As they mourn the recent passing of their beloved Rebbe, the Lubavitch Hasidim are also struggling to interpret the impact of their loss on the conviction upheld by many of them that Rabbi Schneerson was the Messiah. It is still too early to discern what directions the movement is going to be taking in the coming days.
This is not the first time in history that Hasidic groups have been convinced of the Messiah's imminent advent. The best-known precedent was that of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav, an enigmatic figure whose life was filled with torment and controversy. Rabbi Nahman is most vividly remembered for his legacy of allegorical stories, several of which involve quests for lost princesses, exchanged infants and other images of a reality that has been knocked out of joint. The plots of the tales revolve around attempts to correct the respective anomalies that symbolize the exiles of the Jewish people and of the divine presence, the Shekhinah. Some of the stories lack endings.
Most historians now believe that Nahman saw himself as the messianic figure who, through his arduous spiritual struggle, would succeed in setting right the dissonances of the Jewish fate. The devotion of his adherents was so intense that, when he died in 1810, they refused to transfer their allegiance to any successor. To this day the Bratslav Hasidim acknowledge Rabbi Nahman as their only Rebbe, and are known as "the Dead Hasidim."
The greatness of a Jewish religious leader was not the only factor that could give rise to the conviction that the Messianic era was about to arrive. At times this perception was ignited by momentous historical events. Such were the upheavals of the Napoleonic wars, especially his conquests of Poland and Russia.
In the eyes of some Hasidic leaders the French Emperor himself was identified as the vehicle through whom God would accomplish Israel's final redemption. It is not difficult to understand how such a belief could have arisen, as the Corsican soldier swept through country after country tearing down the walls of the ghettos and removing the civil and social inequalities under which Jews had hitherto been living. Napoleon had even restored the glory of the ancient Jewish council, the Sanhedrin--though, to be sure, the assembly was exploited as a self-serving means of manipulating his Jewish citizens. He had even marched into Jerusalem proclaiming his desire to reestablish Jewish sovereignty over the Holy Land.
So taken was Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav by Napoleon's greatness that he was moved to argue that his common-born soul had in reality been substituted for one of more regal or aristocratic origins. Hasidic legend related that the image of another prominent Hasidic supporter of the French emperor, Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Rymanov, could be seen beside Napoleon during his victorious battles.
Most of the Eastern European Jewish leadership--including the founder of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady--opposed the French ruler, whether out of loyalty to their local rulers or because they feared the breakdown of traditional values that would result from the spread of the ideals of the French Revolution.
Wherever their sympathies might lie, the rabbis believed that the terrible campaign between France and Russia was the "War of Gog and Magog" that would precede the ultimate deliverance. This restless mood of impending cataclysm among the Hasidic leaders forms the background of the remarkable historical novel Gog und Magog (translated into English as For the Sake of Heaven) by the young Martin Buber.
The Messianic expectation of those days was reinforced by the imaginative use of numerical calculations (gimatrias)based on appropriate Hebrew texts, to prove that the Messiah's arrival was preordained for the year 1810 [=the Hebrew year 5570, as intimated in the words "Sound (TeQa` ) the great horn for our liberation"], then 1812, then 1814. Napoleon's opponents discerned an allusion to his defeat in the sounds of his name, which evoked the Hebrew root for "fall" "napol." It was told that the foremost Hasidic masters of the generation once assembled in order to channel the spiritual power of their combined prayers towards the hastening of the redemption. They even declared that the Ninth of Av would henceforth be transformed from a day of grieving to one of joyous celebration.
Historical hindsight tells us that the apocalyptic fervor and anticipation of that age did not bear fruit. As always we continue to hope that our own generation will enjoy more substantial success.
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