How can the world’s basic operating system, not going to be rebooted overnight, coexist with prophetic visions and expectations of miraculous events like the resurrection of the dead?
by Rabbi Boruch Merkur
This discussion focuses on the tension between two distinct yet interconnected ideas in Jewish thought: the concept that the world will continue to operate in its usual manner and the idea of miraculous events, such as the early resurrection of the particularly virtuous during the Messianic era. How can these seemingly conflicting notions be reconciled?
THE WORLD OF MOSHIACH AS THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT
The Talmud in Berakhot (34b) teaches: “Rava says: What is the meaning of: ‘For there shall be no needy among you’ (Deuteronomy 15:4)? Is it possible for there to be a time when there is no needy person among the Jewish people? Doesn’t that suggest a huge miracle? Rather, the verse means that there will be no completely impoverished person among you, but there will still be poor people.”
In line with this, Maimonides (Rambam) writes in Hilchot Melachim (12:1): “Do not presume that in the Messianic age any facet of the world’s nature will change or there will be innovations in the work of creation. The world will continue according to its natural order.” Rambam teaches us not to expect the laws of nature to suddenly change when the Messiah arrives. Everything will continue to operate “according to its natural order.”
The principle of “according to its natural order” entails a warning that we should not expect a supernatural hero to appear and immediately transform the world into paradise. In fact, the world, for the most part, will continue as it always has done, following the laws of nature and human behavior.
However, in Jewish thought, as articulated by Rambam himself, the resurrection of the dead—Techiyat HaMeitim—is an essential doctrine, one of the Thirteen Principles of Faith, indicating its centrality to Jewish belief (affirmed by scriptural references such as Isaiah 26:19 and Daniel 12:2, and is elaborated upon in Talmudic discourse). At first glance, people rising from the dead would be a blatant violation of the world’s natural order.
Clearly, there is tension between these two views. On one hand, we have the very grounded, almost pragmatic view that the world’s basic operating system is not going to be rebooted overnight. On the other hand, there are prophetic visions and expectations of miraculous events such as the resurrection of the dead. How can these versions of the future coexist?
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 91b-92a) discusses who will be resurrected, but it leaves room for interpretation in terms of the timing of this momentous event. The Talmud states: “Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: All those who are destined to arise at Techiat HaMeitim (the Resurrection) are destined to arise with their blemishes (that they had during their lifetimes), as it is stated: ‘And your people also shall all be righteous; they shall inherit the land forever’ (Isaiah 60:21). The verse does not say ‘righteous ones’ (tzaddikim), but rather ‘your people also shall all be righteous’ (yitzdaku), indicating that they shall become righteous at that time.
This source suggests that not everyone who is resurrected will be righteous from the outset; rather, some will become righteous at that time. This implies that there might be different categories or levels of people who are resurrected.
A mystical interpretation of this Talmudic concept is unveiled in The Zohar:
Rabbi Yitzchak said: ‘There are three categories of souls that will be resurrected.
The first category is the souls of the righteous who have been hidden in the Garden of Eden since the day that they departed from this world. They will be resurrected first, as it is written: “And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awaken, some to everlasting life” (Daniel 12:2).
The second category is the souls of the righteous who have been hidden under the Throne of Glory since the day that they departed from this world. They will be resurrected after the first category, as it is written: “And some to reproaches and everlasting abhorrence” (Daniel 12:2).
The third category is the souls of the righteous who have been wandering in the air since the day they departed from this world. They will be resurrected after the second category, as it is written: “And they that are wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament” (Daniel 12:3).’
Here, the Zohar outlines different categories of souls based on their location and level of holiness and assigns them different times of resurrection.
There is a strong tradition established here that the exceptionally righteous will be resurrected first, possibly soon after the arrival of the Messiah. This could be based on the idea that these souls are closer to God and therefore more deserving of eternal life. Alternatively, this assumption could be based on the idea that these souls have a special role or mission in the Messianic era, and therefore need to be resurrected earlier.
This premise seems to contradict the notion that the world will continue “according to its natural order,” which implies that the world will not experience any drastic changes or miracles in the early stages of the Messianic era.
How can these two seemingly opposing views be reconciled?
RECONCILING THE NATURAL MODEL OF REDEMPTION WITH THE MIRACLE OF RESURRECTION
The intricate balance between a Messianic redemption that unfolds "according to its natural order" and the concept of an early resurrection for exceptionally righteous individuals can be explored through various scholarly interpretations:
1. Phased Transition: Abarbanel provides a chronological framework where the Messianic era unfolds in stages, each with increasing divine intervention. He describes these stages in detail:
- The first stage is about the return and rebuilding: "The first stage is when Israel will return to their land and rebuild Jerusalem and its Temple…” This period is characterized by actions that are natural and human-driven.
- The second stage introduces divine revelation: "The second stage is when God will reveal Himself to them and perform great wonders and miracles for them…” Here, the supernatural becomes gradually more apparent.
- The third stage expands to global recognition: "The third stage is when all the nations will recognize God and His Messiah, and submit to His rule…” This suggests a transformation in global consciousness.
- The final stage culminates in resurrection: "The fourth stage is when God will resurrect all those who are destined to arise.” This ultimate stage introduces the miraculous event of resurrection, which is seen as a culmination of the process rather than a sudden occurrence.
Abarbanel’s phased approach suggests a measured transition that accommodates the natural before evolving into the miraculous.
2. Exceptional Cases: Alshich acknowledges the possibility of exceptions for extraordinary individuals, providing an analogy to convey their uniqueness:
- "There are some individuals who are so holy and pure that they merit to be resurrected before everyone else. These are like ‘the first fruits’ (bikkurim) that are offered in the Temple before all other produce. They are also like ‘the choicest of your valleys’ (mivchar amekecha) that are mentioned in Isaiah 22:7, which refer to those who dwell in lowly places but are exalted by God.”
Alshich’s metaphorical language captures the distinction between general resurrection and the precedence given to the exceptionally righteous. This approach proposes that divine providence allows for certain individuals to transcend the common order due to their elevated spiritual status.
3. Spiritual vs. Physical Resurrection: Arizal introduces the concept of gilgul, which implies different modalities of resurrection, possibly occurring without conflicting with the natural world:
- "There are two types of resurrection: one is called ‘the revival of souls’ (techiat haneshamot) and the other is called ‘the revival of bodies’ (techiat hagufot). The revival of souls is when a soul returns to this world in a different body than before, either for its own rectification or for the rectification of others. The revival of bodies is when a soul returns to its original body that it had in its previous incarnation.”
Arizal’s distinction between the revival of souls and bodies suggests that a soul’s return may initially occur in a manner that aligns with the natural order—perhaps in a different guise or form—before a more literal physical resurrection takes place.
4. Qualitative Changes: The Chassidic tradition, particularly as explicated in the Tanya, proposes a shift in the very fabric of reality come the Messianic age. This thought posits:
- In the era of the Messiah, "the divine will be so revealed that even physical existence will reflect God’s oneness.”
This suggests that in the Messianic era, the boundaries between the natural and the miraculous may dissolve, as miracles become the natural expression of a world that has reached a heightened state of divine revelation. Here, the early resurrection of the exceptionally righteous isn’t seen as a breach of natural law but as an anticipation of a universal condition where miracles are woven into the fabric of everyday existence.
In sum, our exploration into the delicate balance between the natural world and miraculous events within the context of the Messianic era uncovers the profound layers of Jewish thought on the subject. The resolution of this apparent dichotomy is found in a deeper appreciation of both the laws of nature and the acts of divine intervention. This nuanced understanding embraces a spectrum of possibilities, from the gradual unfolding of events to the recognition of extraordinary phenomena, and from the nuances of resurrection to the transformational shifts in the fabric of reality. Each framework provides a distinct lens through which we can view the Messianic era. These reflections serve as a reminder that the divine blueprint interweaves the mundane with the wondrous, the everyday with the supernatural, all of which mirror the Creator’s endless wisdom and kindness.