End Game

If you go in the way of My statutes and you observe My commandments and perform them, I will provide rains in their times. The land will give forth its produce and the tree of the field will give forth its fruit. (Sefer VaYikra 26:3-4)

I. The doctrine of the Messianic Era

Rambam – Maimonides – identifies thirteen doctrines or convictions that are fundamental to the Torah. One of these is that there will be a Messianic Era.[1] It is easy to appreciate the importance of many of Rambam’s thirteen doctrines. For example, we easily appreciate the importance of recognizing that Hashem is the source or cause of all existence. But why is the doctrine of the Messianic Era central to the Torah? To respond to this question, we must consider the nature of the eschatological age. How will the Messianic Era differ from the current reality? According to Ramban – Nachmanides – this is one of the issues addressed by the Torah in Parshat BeChukotai.

II. The principle guiding the nation’s destiny

Parshat BeChukotai is the bridge between Sefer VaYikra and Sefer BeMidbar. Sefer VaYikra addresses Bnai Yisrael as it is encamped at the base of Mount Sinai. The nation has received the Torah and created the Mishcan – the Tabernacle.   Sefer BeMidbar deals with the next stage of the nation’s development – the march through the wilderness to the Land of Israel and its conquest. Included in the Sefer BeMidbar is the story of the nation’s refusal to enter the land and the consequences. 

In Parshat BeChukotai, Hashem reveals to the nation its future. He describes the blessings that will be bestowed upon the people when they observe the Torah. He details the calamities that will befall them if they reject the Torah. The nation is poised to leave Sinai and possess the Land of Israel; Parshat BeChukotai portrays the nation’s existence in the land. 

What does Hashem reveal? He does not focus upon specific future events. Instead, Hashem communicates the principle that will guide or determine the nation’s destiny. The future of the Jewish people will not be dictated by historical patterns, political trends, or natural phenomena. The nation’s observance of the Torah will determine whether it will enjoy wealth and abundance or endure disaster and exile.

And I will place peace in the land. You will dwell in security. You will lie-down and no one will frighten you. I will cause wild beasts to cease from the land. A sword will not pass through your land. (Sefer VaYikra 26:6)

I will not drive them out before you in a single year, lest the land be desolate and the beast of the field multiply upon you. (Sefer Shemot 23:29)

III. The land will not be desolate

The first above passage describes the idyllic state that will be achieved though observance of the Torah. The people will live in complete peace and security. Even wild beasts will cease to roam the land. 

Ramban offers two interpretations of this element of the blessing. The first is based upon the second above passage. In this passage, Hashem tells the people that He will drive out the nations from the Land of Israel. Bnai Yisrael will take possession of the land. He will dispossess these nations gradually. Bnai Yisrael will occupy the land in stages. Why is this gradual process necessary? Bnai Yisrael’s population is too small to occupy the entire land. If Hashem will immediately drive out the nations before Bnai Yisrael, the land will become unsettled. Large portions will revert to wilderness. This untamed hinterland will be occupied by every sort of wild beast. Hashem will coordinate the dispossession of the nations with the expansion of Bnai Yisrael’s population. As the population expands, Hashem will uproot additional heathen communities from the land.  Based on this passage, Ramban explains the first passage above. Wild beasts will cease from the land because it will be fully settled. No area will be a desolate wilderness.

And a wolf shall dwell with a lamb. A leopard shall lie with a kid. A calf and a lion cub and a fatling [shall lie] together, and a small child shall lead them. (Sefer Yishayahu 11:10)

IV. Peace in the Messianic Era

Ramban’s second explanation is that wild beasts will continue to reside in the land. However, they will not be harmful to people. Neither will they prey upon one another. Hashem is describing the state depicted by the prophet Yishayau – Isaiah – in the above passage. Wild beast and domesticated animal will dwell side-by-side. A small child will shepherd his flocks without fear of attack by beasts. 

The bucolic scene described by the prophet Yeshayahu and by Hashem in Parshat BeChukotai will be realized in the Messianic Era. Hashem is telling the Jewish people that their observance of the Torah will bring about the advent of this idyllic era. 

What does this reveal about the Messianic Era? According to Ramban, it will be an era of perfect peace. Even the behavior of the most aggressive animals will be altered. They will be transformed from carnivores into herbivores. In other words, according to Ramban, nature will be altered. A new set of natural behaviors will emerge. The Messianic Era will usher in a fundamental change in the natural world.[2]  

Rambam objects to this view:

“Do not imagine that in the Messianic Era any aspect of the natural order will be annulled or that there will be an innovation in the created universe. Rather, the universe will operate in its accustomed pattern. That which Isaiah stated, ‘And a wolf shall dwell with a lamb. A leopard shall lie with a kid’ is a parable and allegory. The idea expressed is that Israel will dwell in security with (formerly) evil nations that are represented by the wolf and leopard… They will all return to the true faith….” (Mishne Torah, Hilchot Melachim 12:1)

Rambam’s objection to Ramban’s position is understandable. Ramban asserts that the very nature of the world will be altered in the Messianic Era. Rambam argues that the Messianic Era is a time of truth and universal peace within humanity. An alteration in natural law is not necessary to achieve this vision.

 “To all the beasts of the earth and to all the birds of the heavens, and to all that moves upon the earth, in which there is a living spirit, every green herb to eat." And it was so. (Sefer Bereshiet 1:30)

V. The design of creation

It seems that Ramban is not unaware of this objection. He makes a remarkable comment that seems directed toward it. Ramban cites the above passage from the creation narrative. In this passage, Hashem grants permission to all creatures of the Earth to consume its vegetation. Ramban notes that Hashem did not permit the beasts to consume one another. He explains that in the initial creation all animals were herbivores. Animals only became carnivores in response to humanity’s sin. This transformation was part of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. In other words, with the expulsion from the Garden, the nature of the beasts was altered. They were imbued with an aggression and appetite that was not included in their initial design.[3]

Now, we can perceive Ramban’s response to Rambam’s objection. Ramban is not suggesting that the Messianic Era will feature an evolution of nature into a new stage. Instead, its initial perfection will be restored to nature. The Messianic Era will be the realization of the creation design that was suspended in response to humanity’s failings. 

Rambam and Ramban are proposing different eschatological views. According to Rambam, the Messianic Era represents humanity’s ascension to the state for which it was created. It is an age in which all humanity embraces truth and service of Hashem. Ramban agrees with this position but adds that the Messianic Era includes the restoration of the original design of creation. 

VI. Creation’s objective

Let us now return to our initial question. Why is the doctrine of the Messianic Era fundamental to the Torah? Ramban and Rambam agree that this doctrine underlies our understanding of Hashem’s relationship with the universe He created. Our world is not a resource to be used in any manner we may imagine to be fitting. Creation has a design and objective. Hashem’s providence is nudging humanity along the path toward the realization of this objective. Ramban and Rambam agree that the final outcome of creation will be humanity’s embrace of truth and its universal commitment to the service of Hashem. Ramban adds that this final outcome includes also the restoration of creation’s initial design.

This is an important theological issue. It is also a doctrine with enormous practical impact. When we observe the Torah, we are living in-sync with the world’s design. We are traveling along the path intended for humanity. When we abandon the Torah, we live lives that are in conflict with the world’s design. The greatest or most complete and meaningful happiness and fulfillment is achievable only when we lead lives consistent with this design. 

[1] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Commentary on the Mishne, Mesechet Sanhedrin 10:1.

[2] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer VaYikra 26:6.

[3] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer VaYikra 26:6.