From the Newsletter | Sniffing Out the Messiah in 2023

Last night I heard a story about Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, an early leader of Hasidism who settled with some of his followers in Israel. The story goes that this rabbi was in his house when he was interrupted by some of his students. “Rabbi, rabbi!” they said. “We just heard the blast of the shofar—the Messiah has come at last!” The rabbi stuck his head out of the window and sniffed the air. “No, my friends,” said the rabbi. “The Messiah has not come.” 

How Menachem Mendel could detect the Messiah by smell is one question, but another is why he had to smell outdoors. One answer is that within his home—a home (presumably) infused with study, justice and love—it always smelled like the Messiah.

I remembered this story as I was listening to the radio this morning while making coffee. The reporters had a litany of disturbing, perplexing, crazy-making stories—Andrew Tate, former kickboxer turned misogynist guru to teenage boys on TikTok and Twitter, was arrested in Romania on charges of alleged rape and human trafficking; Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican and 2020 election denier who, as of this writing, continues to struggle to be elected House Speaker due to squabbles with those even further to the right; and a looming global recession as poor countries are rocked by the economic slowdowns in Europe, the United States and China, even as they continue to absorb the fallout from COVID-19 and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

I, and others at Moment, have written a number of recent deep dives about antisemitic conspiracy theories. A quote from the Anti-Defamation League’s Rebecca Federman that I didn’t end up using for my story about the sayanim is that many of these conspiracy theorists are motivated by the overwhelming unpredictability and unsettledness of life today. One thing that conspiracy theorists get right is that, for the most part, today’s world is terrifying. The temptation to find digestible explanations through demonizing others, and the attendant yearning for a religious or political savior who will fix it all, is almost irresistible. 

The new year (of the Gregorian calendar) will likely be as chaotic and terrifying as the last few have been. Moment has written before about pivotal years in human history, when “everything changed.” Given the tumult, 2023 may well be one of those years. But the beautiful aspect of the story of Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, whose own time was no less chaotic, is that by and large, what is most under our influence and deserving of our attention is our immediate environment. What can we give? What can we do to make our loved ones happy? To be good Jewish parents? By giving some of our attention toward these questions, maybe we can all catch a whiff of the Messiah in 2023.

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