Early in my first year of graduate school, a teacher presented a kind of ma’aseh Rav, a story from the great titans who had walked the halls of our “Beit midrash” in an earlier age. Like its Talmudic counterparts, this story was related to us through a chain of fellow scholars and students who formed the generational link between past and present: our professor presented us with an excerpt from his colleague Bruce Lincoln’s book, Gods and Demons, Priests and Scholars. Himself an accomplished scholar of the history of religions, Lincoln describes an exchange between his teachers, Mircea Eliade and J. Z. Smith:
Several episodes from that era remain indelible, but none more than a day when Smith entered class late, visibly shaking with frustration and nervous energy. He had just left Eliade—whom I had not yet met—and they had been forced to break off an important conversation. ‘We were arguing about which came first,’ he explained, ‘order or disorder.’ Predictably, Eliade favored order and Smith the reverse, and their exchange produced only partial agreement. ‘He forced me to acknowledge,’ Smith went on, ‘that disorder can only exist in contrast to a prior order. I don’t know if that’s just a sly debater’s point, but I have to take it seriously. So I’m prepared to concede that order came first, but only by one half-second! After that, I insist there was always disorder’….
Perek Chelek, the Talmud’s theological exploration of the eschatological possibilities of the messianic age and the world to come, is less concerned with whether order or disorder “came first,” as it is with which will come last. As described in Perek Chelek, the era immediately preceding the days of the messiah is dark and chaotic: in striking contrast to biblical depictions of the messianic age as positive, peaceful, and plentiful (eg, Isaiah 25-6, 51-2) the rabbis predict that “troubles will inundate that generation like a river” (Sanhedrin 98a). In fact, these predictions were so foreboding that several important Rabbinic sages hoped that they would not live to see the day of the messiah’s arrival; strikingly, in their discussion, more optimistic visions of the messianic age are not even mentioned:
אמר עולא ייתי ולא איחמיניה וכן אמר [רבה] ייתי ולא איחמיניה
Ulla said, let him [the messiah] come, but so I will not have see him. And Rabbah also said, let him come, but so I will not have to see him.
Ulla and Rabbah invert the usual rabbinic expectation for the messiah: though they understand that their social reality is deeply imperfect, and though they hope for its redemption, they do not want to witness the process themselves. The coming of the messiah may eventually bring peace, redemption, and a relief from suffering, but first, chaos will have its way. This world may be unpredictable and violent, but its troubles run in trickles rather than rivers.
Trouble that runs like a river certainly threatens us physically, but it can also threaten us emotionally and spiritually—Ulla, Rabbah, and the other sages who make similar comments have built up mechanisms to deal with trouble that runs in trickles—they have a system of laws, a rich realm of intellectual pursuits, and a sense of communal responsibility which help them respond to those challenges effectively and compassionately. Even if they physically survive the inundation, those mechanisms may not provide sufficient resources to help them respond appropriately to the destruction around them.
One of their interlocutors acknowledges the destructiveness of the messianic age, but remains defiant:
רב יוסף אמר ייתי ואזכי דאיתיב בטולא דכופיתא דחמריה
Rav Yosef said: Let him come, and I will go and sit in the shadow of the donkey’s dung.
Unafraid of the stench, and the despair that it symbolizes, Rav Yosef confidently declares that he can withstand what is coming. Though this discussion never happens in the sugya (Talmudic passage) explicitly, we can imagine a pointed exchange between Ulla and Rabbah and Rav Yosef: “You’re simply naive!” Ulla might say. “You sit all day in the academy; how can you really know that you will be able to sit in the shadow of the dungheap? Perhaps the confusion, violence, and despair will be too much for you.”
But Rav Yosef may not be a naive student after all. “I know that I will be able to sit in the dungheap,” he might reply. “I have already spent some of life’s darker moments there.” Or he might fire back more aggressively, “Look at how many other people are already sitting in the shadow of the dungheap. If you cannot sit amongst them, then you do not deserve to be redeemed. I have decided to sit with them now in their suffering; I will be ready when chaos descends, when the shadows of the dung heaps grow longer, when we all find ourselves below them.” Read this way, Rav Yosef turns Ulla’s attention from prophetic visions of destruction to come to the chaos already found in this world; perhaps if Ulla saw this more clearly, he would be less worried about the chaos preceding redemption, and more focused on those who are already living “in the shadow of the dungheap.”
The Gemara goes on to reprise this debate, with a different pair of sages; in this iteration, there is a more explicit comparison between the chaos that will supposedly precede the messianic suffering and the chaos already found in our world:
וכן אמר ר’ יוחנן ייתי ולא איחמיניה א”ל ריש לקיש מ”ט אילימא משום דכתיב (עמוס ה, יט) כאשר ינוס איש מפני הארי ופגעו הדוב [ובא הבית] וסמך ידו אל הקיר ונשכו נחש בא ואראך דוגמתו בעולם הזה בזמן שאדם יוצא לשדה ופגע בו סנטר דומה כמי שפגע בו ארי נכנס לעיר פגע בו גבאי דומה כמי שפגעו דוב נכנס לביתו ומצא בניו ובנותיו מוטלין ברעב דומה כמי שנשכו נחש
And Rabbi Yochanan said, ‘Let him come, [but] so I will not have to see him.’ Reish Lakish said to him, ‘Why are you afraid? Is it because of the verse “As when a man did flee from a lion and a bear met him, or went into the house and leaned his arm on the wall and a snake bit him” (Amos 5:19)? [You should not be worried about this because] all of these situations already occur in this world: At a time when a man goes out into the field, he is similar to one who is accosted by a lion. He then enters the city and is accosted by the royal tax collector, he is like one who is accosted by a bear. He goes into his house and finds his sons and daughters afflicted with famine; he is like one who is bitten by a snake.’
Rabbi Yochanan is the source of the some of the most ominous descriptions of the age immediately preceding the coming of the messiah. He says that the generation immediately preceding the coming of the messiah will be characterized by a steady decrease in Torah learning, by trouble inundating a generation like a river, by a generation that is either wholly righteous or wholly evil. So, it comes as no surprise that he would follow Ulla and Rabbah in wanting to avoid the worst of the fray. Perhaps he hoped his own scholarship would ensure that Torah learning did not steadily decrease, that his own righteousness would stave off even the most pervasive evil, or that his own physical beauty (Bava Metzia 84a) would be an antidote to pain, darkness, and confusion. Perhaps, having seen the river of troubles rising, he feared what might happen if it were to burst its banks.
Reish Lakish attempts to allay Rabbi Yochanan’s concern by arguing that the frightening biblical prophecies about the messiah are actually describing our world as it already is. Reish Lakish, in other words, argues precisely the opposite of Voltaire’s Dr. Pangloss; for him, this is the worst of all possible worlds. But, this pessimistic statement opens up an optimistic possibility—if the most violent prophecies are already fulfilled in this world, then the promised redemption will not be preceded by any additional chaos or destruction.
Again, we might imagine how Rabbi Yochanan could respond to Reish Lakish: “Easy for you to say; have you been the person accosted by the lion? Until you have, I don’t want you to go around telling me that it’s all uphill from here…”
Reish Lakish likely has more intimate knowledge than Rabbi Yochanan of these situations, especially of being accosted by the authorities: before becoming a Rabbinic sage, he had an extensive career as a thief (Bava Metzia 84a). Perhaps then, we should interpret Reish Lakish’s response a little differently: rather than arguing that things really just aren’t that bad, Reish Lakish follows Rav Yosef’s lead in refocusing his interlocutor’s attention on suffering and injustice in this world. While Rabbi Yochanan was focused on sudden, unpredictable fears—lions, tigers, and bears that threaten to jump out from behind a tree unexpectedly—Reish Lakish wants to remind him that danger is also (perhaps even more often) found woven into the fabric of daily life. You meet it collecting crops in your field, walking the streets of your city, navigating a perilous work environment to try to feed your family. A contemporary account might expand the list of dangers—systemic racism, sexual assault in schools, workplaces, and public spaces, profound economic inequality. Reish Lakish, like Lincoln, fears not a “harlequin” chaos flitting through the world playfully, but rather, a disciplined kind of chaos that uses its alliance with power to infiltrate social structures, and cause predictable devastation. We don’t need to wait for the world to come for this kind of chaos to arrive; it is already here. Read this way, Reish Lakish follows Rav Yosef in turning our attention to the chaos already found in this world.
Rabbi Hillel makes an even more radical version of this move:
ר’ הילל אומר אין להם משיח לישראל שכבר אכלוהו בימי חזקיה
Rabbi Hillel said, Israel has no Messiah, since they already ate from him in the days of Hizkiyahu.
This statement is shocking, and medieval Rabbinic scholars treated this kind of thinking as downright heretical. (Maimonides and Albo both list belief in the coming of the messiah as a key principle of faith). However, taking our cue from Reish Lakish and Rav Yosef, we can reread it to be not just surprising, but instructive. By saying that Israel has already “eaten” from the messiah, Rabbi Hillel argues again that the prophecies that describe violence and chaos are not reserved for the messianic era. They are part of this world as well. In fact, with the advantage of hindsight, Rabbi Hillel was able to match the violent images of prophecy with a historical period. The reign of Hezkiyahu was filled with both the “river of troubles” and the miraculous reversals that characterize the rabbinic picture of the messianic redemption. During his reign, the kingdom of Judah fell to Persian invaders in a bloody war, in which Hezkiyahu attempted to pay off the opposing army, only to find it invading as soon as it had the bribe in hand (2 Kings 18:14-17). Jerusalem is saved only by a plague that kills the opposing army overnight (2 Kings 19:35). In arguing that the prophecies about the messiah have already been fulfilled, Rabbi Hillel recognizes that the Jewish people have already sat in the shadow of the dungheap, that they have already been held up by the thief and the tax collector, and that they have already watched their children go to bed hungry. If that is not enough to count as the kind of cosmic theological event that the texts from Prophets describe, he wagers, then nothing is.
In his debate with Eliade, Smith felt forced to acknowledge that disorder can be identified only against a pre-existing backdrop of order. Rav Yosef, Reish Lakish, and Rabbi Hillel agree that disorder can only be understood contextually, but for them, that context is provided by past experiences of disorder. They argue that prophecies and prognostications of disorder in the messianic era are only intelligible in terms of experiences of pain, suffering and chaos in this world.. These experiences can come from a variety of sources: for Rabbi Hillel, they are part of a shared national history and, on our reading, for Rav Yosef they may even be the product of sitting alongside those who dwell in the “shadow of the dungheap” in this world. For all of them, though, any claim about what is to come must be grounded in an accurate and empathetic assessment of where this suffering, unredeemed world, stands.
In the two years after I first heard the story of Smith and Eliade, a flurry of other events intervened, bringing chaos into my personal life. At the end of that academic year, I found myself in an Israeli hospital, with an undiagnosed appendicitis which left me seriously weakened in a matter of days. As I became ill, a war brewed outside the hospital walls, yielding additional pain and bloodshed, but no new progress in a political reality that always teters on the edge of its own very violent form of chaos. A few months later, a dear friend experienced a profound illness that left her in deep pain and unable to really work for well over a year. The following summer, my parents were each diagnosed with cancer within a month of each other. (Both, blessedly, are doing well now.) Whether or not chaos came into the world before the order I had known in preceding years, it was here to stay. In my mind its “costume” was less “Harlequin” than methodical and work-a-day. Its timing seemed precise and calculated.
A year later, a different form of chaos began to brew, this time, political and social rather than personal. A man who had bragged about assaulting women, who had lied, who had mocked the poor and the disabled, the marginalized and the wounded, was elected President. We were reminded that statistical methods, the hallmark of precision and rational prognostication, are also nourished on randomness and chance.
In my personal life, I confronted chaos with a peculiar mixture of determination and desperation: my own recovery required continued attention and effort: an avid runner and swimmer, I spent months working to be able to swim two consecutive lengths of a pool. Caring for those I loved demanded that I attend to particular tasks; I needed to cook dinner, to arrange for transportation to medical appointments, to make sure everyone was resting and eating and sleeping. If chaos had arrived to wreak methodical, persistent havoc, I planned to meet it with just as much consistency.
The Talmud gives its blessing to this kind of methodical resistance to chaos, while also recognizing its shortcomings. After Rabbah declares that he does not want to witness the messiah’s arrival himself, Abaye comes back with one more challenge:
אמר ליה אביי (לרבא) [לרבה] מאי טעמא אילימא משום חבלו של משיח והתניא שאלו תלמידיו את רבי אלעזר מה יעשה אדם וינצל מחבלו של משיח יעסוק בתורה ובגמילות חסדים ומר הא תורה והא גמילות חסדים
Abaye said to Rabbah, ‘What is the reason [that you are afraid]? If it is because of the pains [preceding] the messiah, don’t we learn in a baraita that Rabbi Elazar’s students asked him:”What can a person do to be saved from the pain [preceding] the messiah?” “They should busy themselves with Torah and with good deeds.” And you, do you not have Torah and Good deeds?’
Both Torah and good deeds require a combination of care and commitment, of loving emotional investment and methodical regularity. In this sense, they are a strong antidote to chaos’s disruptive tendencies, even when those disruptions come with surprising, ruthless regularity.
But my own confrontation with chaos has taught me that these antidotes are fragile ones—periodically, I would look back and see what chaos had done: I would count my challenges, and feel like this world was ending. I have faith that this will end, I would say, but I do not know if I have the emotional strength or the reserve of care to be the person who sees it run its full course.
Rabbah responds to Abaye by questioning the strength of his own Torah and good deeds—the constitutive features of his identity as a rabbinic leader:
אמר [ליה] שמא יגרום החטא. כדר’ יעקב בר אידי דר’ יעקב בר אידי רמי כתיב (בראשית כח, טו) הנה אנכי עמך ושמרתיך בכל אשר תלך וכתיב (בראשית לב, ח) ויירא יעקב מאד וייצר לו
Rabbah said to him: “[I am afraid] that my sin [might cause me to suffer the pains preceding the messiah, even despite my Torah and good deeds].” This is based on a statement of Rabbi Ya’akov Bar Idi. Rabbi Ya’akov Bar Idi raised a contradiction: Here, it is written, “Here I am with you, and I will guard you wherever you go,” (Genesis 28:15), and here it is written “And Jacob was very afraid, and it pained him” (Genesis 32:8).
If Jacob could be afraid, even after having received a promise of protection from God, then surely Rabbah should still fear a “river of troubles,” his Torah and good needs notwithstanding. Perhaps he would not have the combination of constancy and care needed to withstand chaos gracefully and without sin.
I confronted my personal chaos with as much care and commitment I could muster, and I continued to worry that it simply would not be enough. Political chaos inspired a similar combination of emotions: on the one hand, moments of crisis led to almost frantic outpourings of outrage and political fervor; after each small success, we try to imagine that we have already “eaten” the worst of what is to come. And, at the same time, we become accustomed to how much damage this political structure, newly imbued with misogyny, racism, and other forms of hate, can do just through the course of our daily lives, when we go to work, when we walk our streets, and when we come home to our families. These routines sustain us through the most difficult moments, but they are also the structures in which chaos does its most devastating work.
Constant movement between these two different perspectives, one focused on our day to day efforts to impose order on our world, and one focused on the events that seem to disrupt that order so much as to make it unrecognizable, can be dizzying. To combat this dizziness, we may be tempted to focus too much on order, the force most comforting, and so most worthy of our attention, the force that cosmically “came first,” and that therefore needs to be constantly observed and cultivated. But, each in their own subtly critical way, Rav Yosef, Reish Lakish, and Rabbi Hillel also teach us that the oscillation between order and disorder is ethically and religiously significant: compassionate care requires order’s structure and commitment, but only with attention to disorder can we take stock of the suffering to which that compassionate care needs to be directed. By giving us a future vision of chaos, and by basing that vision on a contextual understanding of disorder in this world, these Sages help remind us to look at the chaos around us, to really see it, to analyze, it and begin to respond to it.
These voices might seem pessimistic in contrast to the ones that describe a messianic redemption in more confident and aspirational terms; no more gentle picture of messianic redemption balances out the darker one that dominates this sugya. But there is a quiet optimism in these voices as well—they base their descriptions of a redeemed world on the suffering of this one; when seen under the right light, even the dungheap is part of the story of a renewed, better, world. In fact, I’d wager, the ability to take stock of the pain and injustice we find in our world, and to begin to do our part (often in incremental, but methodical ways) is itself the best hope we have of redemption.
By conceding that order preceded disorder, “but only by one half second!”, Smith comes close to rejecting the formulation of the original question—it’s not that order or disorder “came first,” one is always bound up with the other. The Talmud goes one step further, teaching us not only that that order and disorder are fundamental constituents of this world and the world to come, but also that our job is to identify both order and disorder, and to use them to heal this chaotic, but also deeply orderly, world of ours.
Sarah Zager is a PhD student in Religious Studies and Philosophy at Yale University. She has learned at Yeshivat Hadar and was a graduate fellow for the Consortium for Jewish Studies and Legal Theory in 2016-2017.