What Do You Do When Your Messiah Dies?

On June 12, 1994, the aged Rabbi Menachem Schneerson expired after months in a comatose condition. Rav (Yiddish for Rabbi) Schneerson was a kindly little man who loved his fellow Jews and the Jewish religion. In return, he was greatly loved by his followers and respected by all Jews. He was a paradox of a man. He had received his Ph.D. from the Sorbonne, but some of the beliefs he promoted seemed based on old superstitions. He had been acclaimed Grand Rabbi” of the Lubavitch movement formed by the mystical Ba’al Shem Tov, yet he seemed to possess genuine humility.

Through Rav Schneerson’s wisdom, many of the Lubavitch sect were rescued from the Holocaust. Because of his vision, these Hasidim, who looked more like they belonged in the eighteenth century than today, were able to expand and multiply their numbers. The group even attracted young people who had grown up in secular and Reform Jewish homes.

All Rav Schneerson’s followers revered him as a great leader, but ultimately some said of him what he would never say of himself. They claimed that he was the Messiah who would reveal himself in due time and accomplish world redemption. They called him Moshiach, the title reserved for the Righteous One who would come as prophet, priest and king, bring the Gentiles to the light of Judaism and the God of Moses and deliver all mankind.

Those hopeful followers of Rav Schneerson placed advertisements in secular newspapers all over the world to hail him “The King Messiah.” They reveled and danced at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem to celebrate his birthday. They whispered stories of mystical understanding about him to one another. They talked of his great intellectual prowess and yes, even miracles they said he performed. Unfortunately, Rav Schneerson never denied those claims. Then, at ninety-two years of age, the Grand Rabbi went to eternal sleep with his fathers.

So what do you do when your “messiah” dies — when hope evaporates — when you are confronted with the fact that what you thought of a person was not true—when you realize that he was not able to deliver or provide as you had hoped?

This is not the first time my Jewish people have been disappointed in their messianic hopes. Throughout the centuries, Israel has longed for God’s Messiah to come and deliver her as promised in Scripture. Many persons of great stature have arisen in the Jewish community. Some were political heroes, and some were greatly beloved religious leaders. But all of them were less than God’s promised Messiah—and all of them died. None came back. None accomplished world deliverance.

When Rav Schneerson died, the hopes of the Hasidim who longed for him to be the Messiah were dashed. That’s what happens when your hope is placed in the wrong person.

In some ways, Menachem Schneerson was like King Uzziah who lived and died during the Prophet Isaiah’s lifetime. Undoubtedly, in Bible times some must have thought that King Uzziah was the “promised deliverer.” He began his reign in a rather godly way. He implemented an extensive “public works” program. He steered Judah’s ship of state into the currents of prosperity. Then he died.

What do you do when your “messiah” dies? We know what Isaiah did. Isaiah 6:1 tells us that he went to the Temple, the place of God. There and then, the King of Heaven bestowed upon Isaiah a new experience of Himself.

When Isaiah saw the Lord high and lifted up, he discovered what was true and what was important. Probably in God’s mercy, Isaiah did not have perfect clarity of vision. The place was filled with smoke and incense and the heavenly train of angels above, before and behind. Their chant rent the air: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts. The whole earth is full of His glory!”

We can recognize that Isaiah was a big-hearted man, an intellectual giant and a person of great strength because of his big repentance. He responded, “Woe is me, for I am undone! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.” In this, the prophet nullifed his finest asset, which was undoubtedly a gift from God — the ability to articulate truth. He confessed that compared to God’s holiness, the best thing about him was filthy and unworthy.

Then, in a grand gesture, God sent an angel to cleanse Isaiah and presented him with an opportunity to serve. God said, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?”

“Who else was there?” we might well ask. Yet God’s call is often like that. He presents His will as an opportunity. Then He gives us the right to say yes or no. That right to choose our response is the same right that allows us to live a holy life or a life of sin.

Sin is not always what we do. It can also be what we do not do. Faced with the ordinary disappointments of life, we have a choice as to how we will respond. We may frown, or even express displeasure in some way. But if we are mature, we usually go on with whatever needs to be done. Sometimes, however, even in the lives of the faithful, graver disappointments arise — the kind that can flatten us. Our emotions are numbed, our minds won’t work and we feel unable to act. All we are capable of wanting is an end to our pain. Even then, we can still choose our response. For such major disappointments, we need to override our emotions. We need a complete reorientation of soul, a complete rehabilitation of the heart and a complete revivification of the will like Isaiah had.

At such times we can only find remedy in the Lord and in Yeshua, His true Messiah. As we bring our broken hearts and shattered dreams into the presence of God, we find ourselves with a new hope, a new help and a new holiness. As we encounter the Almighty, we repent and we are changed.

The revivification of the will to serve God begins with repentance. Revival requires sorrow and contrition over sin. I wonder if the followers of Rav Schneerson who acclaimed him to be the Messiah can repent of having erected a false idol. Perhaps they can. If they do, God just might show them the true Messiah, and we know who that is. Won’t they be surprised?

On the other hand, they may try to justify their wrong, as many do. They may rationalize and say, “Well, Rav Schneerson could have been the Messiah,” or “He should have been the Messiah, but it was the fault of those who would not acclaim him that he did not become the Messiah.” Human nature is like that. When people are wrong, really wrong, willfully wrong, sometimes they place themselves beyond the repentance they need.

As Christians who have placed our faith in Yeshua, the only risen Messiah, we have the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit to convict us of wrong choices and endow us with the strength to repent. Nevertheless, if we ignore the promptings of the Spirit, we are still subject to human frailties. We are not immune to making wrong assumptions and doubtful allegiances.

We acknowledge over and over again that we are to glorify God, not people. We know that we are not to look to humanity for solace and wisdom, but to God. Yet somehow, some way, we often end up allowing ourselves to look to people to help us look to God. And ultimately, people — even godly people — will fail us.

It is far too easy to look to a “guru” kind of teacher or spiritual leader and then discover that we have betrayed ourselves. These days, we hear of so many scandals involving spiritual shepherds. How devastated their followers must be when they discover that those to whom they looked for spiritual guidance were merely using them rather than guiding them.

When your “messiah” (the thing or person in whom you have trusted) lets you down, you can only look to God for solace. As you repent of that misplaced trust, God will bring healing and restoration. He is always ready to cleanse and renew a contrite heart and a willing spirit.

If you are disappointed, maybe you hoped for and wanted what was wrong. But there is a remedy. You need only be willing to seek a new direction and a new choice. Isaiah’s new choice was to serve the true and living God. You can do the same. So, if your “messiah” has died, if your hopes have been smashed and your heart has been dashed against the rocks of circumstance, repentance is the good place for a new beginning.


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