Angel of History/Footsteps of the Messiah

In his ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History‘, Walter Benjamin condemns the image of ‘progress’ put forth as dogma by the Social Democrats, which insisted that humanity has evolved towards ever-greater perfection throughout history, into the present.

“Progress, as it was painted in the minds of the social democrats, was once upon a time the progress of humanity itself (not only that of its abilities and knowledges). It was, secondly, something unending (something corresponding to an endless perfectibility of humanity). It counted, thirdly, as something essentially unstoppable (as something self-activating, pursuing a straight or spiral path).”

He contrasts, with this image of progress, his conception of history as catastrophe-

“There is a painting by Klee called Angelus Novus. An angel is depicted there who looks as though he were about to distance himself from something which he is staring at. His eyes are opened wide, his mouth stands open and his wings are outstretched. The Angel of History must look just so. His face is turned towards the past. Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet. He would like to pause for a moment so fair [verweilen: a reference to Goethe’s Faust], to awaken the dead and to piece together what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise, it has caught itself up in his wings and is so strong that the Angel can no longer close them. The storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high. That which we call progress, is this storm.”

There is a striking resemblance between Benjamin’s conception of history as catastrophe, and the notion of the ‘footsteps of the Messiah’ as it appears in rabbinic theology, especially when contrasted with the religious Zionist notion of redemption, so similar to Benjamin’s critique of progress.

From Rav Tamir Granot, describing the thought of early-1900s anti-Zionist Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman-

“Rabbi Wasserman was one of the personalities who molded the perception of the final period in the life of the Jewish nation in exile, including the period of the Jewish state, as “Ikveta de-Meshicha“, or ‘footsteps of the Messiah’…

The ancient term coined by Chazal is of great significance for an understanding of Rabbi Wasserman’s historical approach, and it should be contrasted with the term commonly associated with Religious Zionism – “at’chalta di-ge’ula,” the beginning of the redemption, or “reishit tzemichat ge’ulateinu,” the beginning of the flowering of our redemption.

The concept of the “beginning of the redemption” expresses a view of the modern era as a constructive stage on the way to the final redemption. It entails a positive view of our historical reality, seeing in it the Jewish nation’s development and progress on the way to redemption.

The term “footsteps of the Messiah,” although also denoting proximity in time to the redemption, expresses a completely opposite view of the period.  For the Jewish nation, the modern era – and especially the period between the two World Wars – looked like a general, almost catastrophic, crisis and disintegration, especially as pertaining to the spiritual situation.  The disintegration of traditional society, the loss of the communal structure, the Enlightenment, Reform, assimilation, and finally Zionism and Communism, all represented a multi-pronged attack on faithful Judaism, endangering the continuation of Jewish existence in accordance with Torah and the commandments.  If we add to this the reality of economic distress, WWI, emigration, and pogroms, intensified in the 1930’s with racist antisemitism, the murderous decrees, and Stalin’s persecution, we are faced with an extremely grim picture, which Rabbi Wasserman identified as a descent to the nethermost depths.  Chazal, in the final mishna in Sota and in the Gemara ad loc., describe just such a situation and refer to it as “the footsteps of the Messiah.”

18) The Chafetz Chaim taught further: The changes that take place in the world today within a short time, used to take hundreds of years.  We see that the wheel of time is spinning at lightning speed.  “What has God done to us?” (Yirmiyahu 5:19); why are conditions changing in this way? Concerning these questions, the Chafetz Chaim taught: Since the time of Creation and until today, endless accounts have piled up.  Before the Messiah comes, these accounts must be settled, because the redemption will remove the evil inclination, and thus all matters of this world that pertain to the battle waged against the evil inclination will be cancelled.  Therefore, every person must settle whatever debt he still owes God.  Since the time of the Messiah is very close, it is imperative that this process be speeded up.  From the day that the Chafetz Chaim, z”l, expressed this view, the pace of events in the world has grown even faster.  Overnight, literally, things have happened that previously would have taken many generations… It is as though the wheel of time is accelerating under pressure from an external command: “Hurry up!”  Anyone with intelligence can understand that we are living in a special period, which is destined to change the entire world order; day by day, the pace grows faster…”








A Vanished World

A vanished world. Heartbreaking. I am haunted by the past.

By the image of the past that flits up in an instant, and is never seen again- full to bursting with the pathos of the lived moment, the aching of the human creature caught in history, blindsided by it. An eye that meets mine, blinks, and disappears. Hands that grow tense, and loosen, and clench again. A gaze that implores- remember me. Even in my vanishing.

Stewards of Remembrance

There is a gift of remembrance, nestled in the human heart, that makes the angels tremble with jealousy. Remembrance is not the simple muscle memory of the living creature, human or animal, that yearns instinctually for the food it once had, misses shelter, longs for a lost kiss, or the embrace of a mother. In remembrance there is something more. 

Looking at old photographs, engaged in reminiscience, there is a haunting, a deep sadness, an awareness of the passing of time itself, a sorrow and wisdom embedded in the notion that the moment itself, the presence of the present, is eternally passing away. Often we can hold this quality of remembrance before the powers of our thought for only a moment, before it flits away; as if we get glimpses of a secret dwelling within, and beyond, time itself. 

The past is eternally past; this moment, too, is already past; the drama of our human lives will fade away, will be held onto only as sweet memory, as history. The hands of those who came before us have worked hard to bring us to the present. Our ancestors are no longer with us, and yet our remembrance of them is charged with gratitude, awe and responsibility. 

It as if somewhere, a candle is lit that bathes the halls and caverns of time itself in the light of remembrance, a light suffused with the sigh of the human heart, the yearning, hope and sorrow of our incomplete redemption. When we turn our gaze upon the past, we see by virtue of this light only; in this light, the daily motions of humans upon the earth are captured as shadows. We cannot see this candle directly, but to sit before it fills our hearts with a deep, unspeakable sadness and a warm, unquenchable gratitude.

Nature already does a great job consecrating space; humans can build temples of spatial holiness that, in the end, mimic the beauty of nature, or gesture to a truth beyond it. This is all well and good, though one wonders if nature itself already offers, to our gaze, the most perfect temple imaginable. 

But nature cannot speak of time or remembrance; before remembrance, nature is mute, its gaze does not venture towards these realms. An animal cannot tap into this eerie, ghostlike quality of awareness of the passing of time itself, in its ineffable, simple yet staggering beauty. It is as if humans have been gifted the ability to dwell in time, to consecrate time itself. It is given to humans to build structures of holiness in time itself. In our hearts and minds, existence doubles back upon itself; we are ‘he who writes and he who is written’ (Jabes). We are stewards of remembrance, entrusted to care for that candle that, flame bent towards the past, makes its nest in the very pulse of being. 

(Written at the wake of Dottie Nabakowski)