November 2015 scroll article

One of the interesting questions that I often hear is, does Judaism see the end of the world coming in a big destructive crescendo or as a gentle process that unfolds over time? My initial answer is going to be unsatisfying.  Jewish tradition actually has both options.  Some commentators envision all sorts of disasters and plagues that G-d will unleash as a way of testing people’s faith.  Other commentators describe a completely different end of time.  These commentators see a slow process of improvement as people choose their positive inclination and start to build a world of shalom – where everything and everyone is in a state of harmony and peace like the Garden of Eden on the Seventh Day of Creation.  
As I lay out these two possibilities in Jewish tradition for End of Days scenarios, I pivot one step away. We can learn not just from the End of Days narratives but more so from how the sages responded to these texts.   First, I offer the reading of the Book of Lamentations. This is an account of Israel’s destruction by the Babylonians during the time of the First Temple. It is sad, harsh and gut wrenching. What I want to call attention to is not bloody broken details in the middle, but the end.

Lamentations 5:21 Return us to Yourself, Eternal, that we may return;
    renew our days as of old
22 unless You have utterly rejected us and are angry with us beyond measure.

We actually read this in a twisted way. Not into a joke but a Nechemta – a breath of hope, uplift at end. When we are reading Lamentations on Tisha b’Av, we don’t finish with the end.  We roll back to the next to last verse, and read it this way. 

Lamentations 5:21 Return us to Yourself, Eternal, that we may return;
     renew our days as of old
22 unless You have utterly rejected us and are angry with us beyond measure.
(21 Return us to Yourself, Eternal, that we may return;
     renew our days as of old)

This repetition of a hopeful verse at the end, instead of the more depressing actual final verse, is the Nechemta.  This patterns repeats throughout Jewish ritual.  Finish with the uplift, the sweet. 

In the Haftarah reading of Shabbat HaGadol (the Shabbat before the beginning of Nisan and Passover) we read:
23 Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the great and awesome day of the Eternal. 24 G-d shall reconcile parents with children and children with their parents, so that, when I come, I do not strike the whole land with utter destruction. Then we repeat verse 23.
23Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the great and awesome day of the Eternal.
Rather than finish with the word destruction, the sages loop back to finish with the concept of an awesome and great day of the Eternal. 
This Nechemta is not just in the reading of Haftarot or Megillot or Torah.  We see it in many powerful moments in our ritual experience from Unatanatokef to Kol Nidre to Neilah.  It is a value woven into our rituals.  Always find a way to end on the upswing, with hope and a positive note and tone.
With the value of the Nechemta in mind, I return to the place where I started, the end of time.  It is clear that we will continue, as individuals and a community, to wrestle over the concept of the End of Days.  We will all envision it in different ways, at different times.  However, there are always going to be elements of an end of days that will be beyond our control.  What the Sages have placed in our hands, is the Nechemta.  How do we want to finish things, whether a conversation, a project or our lives in This World?  We have the power to loop back and push off.  I am not saying that every piece of Tzuris, challenge and pain, is actually a blessing. Our tradition does direct us to do what we can, as we navigate these interactions and life moments, to have the will to look for sweetness or offer hope and kindness as we come to the end.

Rabbi Michael Birnholz