The Land of Israel in the first century was a tense and brutal place. Roman oppression was horrible, and the Pax Romana meant death for anyone who might possibly develop into a potential threat. Many people thought that that it was the end of world — that life and history were drawing to a dramatic close — and religious leaders struggled to find responses to this coming apocalypse.
Some Jewish apocalyptic visions encouraged violent rebellion against Rome, but others approached the inevitability of death in spiritual or moral terms.
Rabbi Jacob taught, “This world is like an anteroom before the World-to-Come. Prepare yourself in the anteroom so that you may enter the banquet hall.” He also said, “Better is one hour of repentance and good deeds in this world than all the life of the World-to-Come.”
Rabbi Eliezer, of Horkenos, counseled, “Repent one day before your death.” His students asked, “How is this possible? How can you know when you’ll die?” He replied, “You are right. Therefore should a person repent every day. All your days should be days of repentance.”
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Though we may think of doom-and-gloom types as melodramatic, there is something about the rhetoric of “the end is coming” that can spur us to refocus our minds and priorities. The poetry and drama of apocalyptic thought get us thinking about the meaning of our lives and the urgency for improvement.
The problems come in, however, when we focus too much on the inevitability of death and forget about the other possibility. Instead of dying tomorrow, we could live. Instead of the messiah coming tomorrow, we could have a while longer to wait, and, in the meantime, there is a lot of holy work for us to do. As Rabbi Tarphon used to say, “The day is short, the task is great, the workers are sluggish, the wages are high, and the master of the house is pressing.” Then he added, “You are not required to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to abstain from it.”
There have been times in the history of religions when thought of the apocalypse drove people to do desperate things in the immediate anticipation of the end of the world. If the only future were a global and cosmic cataclysm, then perhaps some of their choices might have made sense. However, history did not come to a close, life continued, and some of those apocalyptic decisions caused real harm and significant unholiness.
I do not know the minds of religious fanatics, but I wonder how much of the violence we see today comes from apocalyptic thinking. There are certainly struggles worthy of our efforts, but one wonders at the extreme and melodramatic thinking that must be going on in the minds of people who throw acid at girls trying to go to school or behead people over religious differences. Religious wisdom from every tradition cautions us to consider the long-term possibilities and how our patient influence and good works can help fix the world.
Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, a sage who lived through the tumult and violence of the first century — and who led a long-term and patient reconstruction of Judaism — summarized his views in the following advice: “If you are in the middle of planting a tree, and someone comes and says, ‘The messiah is coming down the street,’ finish planting the tree and then go out and greet the messiah.”