Kee Tissa: On imagining each person as the Messiah

Kee Tissa

Exodus 30:11-34:35

Numbers 19:1-22

Ezekiel 36:16-38

Worshippers no longer came to pray or bring contributions. Novices no longer applied for admission. Only four brothers who were cruel and unkind to one another remained in residence at the decrepit monastery. All were at a loss as to how to stop the decline.

The brothers, desperate about their situation, visited the rundown shack where the local rabbi studied and prayed. The rabbi commiserated, acknowledging that they were living in an age of little faith. He said he could suggest nothing that might improve their situation. But as the dejected brothers were about to leave, the rabbi added that although he could not help, he could in fact tell them one thing.

He said, "One of the four of you is the Messiah."

From that day forward, nothing at the monastery was ever the same. Now each brother, certain that he might be speaking to the Messiah, treated all of his siblings with the utmost dignity and respect. Word of this kindness spread throughout the community. Many began making pilgrimages to pray and speak with the compassionate brothers. They brought gifts to help restore the dilapidated building. Not long after the monks' conversation with the rabbi, the monastery grew quite prosperous, but the brothers never understood how the Jew's simple statement set this chain of events in motion.

This story's theme — that individuals possess inner resources and powers of which they are unaware and which often go unnoticed by the rest of the world — is highlighted in the text of this week's Torah portion, Kee Tissa, which reads:

"As Moses came down from the mountain bearing the two tablets of the Law, Moses was not aware that the skin of his face was radiant" (Exodus 34:29).

Moses returned from 40 solitary days and nights on the mountain oblivious to the fact that his face was aglow with a remarkable light. Though Moses remained unaware of the light shining from his face, Aaron and the Israelites saw it. Moses did not behave extraordinarily as a result of his unusual radiance — and even if he had been aware of it, he would still have acted like himself.

There is something pure about an individual who goes about doing good while neither expecting a reward nor believing there is anything unusual about his actions.

This is one of the distinctive characteristics shared by many "righteous gentiles" who at great risk saved Jews during the Holocaust. These individuals had no sense that what they were doing was unusual or heroic or that their faces, like Moses', reflected the light of God. They only did what they thought any decent person would do.

Andre Schwarz-Bart's moving book "The Last of the Just" is based on the legend of the lamed-vav, Hebrew letters representing the numerical equivalent of 36 — which totals the number of righteous individuals who, unbeknown to themselves or anyone else, enable the world to persevere because of their simple, unpretentious, righteous deeds. The aforementioned righteous gentiles were such rare individuals.

Imagine what the world would be like if everyone did what was right and thought nothing was unusual about his or her actions. Imagine what the world would be like if, every time we spoke, each of us thought we might be addressing the Messiah.

Imagine what the world be like if everyone saw radiance in the face of everyone else or if we thought we might be facing an individual God had designated as a "lamed-vavnik."

We would certainly live differently. Many have served their fellow human beings oblivious to their own mission. If only you and I could believe that each person we meet is potentially a Moses or a Messiah, then we would find that, like the four brothers in the monastery, we have been called to sacred and righteous work that would change our lives and the lives of others.