lasted long enough to enter our league. Makes one wonder just why G-d has
preserved us so long...) At the same time, we constantly yearn and pray
for the arrival of the Messiah. When he arrives, he will right the wrongs
of the world. He will gather the exiled Jewish People, re-establish King
David's dynasty, rebuild the Temple, and unite the world in recognition
and service of G-d.
But perhaps even more significantly for us, all the nations will become
subservient to Israel. The Jews will at last be recognized as G-d's chosen
people and will receive due credit for their devotion and perseverance
throughout so many centuries of injustice and persecution. And the enemies
of the Jews, who have had the upper hand for so long, will face the full
brunt of the L-rd's wrath. The open anti-Semites will be decimated and
destroyed, never to be heard of again. The covert bigots will be exposed
and humiliated; they will cower before us in pathetic terror. Centuries of
long-forgotten and unavenged injustices perpetrated against every Jew will
be out in the open and compensated to the fullest. G-d has not forgotten a
single tear or drop of Jewish blood. The Messiah will have a lot of scores
to settle. (We agonize today over trifling compensation for Holocaust
survivors or their descendants. Believe me, the world ain't seen *nothing*
yet! And that's a promise!)
Yet when we pray for the Messiah, we are not asking that we be on top or
that we become the slave turned tyrant. We are not even asking for sweet
revenge. Many Jews have met their deaths at the hands of our enemies with
the "ani ma'amin" on their lips -- proclaiming their belief that the
Messiah will eventually arrive and bring about our salvation. Their
intention was not: "You're beating us up now, but one day we'll beat you
up!" Jews preparing themselves to die in sanctification of G-d's Name did
not have such pettiness on their minds.
Rather, their intention was as follows. We recognize life has a purpose,
that the world will reach its ultimate fruition in the age of the Messiah,
and that somehow the many tragedies of our existence are bringing the
world closer to that purpose. We therefore take our suffering and see
purpose in it. We do not see the world as a cruel and meaningless place,
that we are the few holy ones who suffer indignity to earn the World to
Come. No, our suffering is bringing the world to its fulfillment. As bleak
and senseless the world seems today and as painful our suffering is, our
lives -- our deaths -- are bringing the world one step closer in the march
towards Messiah. (Based on a lecture heard from R. Yochanan Zweig
Thus, throughout our years of oppression, when we have prayed for Messiah,
it has never been a plea that we become masters of humanity or that we
once and for all be granted the luxury of sweet revenge. This will come,
to be sure, but our intentions are far more noble. In fact, if anything
our prayers serve as a reconciliation between ourselves and mankind -- the
very mankind which today oppresses us so. For the era of Messiah is one in
which not only we will be reunited with G-d, but all mankind will
recognize G-d and earn its share of eternity.We view our suffering at the
hands of the Gentiles and turn around and ask that Messiah bring all
nations to recognition of G-d -- not that we will one day oppress our
oppressors, but that we will correct the evils of the world -- and through
that lead our very oppressors to salvation.
Thus, in days to come, Israel will be ascendant, but we will use our
ascendancy to become a light unto the nations, and to teach mankind the
way of G-d. For G-d has a greater mission for this world, one in which
practically all nations will have a share. Under Messiah's reign, the
world will reach its zenith and fulfillment -- when all mankind will unite
in proclaiming G-d's existence and omnipotence. "And the L-rd will be King
over the entire land; on that day the L-rd will be one and His Name will
be one" (Zechariah 14:9).
Text Copyright © 2004 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.