In the Peanuts Halloween television special It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, Linus believes in a Santa Claus-like figure called the Great Pumpkin, whom Linus is sure will appear on Halloween. Every year Linus waits in the pumpkin patch for this savior to appear, but he never does. Humiliated, yet undefeated in his belief, Linus vows to wait for him the next year with even more anticipation and devotion.
When I was 8 or 9, this television special caused a tremendous disturbance in me. I wondered: Could this Great Pumpkin be the “Messiah” that my father had promised would come? Would we, like Linus, wait for him year after year in humiliation? I dared not breathe a word of this to anyone, but this doctrinal doubt took the form of a physical pain in my stomach.
My father, like many Jews of his time, didn’t speak directly about his messianic yearnings, but his thoughts on the matter were clear: A Jew waits, he told me. A Jew waits to eat until after prayers. A Jew waits for the Redemption. And yes, he waits for the Moshiach. Even though Moshiach tarries, my father said, quoting the Rambam, a Jew waits for him every single day that he may come.
Terribly curious, I asked my father, “Can he come on Friday?”
“No, he will not come on Friday, erev Shabbes, nor will he come on Shabbes, nor on yontiff, the holidays,” he said. “He comes in his time, but he comes.”
“Why didn’t he come during the Holocaust?” I asked him.
“He wasn’t ready,” my father said. “It wasn’t his time. But it will be his time soon. People can feel it. It’s in the air. We are living in ikvisa d’mishicha, in the footsteps of the Messiah. If you listen closely you can hear.”
My father told me this and I believed my father. My father even told me that a great sage of the last century believed in the coming of the Messiah so much that he even kept a suitcase packed at the ready for the moment he arrives. Such was his belief.
All of this sounded very noble and magical to me and it was exciting. The Messiah was a real person, just like my father was a real person. And he would come. I began to wonder when he might come and what he would look like. Would this be the year? Would today be the day? World peace would break out when he came. How would that happen? Would he act like a comic book superhero? I hoped so.
But after I watched the Charlie Brown special, I was struck with the thunderous panic of a child who thinks the world is on his shoulders. Was my father condemning me to a Linus-like life—clinging to a minority belief shunned by all mankind? I imagined myself sitting alone with my father in a pumpkin patch somewhere. He’s coming, he’s coming all right. The Messiah hasn’t come yet, but he is coming.
There was a new urgency. How I longed, even needed for the Redeemer of Israel and mankind to come now! Not for the same reason my parents and grandparents did. I wanted him to come to redeem and vindicate me, because when the Messiah would come he would also prove my father a truth-teller as well. There, you see? My father is the true father and his religion is the true one! And I will not have lived in vain!
“Could one bring Moshiach?” I asked my father.
“There is little to do but wait,” my father answered. It was something, someone, an experience that one had to wait for. The waiting for him would bring him. But the idea of waiting for him was cold comfort to me. You mean I am supposed to just wait? I needed him to come, now.
From my point of view and from what I absorbed from the television culture around me, nothing good came from waiting. Don’t wait. Don’t wait for marriage. Don’t wait until you’re ready. Waiting was akin to wasting. Waiting was a form of humiliating passivity in the modern era. Waiting was for losers.
On the other hand, I wanted to believe, too, just as my father did. I was torn between faith and shame.
Not long after that, the Chabad campaign to bring Moshiach started to gather steam. I saw gigantic billboards that said We Want Moshiach Now! It was odd to me, a little embarrassing. I had thought all the years that I was alone with my specific Messianic yearnings. Just my father and me in the pumpkin patch. But now the Rebbe had dared to say out loud what others, even the pious, had given mere lip service to. For centuries, the devout would give tzedakah and say b’zchus dem mashiach vet kimmen, in the merit of this the Messiah will come. Letters were signed with ad bias goel tzedek, until the coming of the Redeemer, may he come speedily in our day. Everyone said it, but few meant it. Now the Rebbe had mobilized thousands to wait expectantly, to prepare themselves, to do good deeds to hasten the arrival of the Moshiach—even, in a sense, demand the Redemption—yet I was unmoved. It seemed in my deepest hard-to-admit depths, that this was an invitation to a Linus-like humiliation. The Messiah would not come no matter how much we sang and clapped our hands and did good deeds.
It would have been easy to let it go at that. The Messiah was a fairy tale, a story made up by an eternally oppressed people, a rescue fantasy. Yet some impulse has always led me back to try to reconcile my father’s teachings with the world as I experienced it. There had to be something to it. Even so, while Chabad clamored and agitated for the Messiah, I myself waited, and reflected.
In the meantime, I was faced with a dilemma. How could I believe when I was already “required” to believe? I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah, and even though he tarries, still I wait for him to come. This is what Maimonides wrote in the 12th century—widely accepted as a tenet of the Jewish faith. A Jew is required to believe in the Messiah, and to wait for him. But what if I didn’t believe he was coming? Sometimes I wish I didn’t—it would be simpler. Instead, I live as many a modern Jew does, a blinkered existence insofar as matters of faith are concerned. I “find” God and “lose” him many times a day. My Judaism oscillates between dissociated observance, crippling self-doubt, and quiet faith. I come to study in the bais medrash and I could swear, God “lives” in those big books and the people who toil in his words. But then I go out and might become absorbed by one or another of life’s serious pleasures, wonders, or tragedies—big or small—and he is seemingly gone. Or perhaps I am gone.
The great psychoanalyst of the last century D.W. Winnicott observed that children play hide and seek with their parents (and parents play the same with their children) in order to have the pleasure of being found. So too, the Hasidic great Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev said that God hides himself from us in order so that we may find him. This is a holy game, a holy pleasure. Faith lost, then found. Found, then lost again.
The Messiah is coming, yes, he is coming; he must come, he hasn’t come yet, but he is always coming. Sometimes I can hear his footsteps, out here in the pumpkin patch.
Alter Yisrael Shimon Feuerman, a psychotherapist in New Jersey, is director of The New Center for Advanced Psychotherapy Studies. He is also author of the Yiddish novel Yankel and Leah.