If we map time, will we see where it’s leading us?
By Tzvi Freeman
The history of the world, the Talmud tells us, comprises six eras of one thousand years each. In his commentary on Genesis, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (Nachmanides) describes a unique theme for each millennium, corresponding to the themes of the six days in which the world was created. By this account, we entered the sixth and final day of history with the year 5001 by the Jewish calendar—corresponding to autumn of the year 1240 on the Gregorian calendar.
In autumn of 1902 Rabbi Sholom DovBer of Lubavitch addressed a select group, and mapped out, in part, the sixth millennium to the periods of a 24-hour day.1 That got me thinking: If I did a little more time-mapping, would that shed light on some of the puzzles of history? Yet more fascinating: Will it give me a better idea of where we’re going and how we’re going to get there?
Think of the topography of space. Human life inhabits a thin membrane of biosphere stretched over planet Earth, a well-varied two-and-a-half-dimensional space. Those variations answer a lot of questions about us. Why do these people eat cheese and these eat rice? Why do these build cities, while these live in huts? Why do these make war while these make commerce? Take a look at the topography of their environs, and you’ll have many of your answers.Does time, as well, have a topography?
Can we do the same with the topography of time?
In particular, here are a few enigmas of non-ancient history for which I’ve never received a satisfactory explanation:
- Why did the center of philosophy, science and scholarship make its dramatic shift from Islam to Christendom when it did?
- Why did Europe explode in renaissance and reformation so suddenly after a thousand years of stifled creativity?
- The Industrial Revolution and the concomitant population explosion were a phenomenon unprecedented in human history. Again, why did they wait until they waited?
- In our own times, the years 1989–1991 packed in the kind of global changes that one would expect to take many decades. Information technology, global politics, global business—suddenly everything changed. Why then?
Before we start, it’s important to keep in mind the directional sense of history that is idiomatic to the Jewish mind. To the Jew, history is not a spattering of stuff-that-just-happens. Neither is it a never-ending cycle. It’s going somewhere. As the Talmud puts it, the six millennia of time lead toward “a day that is entirely rest and serenity for eternal life.” Time leads to a time beyond time.
According to our six-millennium paradigm, we’re in the early afternoon before Shabbat. The tradition is that before that “day of serenity” and time beyond time enters, we must first pass through the messianic period.
What is supposed to happen then? A whole slew of things. But the central theme of that era is, as Maimonides writes, that “the only occupation of the entire world will be just to know G‑d.” Read that as: every occupation of this world will be a way of discovering the creator of this world within His world, by His creatures.
So let’s keep that in mind as we traverse the topography of the sixth millennium, looking for some sort of pattern in that discovery of the Creator within His creation.
Here’s a chart of the sixth millennium. Across the middle are the Hebrew dates that correspond with nightfall, midnight, dawn, noon and the entry of Shabbat. The horizontal axis shows us the secular date. The red line indicates the corresponding time of day, when you refer over to the vertical axis.
With a little calculation, it turns out:
One day = 1000 years
One hour = 41 years and 8 months
One minute = 0.7 years
1.44 minutes = one year
A simple formula for converting Hebrew years to Gregorian years is to add 240 years and subtract 4000. Keep in mind, however, that a Hebrew year begins in the autumn of the previous Gregorian year.
Since a day on the Jewish calendar begins at night—“and it was evening, and it was morning, one day”—that makes:
- Nightfall: 1240
- Midnight: 1490
- Dawn: 1740
- Sunrise: 1790
- Noon: 1990
Now let’s look for some significance in those dates.
1240: Nightfall; Entry into the Sixth Millennium
Since the 10th century, the two largest cities in the world have been Cordoba and Baghdad. We’re talking about populations estimated over one million each. Both are centers of scholarship, literature, engineering, architecture and philosophy, with massive libraries, hospitals and academies. Yes, decadence had already begun to set in—the golden age of Arabic culture had long passed. But both these centers yet sustained a degree of civilization that Europe was not to match until the 16th century.
Now, just as the sixth millennium is about to enter, in 1236, Cordoba is sacked by Ferdinand III. The rest of Andalusia falls with the conquest of Seville in 1248. Ten years later, at the opposite flank, Baghdad is sacked by the Mongols, its dikes and canals ruined, books destroyed in fire and men of learning ruthlessly slaughtered. Within a period of only two decades, a double blow to Arabic civilization—one from which it has yet to recover.
At the same time, through the Crusades and the Mongol invasion, knowledge is becoming more mobile. Europe is introduced to a game-changing technology called paper. As you can see from the chart below, in the 12th century, suddenly, Europeans are producing manuscripts. It’s not until this period of the 13th century, however, that they are beginning to truly assimilate this knowledge, founding universities and establishing an intellectual approach to their beliefs. Think Roger Bacon, Thomas Aquinas and Dante Alighieri. The roots of modern European empiricism, scholarship and social liberties lie smack in the middle of this century.
If you’re looking for a watershed in the shift of civilization from Islam to Christendom, you’ve found it.
Meanwhile, what’s happening in the Jewish world?
Well, we’re the ones translating oodles of Arabic, Hebrew and Greek manuscripts into Latin, so that Christendom can study Aristotle and Plato with our favorite commentaries (which end up being their favorite commentaries). But we ourselves are shifting from fascination with Greek philosophy towards what they then called “true wisdom”—later termed “Kabbalah.”
A truly groundbreaking work of this time is Nachmanides’ commentary on the Five Books of Moses—to this day, the second most widely referenced Jewish commentary. Groundbreaking, because while composed for a popular audience, it includes much of what the author calls “the secret wisdom.” Yet the author tells us, “. . . do not deliberate over any of the allusions . . . for I tell you truthfully that my words will not be grasped and cannot be known at all, not by any intellect or understanding, but only from the mouth of a wise holder of the received wisdom to the ears of an understanding recipient. Any other attempts to explain these matters will only cause damage . . .”2
In 1243, twelve thousand manuscripts of the Talmud are burned in the town square of Paris, by order of Louis IX. The Jewish day begins with darkness, but the night oil shines.
Now, I’ll admit that when I started mapping this out, I was more than a little skeptical. More than anything, it was midnight that convinced me I really had something here.
Undoubtedly, the event of greatest impact in Jewish history from the destruction of Jerusalem until the Holocaust was the expulsion from Spain. Spain had become the second homeland of the Jewish people: most of us lived there, and from there issued a tremendous wealth of scholarship and culture. True, persecution had already begun to drive us out, especially in the century before. But the decree of Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492 still rings with bitterness in our bones. Two years after midnight.
I don’t have to tell you that it was at this same midnight that Columbus sailed the ocean blue and a whole new world was opened to Europe. But what I should point out is how the Spanish expulsion affected civilization.
Imagine hundreds of thousands of Jews flooding into a Europe that has just been decimated by famine and the Black Plague. They bring with them literacy, philosophy, literature, financial know-how, and crafts such as metallurgy and glass-blowing. What happens next? A Renaissance. And in just those lands of Europe where Jews arrive: Florence, Venice, Naples, Rome, and the south of France, where they had arrived yet earlier. Later, they migrate to England, the Netherlands, the north of France, Prague and Cracow, and a similar renaissance occurs in those lands.
What greater evidence of the Jewish influence behind this sudden bloom of European civilization than The Oratory on the Dignity of Man, generally considered, “the manifesto of the Renaissance.” Its author, Pico della Mirandola, had hired a Jewish apostate to teach him Hebrew and translate for him over 5,000 pages of Kabbalistic texts, principally the Zohar with the commentary of Menachem Recanati. His oratory is replete with references to the “Cabala,” exhorting his colleagues to study this wisdom. Any Jew listening to it would have recognized his own values and worldview well-articulated. The pope chased him out of Rome.
Along with this, a Reformation. Yes, Jews suffered terribly, but they were also mystified. Gentiles refusing to worship icons, discussing the meaning of the text with one another, giving their lives as martyrs to worship the true G‑d—in short, gentiles acting like Jews. Indeed, one respected Jewish author of the time, Shmuel Usque,3 declared that these could only be the children of Jews who had been forced to convert to Christianity.
What’s happening at this time in Jewish thought? In centers such as northern Italy, Prague, Cracow, and especially the Galilee, clear halachah is being determined and codified. At the same time—and often by the same great minds—Kabbalah and rationalism are merging to form a new synthesis. Tzfat, a prosperous haven filled with refugees from Spain and Portugal, becomes for over 50 years a center of Jewish culture and mysticism. Soon, it will spawn a new light that will illuminate all of Europe.
1573: The Morning Watch
Morning is a process. We don’t all wake up at once. In the Talmud, the first inkling of morning occurs at two-thirds of the night—“the morning watch”—at 2 AM.
This is where the mysterious text I previously mentioned kicks in. Originally cited as an “anonymous manuscript,” it was later discovered that this was a talk of Rabbi Sholom DovBer, the fifth rebbe of Chabad, and that it was said before a select elite in 1902. Here’s the excerpt that’s relevant at this point:
Although the soul of the Ari, of blessed memory [Rabbi Isaac Luria] had already been revealed in the year 5333 , and he revealed the wisdom of the Kabbalah, however this was in a very small measure, only to his holy disciples. This is called “suckling.” It’s to this secret that the Talmud alludes when it says that in the third watch “a woman speaks with her husband, and a mother suckles her infant child.”
Rabbi Sholom DovBer explained that “the woman speaking with her husband” is an allusion to the Shechinah—the divine presence within this world, which is generally thought of as the feminine aspect of the divine. At this time of the morning watch, the Shechinah is beginning to rise. She is also suckling her infant—nurturing a small, inner circle of disciples with the core elements of a wisdom that would later unfold into full glory with the coming day.
Reading this text, you might think that the Ari invented Kabbalah. The truth is, he revolutionized Kabbalah. And not just Kabbalah alone, but the way a Jew sees his or her position within the world. Because, most radically, the Ari introduced the idea of tikkun.
What is so radical about tikun? Tikkun literally means “repair.” The Ari taught that through each mitzvah we do, as well as through prayer and intense study, we make a particular repair in the fabric of the cosmos. As the manuscript states, “in the times of the Ari, souls of Tikkun began to descend into the world.”
This is revolutionary,5 because it turns the traditional narrative of human fate on its head. Until the Ari, humankind played a fairly passive role in the cosmic scheme. G‑d made a magnificent world. Human beings messed it up. In the end, G‑d will clean up the mess. He will pat on the head those with clean hands, and punish those who contributed to the mess. Basically, human beings can make a mess, but they can’t clean up much more than their own selves, and neither are they so obliged.
In the Ari’s narrative, the mess is by G‑d’s purposeful design. We are put here to clean up that mess. Ultimately, we will benefit from the work of our own hands. We are, along with G‑d, a proactive party. It’s up to us.
I’m pretty sure that no one had ever thought of the world in this way. At the end of our thrice-daily prayers, we say that we are awaiting the time that G‑d will “repair the world”—not us, but G‑d.6 Yes, the Talmud tells us that “everything G‑d created requires tikkun”—but it’s only retroactively that we read that in terms of us repairing G‑d’s world. The Ari’s idea is the first seed of the concept of human-directed progress.
That was the latter half of the 16th century, and a new order certainly did begin, the period we call “the Enlightenment.” Historically, this was the period when Europe began to grapple with such ideas as scientific and social progress, religious tolerance, human dignity and equality, the work ethic, the comity of nations, international laws of commerce and the rights of the people—much of which was entirely foreign to previous eras. It is the period of the great “paradigm shift” in scientific thought described by Thomas Kuhn—when Aristotle gave way to Galileo, and the human mind began to think of the world in terms of measurable quantities rather than ethereal qualities.Humanity had begun, for the first time, to take up the reins of its own destiny.
Until this point, whatever shifts there were in society and reasoning could be seen as reminiscent of an earlier era, that of classic Greece and Rome. But now, something completely new was happening. Humanity had begun, for the first time, to take up the reins of its own destiny.
The similarity between the Ari’s revolution in Kabbalah and the revolution taking place in European thought is striking. Aside from the shift in the upper spheres, is it possible that there was a direct impact as well?
Allison Coudert, a scholar of that period who has published extensively on the relationship between Kabbalah and the Enlightenment, argues for just that:
. . . in Kabbalah, human beings are responsible for helping to bring the world back into its pristine unity and back into union with God. And I suggest to you this is a very positive view of human nature and human possibility that is so different from . . . the Calvinist or Lutheran view of human beings as utterly sinful, unable to do anything to effect their own salvation, they have to rely completely on an external saviour. So what I argue in my work is that this Kabbalistic idea of tikkun or restoration is a central idea in liberating human beings, giving them the power to feel they can change and affect their world, which is after all what modern science does.
The fascination of non-Jews with the Kabbalah continued to grow. By the 17th century, Baron von Rosenroth and Francis Mercury van Helmont had published the Cabala Denudata, incorporating key teachings and interpretations of the Ari. Van Helmont, in particular, held close friendships and extensive correspondence with intellectuals across Europe. Gottfried Leibniz, one of the most progressive and original thinkers of that period, even wrote a commentary on Genesis for van Helmont, publishing it under van Helmont’s name.
Whatever the mechanism of influence, the Ari provided an ideological basis for the spiritual person’s involvement in the material world. In a way, the Ari can be called the precursor of the modern revolutionary, for he turned around the entire focus of the enlightened individual. Drawn to its natural conclusion, the idea of tikkun said that enlightenment meant not hermitage and quietness, but social action and reform.
It would be misleading to leave you with the impression that the Ari made this one contribution of tikkun alone. What most impressed Jewish scholars of his time, and why his works spread so rapidly and were accepted almost universally as divine wisdom, was the detail with which he described the underlying G‑dliness that inhabits and encompasses all things. Yet, as often is the fate of maverick thought, his teachings were widely misconstrued. By some, they were even distorted into forms antithetical to fundamental traditions and beliefs.
Clarifying this wisdom in a way that would align with received wisdom as well as benefit the common man would have to wait until dawn.
In the town records of Mezhibuzh for the year 1741, Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, later known as the Baal Shem Tov, is listed as a resident, and it is noted there that he was granted a house next to the synagogue by the Jewish community and was freed from paying taxes. 7
Tradition has it that he arrived in Mezhibuzh in 1740. Six years earlier, he had already abandoned secrecy and begun to teach in public.
About the same time as the Baal Shem Tov had begun revealing his teachings, Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar left Morocco to reach the Land of Israel. He was detained by the Jewish community in Livorno, Italy, for almost ten years, and there he wrote his classic commentary on the Five Books of Moses. In that work, he mentions the Hebrew year 5500  as the time of dawn, when the lights of the future redemption are to begin to sparkle.8
In 1742, he finally arrived in Jerusalem. The Baal Shem Tov left Mezhibuzh to meet him there, but was unsuccessful. Rabbi Chaim died in 1743. The Baal Shem Tov was quoted as saying that if the two of them had met, the Moshiach would certainly have arrived.
Dawn, in Talmudic terms, is when night has passed but the day has yet to begin. The sun’s rays begin to illuminate the sky, and the morning star shines bright above the horizon. The rooster crows, people open their eyes and rise from their beds, preparing for the coming day. It is calculated at seventy-two minutes before sunrise begins.
When dawn of the sixth millennium arrived, Rabbi Sholom DovBer explained, the Jewish people were not just asleep—they were in a faint. To wake a person from such a state, you must whisper his name in his ear—because your name relates to your very essence, and grabs you from there.9 Israel Baal Shem Tov was G‑d’s way of whispering the name of His people into their ear, tugging them from their very core, arousing them from their faint.
The Baal Shem Tov took the quintessence of the Ari’s teachings, burrowed to the core of the Jewish soul and found that same wisdom resonating within. The Ari taught his disciples to make tikkunim through intense mental focus on the words of their prayers. The Baal Shem Tov revealed that the simplest Jew was making just such tikkunim and even greater, just by exclaiming “Thank G‑d!” from the depths of his or her heart, just by doing any mitzvah with sincerity and joy.
The Ari had found G‑dliness pervading all of existence, and a spark of the divine vitalizing every creature, every blade of grass, every stone. The Baal Shem Tov found that the simple Jew, as well, believed in his heart that everywhere he looked there is nothing else but G‑d. He fanned the flames of that inner conviction, spreading it as fire throughout the Jew’s every limb and fiber, so that there was no longer fear, only love, awe and deep trust of the One Above.
What’s happening in the world at this time? Europe is bubbling like a kettle. Thinking people are dreaming of a much better world, one in which each individual has a say in his or her own destiny. At the same time, advances in agriculture and technology—including a promising new engine that can run without need of wind or waterways—are making that world a real possibility. Yet that world will require nothing less than upheaval in the protocol of power. The dynamite is set, ready to explode.
Do yourself a favor: On a clear day this spring, get up a little earlier, find a quiet, natural setting, sit still and witness the sunrise. There is no point as dramatic in nature’s rhythm. It is nothing less than a four-minute explosion of life, as the sudden warmth and light transforms every aspect of the environment.
Sunrise of the sixth millennium, too, was about as dramatic as it could get. It began with a revolution underway in France. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was passed in August of 1789, and by 1792 a republic was declared. Soon after, Louis XVI was executed. Then the Reign of Terror. The revolution continued until 1799, when Napoleon Bonaparte came to power and proceeded to forever change the social-political-commercial structure of Europe. The modern era had come in with a big bang.
Meanwhile, in Belarus, in the fall of 1789, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi began to compose a spiritual manual for the common man. Not another guide for the scholar, the intellectual, the enlightened soul. Those had all been written already. This guide was for the everyman, to discover within his or her soul the love and awe the Baal Shem Tov claimed were hiding there.
He called it Sefer Shel Beinonim. We call it the first book of Tanya.
The Tanya was published in 1796. In 1798, Rabbi Schneur Zalman was arrested and brought for interrogation to St. Petersburg. The charges, trumped up by his detractors: sedition, conspiracy against the government and high treason. With royal heads rolling in the streets of Paris, the Czar wasn’t ready to take any chances. The rabbi was to be treated as a revolutionary.
Which, indeed, he truly was. Because, to accomplish his task of lifting the everyman to the ecstasy of divine service, Rabbi Schneur Zalman had to snatch Kabbalah from the domain of mysticism, where it could be grasped only by the soul—and even then, only to the most lofty of souls—and bring it within the domain of the human mind. Once that gray meat inside the skull could grasp G‑dliness, the heart could be inspired as well.
The language of Kabbalah is soul-language—you get it only if you already got it. Many had dressed Kabbalah in the language of rationalism—but in doing so the inner flame was lost, the fire diminished. To burn gray matter with a divine fire, a new delivery strategy was needed.
The Baal Shem Tov, I was told, once ascended to the heavenly chamber of the Ari. He entered, and said, “I have a complaint.”
“So make your complaint,” answered the Ari.
The Baal Shem Tov then demanded, “How could you write G‑dliness in such coarse words?”
“If you don’t like it,” the Ari replied, “take your own pen and write it yourself.”
Those who tell this story then explain: The pen of the Ari was Rabbi Chaim Vital. The pen of the Baal Shem Tov was Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi.
The pen of Rabbi Schneur Zalman drew ink from the human psyche—from the relationship of desire to intellect, intellect to emotion, emotion to communication. It now became possible for a person to grasp G‑dliness through contemplation of his own self—as Job had said, “From my flesh, I see G‑d.”
And yes, that was a revolution. Because the ultimate revolution is not some great revelation from above, but rather from within. As the prophet said, it will be when “the glory of G‑d will be revealed and all flesh shall see”10—when the light of the Creator will be seen within the creation, not just intellectually, but as a common experience, when “I will pour My spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and daughters will prophesy.”11 When G‑dliness will become a natural experience.
The Baal Shem Tov had awakened the Jewish people from their slumber, pushing away the darkness of night. Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi brought them the first rays of the new day.
1840: The Flood
There’s another calculation here that doesn’t emerge from the cycle of the day, but from a passage concerning the Flood of Noah:
In the six-hundredth year of the life of Noah . . . all wellsprings of the great deep burst open, and the windows of heaven were opened . . .12
On those words, the Zohar provides a prediction of startling accuracy:
In the six-hundredth year of the sixth millennium the gates of supernal wisdom will be opened, as will the springs of earthly wisdom, preparing the world to be elevated in the seventh millennium.13
The Zohar seems to be referring to the entire sixth century, beginning in 1741 and lasting until 1840. At this time, both a supernal wisdom and an earthly wisdom would burst open, both of them necessary to prepare the world for the seventh millennium. Clearly the prediction was fulfilled with the Industrial Revolution, which brought in its wake a great wave of scientific advance, one we are still riding high.
Quantitatively, that wave reached its crest right at that six-hundredth year. You can see that in this chart created by Dr. Jonathan Huebner,14 relating the number of scientific and technological innovations to the number of people in the world.
In a talk published in 1977, the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, describes the technology that came out of that revolution as a facilitator for the messianic era. He talks about how communications technologies allow us to spread wisdom rapidly, and also provide rich metaphors for understanding the Creator’s omnipresence. But what the Rebbe finds most significant is the discovery of the oneness of all existence through modern physics, culminating in Einstein’s relativity.
It was once thought that each of the forces of nature is an isolated force, and that matter . . . is a composite of many varied elements. But the more modern science investigated, the more it became apparent that this multitude of distinct elements and forces lies only at the surface, an artifact of the synthesis of parts, their contraction and expansion, etc. The number of basic elements was further reduced until it was realized that the world’s existence essentially consists of a union of two elements, quantity and quality (matter and energy).
(Simple oneness, void of duality, is found in G‑dliness alone. From a divine perspective, there is only oneness. But when a created being is seen as an entity in and of itself, it is a union of two elements—quantity and quality.)When the inner teachings of Torah are revealed, worldly sciences progress along with it.
Here we see how the progress of secular knowledge and (lehavdil) the revelation of the inner Torah are connected to one another, “preparing the world to be elevated in the seventh millennium”:
When the inner teachings of Torah are revealed, worldly sciences progress along with them. Why? Because we are already sampling the teachings of the Moshiach, who will reveal the oneness of G‑d within the world itself. We are tasting a sample—at the very least—of the prophecy, “And all flesh shall see . . .” A preview of a time when the world will become an instrument to express G‑d’s oneness, and the world itself will display that oneness.15
It’s clear that the Rebbe was referring to Einstein’s equivalence of energy and matter—the most famous equation in physics, E = mc2. But note that the Rebbe also mentioned science’s reduction of the number of forces. That must be a reference to Maxwell’s equations. Twenty years before Einstein’s work, James Clerk Maxwell demonstrated that magnetism, electricity and light are all manifestations of the same phenomenon—which he called the electromagnetic field. This was the “second great unification of physics”—the first being Newton’s. Einstein’s work built on what Maxwell started, and comprises the third great unification.
Could there be a significance to the dates when these discoveries were made? At first, I thought, “Now this is going too far.” But when I looked back in the maamar of Rabbi Sholom DovBer, I realized the calculation had been already made.
The maamar discusses the time of day when people rise from their sleep. That’s important in halachah, because the Shema Yisrael— “Hear O Israel, G‑d is our G‑d, G‑d is One”—is to be said at the time when people rise from their beds, and morning prayers are supposed to be said shortly after that.
People begin to rise at dawn, the Talmud says, but most are up with the sunrise. Some people, such as the king’s children, do not get up until the first quarter of the day has passed. So, the Mishnah tells us, the Shema can still be said until that time. As for the morning prayers, the latest they should be said is until the first third of the day has passed.
Rabbi Sholom DovBer also explains the Kabbalistic significance of those times. In the morning, a person is able to connect to a higher state that departs after the first quarter of the day. After the first third of the day, a union occurs between the higher and lower worlds, at which point prayers are received and fulfilled.
One-quarter of the day in our paradigm would be 125 years after 1740—the year 1865, when Maxwell published his famous paper on the electromagnetic field. One third of the day would land us in 1906. That was Einstein’s wunderjahr, when he published his famous equation—along with three other breakthrough papers—at the end of 1905. Both Maxwell and Einstein made it just on time.
Interesting to note, while the Vilna Gaon predicted the coming of the Moshiach in 1840, Rabbi Schneur Zalman once explained that it would occur in 1848. In that year, the rebbe of Chabad was Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch, known as the Tzemach Tzedek. One of his sons asked him what happened to all the calculations—why hadn’t the Moshiach come? His father responded, “What do you want? The coming of Moshiach means that the innermost of the soul will be revealed. I published Likkutei Torah [an annotated collection of discourses of Rabbi Schneur Zalman, his grandfather], and through this the innermost of the soul will be revealed!”
When I first heard this story, I was amazed. You’ve heard the term Arab Spring? It is actually borrowed from the European Spring of 1848. In that year, revolutions broke out in about 50 countries in Europe and Latin America. The monarchy of France was forever gone, and society was now dominated by the middle class. In the same year, a very different book was published, The Communist Manifesto.
Moshiach, inner Torah and revolution, it seems, are finely intertwined.
The Industrial Revolution also brought with it a population explosion and an explosion of wealth incomparable to anything in human history. Here’s how Nobel Prize winner Robert E. Lucas, Jr., describes that event:
For the first time in history, the living standards of the masses of ordinary people have begun to undergo sustained growth . . . Nothing remotely like this economic behavior has happened before.
Until about the year 1820, if you met a human being, he was probably hungry. The average lifespan in Europe ranged from 40 (UK and the Netherlands) to 25 (Italy). The vast majority of humanity lived at subsistence levels. That meant that your major concern in life was to stay alive. Few were those who could afford to ask, “What do I want to be in life?”
The sixth century of the sixth millennium changed all that. Sustained industrialization requires consumers, people who can afford more than just the basics. Soon the middle class became the backbone of society. People were empowered to run their own lives.
It’s undeniable that this era brought us into an entirely new world. If an ancient Greek or Egyptian would be thawed out of an iceberg in the 18th century, he would probably still manage to find his way. Drop him in an industrialized area in the 19th century, and he would be dumbfounded. By the time you’ve arrived in the 20th century, he would likely suffer extreme trauma.
I don’t have any calculations for the Holocaust that fit within this paradigm. The Second World War began with the bombing of Warsaw on the eve of the Hebrew year 5700. That’s the opening of the eighth century of this millennium. It also happens to be exactly one-third of the way between sunrise and nightfall—but it’s hard to see why anyone would calculate that way. (We calculate the last time for the morning prayers as either one-third of the time between dawn and nightfall, or between sunrise and sunset—but how can we combine two variant opinions to get the calculation we want?)
At any rate, I’m in good company. There were many great tzaddikim before the Holocaust, and none of them, to my knowledge, foresaw the horror that was about to befall us. We’ll have to leave this one for the Moshiach to explain—along with much, much more.
The psalmist says, “G‑d counts by the counting of the nations.” It’s hard to escape the haunting spectacle that the two most catastrophic years in the past thousand years transpose into one another: 1492 to 1942.16
This is the part many of us actually lived through. Personally, I can recall those years vividly. I worked in an upstart hi-tech company at the time, and I remember telling my employer in the spring of 1991, “We blinked and everything changed. This is an entirely different world than the one we lived in two years ago.”
I recall listening to the Rebbe’s talk at the close of 1990, telling us that we were entering a new era, a year of wondrous miracles. Yes, people said, that would be nice.
The next month, the Communist Party of Russia was in crisis. I recall the pundits on TV saying, “The USSR is not a banana republic. The Communist Party has been here for 70 years, and it will not disappear overnight.”
The next morning, the Communist Party was gone.
We grew up with a Cold War, under the threat that one day everyone on the planet would be vaporized by atomic weapons and their aftermath. That was gone.
We grew up with the notion of two worlds—the capitalist world and the communist world—competing over domination of the rest of the world. That was gone, too.
Never before in history had so much changed politically with so little violence. The people turned up to take down the Berlin Wall, and nobody came to stop them. The parliament of Czechoslovakia convened one day and decided they are no longer communist. Millions of Jews were suddenly free to practice their religion, with financial aid from the same agencies that had previously persecuted them. About one million of them made aliyah to Israel. These were stunning times.
Consumer technology suddenly shifted, as well. Suddenly, our phones were in our pockets and not tied to a wall. Suddenly, e‑mail and cyberspace were no longer the territory of geeks, nerds, academics and the military, as AOL, Compuserve, BitNet and all those little BBS services spilled into the great ocean of the Internet so we could surf the World Wide Web.
Suddenly, you no longer had to study a manual to use the standard PC. American business had invested an estimated trillion dollars in business technology, with no measurable overall payoff. That all changed when Microsoft finally decided to mimic the Macintosh.
As with the Industrial Revolution, everything needed had been in place beforehand. But now, it suddenly all slid together to become the global community we live in today.
Arthur C. Clarke, the granddaddy of sci-fi, published a book at that time—I believe it was his very last book. But this time it was not fiction. Because the future had already happened. He called it The Way the World Was One.
High noon of the sixth millennium. Now tell me there’s no topography beneath history, that there was no mountain peak we went over just at that time.
Today, we are more than half an hour after noon. We live in a very different world than not long ago. One hundred years ago, a child born in the Western World had about a 60/40 chance of making it to six years of age. Today, infant mortality is down to 0.2%, thank G‑d. In 1990, crime in America was at its height. Today, it’s about the lowest it’s ever been. There is still war, but overall per-capita casualties have decreased dramatically by about 90% since 1950. The planet supports over seven billion people, with fewer of them living in poverty than when the world supported one billion. Every day, thousands of people in India, China, Africa and elsewhere rise from poverty into the middle class, gaining ownership of their own destinies, and a better life.
But it’s still a mess. I don’t have to describe the mess—we all know about it far too well. Instead, I’ll tell a story.
Perhaps you’ve been in a Jewish home on a Friday afternoon. Here’s the best picture I could find to describe it:
Yes, it looks like a tornado just hit.
Picture the scene: Dead, feathered birds are lying on the kitchen counter; a bag of flour has spilled onto the floor, along with a orange juice—and so, the two-year-old is having a lovely time creating edible mud pies from the mix. From upstairs, a scream shakes the house—it’s the little one furious at the big one for making her bathtub too hot. Meanwhile, the big one is kvetching at the top of her voice because “there’s nothing for me to wear.” The father of the house is hiding somewhere, in full knowledge that if he shows his head, he’ll be sent out again on another urgent, last-minute errand.
At this point, the doorbell rings. It’s the nudnik guest, delivering his gift bottle of wine in advance, certain that the lady of the house has nothing better to do this afternoon than stand at the door and chat. She is careful to open the door only a slight 20 degrees, wedging herself into the space—first, so that the guest won’t see the state of affairs within; but also to prevent the little one who has just escaped from his hot tub from running out naked into the street.
The guest sniffs the air, and sighs, “Ahhh . . . Shabbos!”
Shabbos? Shabbos is a day of rest! Of peace! Of harmony! This is a total disaster zone!
But the guest smells what is coming. And the inhabitants of this house know as well. They know the dead birds will become a sumptuous chicken soup, the remainder of the flour will become fresh-baked challah, the children will be neatly dressed in their finest clothes, the father will turn up again, and they will all sit together at the table, singing in harmony and telling the stories and words of Torah they learned in school that week.
When you know the story, the scene becomes a different scene. The gadget in your pocket, the news on the tab before this one, the financial chaos and the promises of technological breakthrough, the void of leadership and the medical miracles that keep failing to come—think of those as the dead, feathered birds on the kitchen counter, soon to become a sumptuous chicken soup.
Science has opened our eyes to the awesome harmony of our world. The Kabbalah of the Ari, explained in the language of Chabad, can open anyone’s eyes to the G‑dliness behind that harmony. Shortly, we will sit at the Shabbos table with Moshiach, who will show how the earthly wisdom and the heavenly wisdom complement one another. While we are yearning for that knowledge, what is stopping us from tasting a spoonful of the soup right now?
- Printed in Migdal Oz (Kfar Chabad: Kehot, 1980), p. 397, and in slightly different form in Sefer Hamaamarim 5663(Brooklyn: Kehot, 1992), volume 1, p. 142. Also in Keser Shem Tov Hashalem (Brooklyn: Kehot, revised edition, 2004), p. 495.
The Rebbe referenced it on several occasions. In a talk on Elul 18, 5710 (Aug. 31, 1950), he stated that he was in doubt whether it was the work of a rebbe or of a chassid. He made similar statements on other occasions. The version printed in 1992 in Sefer Hamaamarim 5663, however, is from a manuscript with a header “מאמר אדמו״ר מליובאוויץ לפני יחידי סגולה י״ט כסלו שנת תרס״ג”(Spoken before yechidei segulah [a select elite] by the Admor [Rebbe] of Lubavitch, Kislev 19, 5663 [Dec. 19, 1902]). When I spoke on this topic in St. Petersburg, Russia, the translator, Rabbi Zvi Pinsky, told me that he had in his possession a Tanya from his grandfather with this maamar written inside the back cover, with a similar heading.
2. Nachmanides, preface to commentary on Genesis, near end.
3. Consolation for the Tribulations of Israel, Ferrara, 1553. See the Virtual Jewish Library article on the Reformation.
4. The Ari, by most accounts, passed away in the summer of 1572. His teachings, however, were not disseminated until shortly after his passing.
5. Credit goes to Dr. Lawrence Shiffman for pointing this out in a talk on the history of messianism in Judaism.
6. Credits to reader, Phil, for pointing out the article in Hakira Journal that throws into question whether the word “tikun” in this spelling was the original wording of this prayer: Aleinu: Obligation to Fix the World or the Text?
7. Moshe Rothman, Ha’Besht Mechadesh Chassidut(Jerusalem: Zalman Shazar Center for Jewish History, 1999), p. 217.
9. See Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, Shaar Hayichud Veha’emunah, chapter 1.
10. Isaiah 40:5.
11. Joel 3:1.
12. Genesis 7:11.
13. Zohar I:117a. See Likkutei Sichot, vol. 15, p. 42 and footnotes there.
14. Elsevier, Technological Forecasting & Social Change 72 (2005): 980–986. Thanks to Dr. Arnie Gotfryd for bringing this article to my attention.
15. Likkutei Sichot, ibid., pp. 47–48.
16. For an alternative map of the sixth millenium, see Sanhedrin 38b