Dear Rabbi,

Every time you people talk about the messianic era, and “the Moshiach” (which I assume equates with “messiah”), you insist on talking about him as a king. Well, we started guillotining kings over two hundred years ago, and they haven’t really been in fashion since. We have found liberal democracies much more adept at protecting the rights of the individuals, and working for the maximum benefit of the maximum number of people. Kings were notoriously lousy at all that.

So how about we just call him (or her) an “enlightened spiritual leader”? The “king” title seems such an anachronism.

—Looking forward to your response

Dear Looking Forward,

You raise an excellent point, but I’m not sure whether you really understand how sharp a point it really is.

The prophet Isaiah describes an individual upon whom “the spirit of G‑d rests, a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of counsel and heroism, a spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord.1

What will this individual accomplish? Something quite different than what we are used to kings accomplishing. The prophet continues:

A wolf shall live with a lamb, and a leopard shall lie with a kid; and a calf and a lion cub and a fatling shall lie together, and a small child shall lead them. A cow and a bear shall graze, their children shall lie down together; and a lion, like cattle, shall eat straw.

An infant shall play over the hole of a viper snake, and over the eyeball of an adder, a weaned child shall stretch forth his hand. They shall neither harm nor destroy on all My holy mount, for the earth shall be full of the knowing of G‑d as water covers the seabed.2

Basically, what that means is that the messianic times are not simply times of love, peace and hanging out together. They are times when “the earth shall be full of the knowing of G‑d,” so inundated with that knowing, that higher awareness, that state of enlightenment, that even the wild beasts of the field will behave.

If so, in such a state, who needs a king? Who needs any government at all? Let the people, so fully enlightened and aware of their Creator and their responsibility to His creation, self-organize and work things out between one another. I mean, do you really expect enlightened beings to hurt, steal, extort, or otherwise cause bodily or monetary harm to one another? So who needs government in such a world, never mind a king?

Okay, to get to that point, we may well need an outstanding individual, a great leader who could deal with the oppressors and dictators and other powerful shmendriks of the world. As Maimonides puts it, someone who will strengthen the Torah and “fight the wars of G‑d”3—not necessarily military wars, but actions that have very powerful political and social ramifications.

But once that mission is complete and the world is at peace, buzzing with wisdom until even the leopards and wolves are behaving and the very earth itself is full of knowledge, then everything changes. What would be crucial at such a point would be not a king, but a teacher. Yes, the world is enlightened, but it is still a world emerging into enlightenment. The Moshiach, as a teacher, would guide people to see and to understand this new world into which they had entered.

And yet, the very word moshiach means “anointed.” Anointed for what? Anointed to be a king. But who will need a king?

What really is a king? Yes, a king governs, but is that really what a king is?

The question was asked by several of the rebbes of Chabad.4 Here’s how they answered:

A king—an authentic, genuine-to-the-core king—is an individual who stands head and shoulders above the people around him. That’s why a king who must force the people to accept him as king is not a real king. A real king is someone like King Saul, who, when chosen by the prophet Samuel and the people, could not be found, because he had hid himself, hoping that he would not be chosen.

About King Saul, the prophet says that he was “from his shoulders up taller than all the people.”5 That’s not just a vertical measurement. “Shoulders” refers to emotions. Saul’s emotions were at the level of another person’s intellect. His mind, then, was completely beyond, in a higher realm altogether.

This will also be the character of the Moshiach. Yes, he will be a teacher—because that’s what those times will be all about: learning, knowing, gaining divine wisdom. But a teacher—a good teacher—limits his lesson to that for which the student is ready and can handle. The Moshiach will be a teacher, but one with a kingly character: as enlightened as they may be, he will see far beyond. And yet, as a teacher-king, he will be capable of transmitting that transcendental knowledge to all of us as well. Perhaps not cognitively, but in some form in which it can be shared.

An interesting idea, because it fits so well into the idea of what the messianic era is all about and how it fulfills the purpose of creation—as Rabbi Schneur Zalman writes, “everything depends on our work throughout the time of exile.”

Meaning that through the toil of our hard work, our struggle and persistence in the most trying times right up until that glorious era, we will draw into the world a deep light, an essence-light, such as could never have been revealed without that labor. It is that essence-light that the Moshiach will have the job of revealing to us. Something entirely transcendental, and yet, something that each of us touches; something from which each of us draws strength every time we defy the confusion and darkness of our present world to do what we know is right and beautiful.

This teacher, then, is the ultimate of teachers. A king teacher. For he will show us the very core essence of our souls, and how they are rooted in the Core Essence of All Being. He will reveal to us how we are all kings.