In his famed introduction to the Talmudic chapter of Chelek, Maimonides enumerates the thirteen basic principles of the Jewish faith.

The first four principles deal with the belief in G‑d: that G‑d is the Original Cause upon which every creation is utterly dependent for its existence; that He is absolutely one and singular; that He is noncorporeal and timeless. The fifth principle establishes man’s duty to serve Him and fulfill the purpose for which he was created. Principles six to eleven establish that G‑d relates to humanity: that He communicates His will to man; that every word of the Torah was transmitted by G‑d to Moses; that G‑d observes and is concerned with the behavior of man; that He punishes the wicked and rewards the righteous.

The final two principles deal with the era of Moshiach: the belief that there will arise a leader who will bring the entire world to recognize and serve the Creator, ushering in an era of universal peace and divine perfection.

What does it mean when we say that something is a “basic principle” in Judaism? A simple definition would be that in order to qualify as a “believing Jew,” one must accept the truth of these thirteen precepts. But the Torah clearly makes no such distinctions. As Maimonides himself writes in his eighth principle:

. . . This entire Torah, given to us by Moses, is from the mouth of the Almighty—namely, that it was communicated to him by G‑d. . . . In this there is no difference between the verses “The sons of Ham were Cush and Mitzraim,” “The name of his wife was Mehetabel” and “Timna was a concubine,” and the verses “I am the L‑rd your G‑d” and “Hear O Israel, [the L‑rd is our G‑d, the L‑rd is One]”: all are from the mouth of the Almighty; all is the Torah of G‑d, perfect, pure, holy and true. . . . Our sages have said: Anyone who believes that the entire Torah is from the mouth of the Almighty except for a single verse, is a heretic . . .”

So a “basic principle” is more than a required set of beliefs; that would apply to each and every word in the Torah. Rather, these are thirteen principles upon which everything else rests. The Hebrew word Maimonides uses is yesodot, “foundations”: different parts of an edifice could conceivably exist independently of each other, but without the foundation, the entire building would collapse. So too, each of these thirteen principles is a “foundation” to the entire Torah.

In other words, while every word in the Torah is equally important to the believer as a person, these principles are crucial to the faith itself. To deny that “Do not steal” is a divine commandment is no less heretical than to deny the existence of G‑d; but belief in the rest of the Torah is not dependent upon the fact that G‑d said not to steal. On the other hand, things like the existence of G‑d, His absolute and exclusive power, His involvement in human affairs, and His communication of the Torah to man, obviously precede the whole of Judaism. Without these “foundations,” the rest is virtually meaningless.

One difficulty, however, remains with this explanation: Why is the belief in Moshiach included among the foundations of the Jewish faith? Obviously, the concept of Moshiach is an important part of Judaism. The Torah speaks of it (in Deuteronomy 30 and Numbers 24, among others), and the prophets talk about it extensively. But could one not conceivably believe in the rest of the Torah without accepting its vision of a future perfect world?

Not In Heaven

The Torah details a most exacting and demanding code of behavior, governing every hour of the day, every phase of life and every aspect of the human experience. It takes a lifetime of committed labor, tremendous self-discipline, and every iota of man’s intellectual, emotional and spiritual prowess to bring one’s life into utter conformity with the Torah’s edicts and ideals.

Thus, there are two possible ways in which to view the Torah’s vision of life.

One may conceivably argue that the level of perfection expected by Torah is beyond feasible reach for a majority of people. From this perspective, Torah is an ideal to strive towards, a vision of absolute goodness designed to serve as a point of reference for imperfect man. A person ought to seek attaining this ideal, says this view, although he will probably never reach it, for he will much improve himself in the process.

The second view takes the Torah at its word: each and every individual is capable of, and expected to attain, the perfectly righteous and harmonious life it mandates. Torah is not an abstract ideal, but a practical and implementable blueprint for life.

The Torah itself leave no room for doubt on its own view of the matter: “For the mitzvah which I command you this day,” it states, “is not beyond you, nor is it remote from you. It is not in heaven . . . nor is it across the sea. . . . Rather, it is something that is very close to you, in your mouth, in your heart, that you may do it.” (Deuteronomy 30:11–14)

Underlying Perspectives

These two views reflect two different ways of looking at the essence of G‑d’s creation. If man is inherently or even partially evil, then obviously he can go either way. There is no reason to assume that he will, or even can, attain a state of perfect righteousness. A world community that is utterly committed to goodness, in which every single individual acts in concert with the purpose for which he was created, can only be the dream of a chronic optimist, or of one who is hopelessly out of touch with “reality.”

Yet if one believes that the world is intrinsically good, that G‑d has imbued His every creation with the potential to reflect His absolute goodness and perfection, then one’s concept of reality is completely different. Then our currently harsh reality is the anomalous state, while the reality of Moshiach is the most natural thing in the world.

In other words, where a person stands on Moshiach expresses his attitude vis-à-vis the entire Torah. Is Torah’s formula for life a pipe dream, or is it a description of the true nature of creation? If the Torah is nothing more than a theoretical utopia, then one does not expect a world free of greed, jealousy and hate anytime in the near future. But if the Torah mirrors the essence of man, then one not only believes in a future Moshiach, but understands that the world is capable of instantaneously responding to his call.

This explains why belief in Moshiach entails not only the conviction that he wil eventually arrive, but the anticipation of his imminent coming. In the words of Maimonides: “The Twelfth Principle concerns the era of Moshiach: to believe and to validate his coming; not to think that it is something of the future—even if he tarries, one should await him . . .” And in his Mishneh Torah, Maimonides states: “One who does not believe in him, or one who does not anticipate his coming, not only denies the prophets, he denies the Torah itself” (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings, 11:1).

When Moshiach is that very realistic possibility, then for another moment to go by without the Redemption taking place is far, far more “unrealistic” (that is, less in keeping with the true nature of things) than the prospect of its immediate realization.

The Nature and Definition of Truth

Of course, man has been granted freedom of choice. But the choice between good and evil is not a choice of what to be—he cannot change his quintessential self—but the choice of how to act. Man can choose to express his true essence in his behavior, or choose to suppress it.

Ultimately, the truth, by nature and definition, always comes to light. So, while man can choose how to act in any given moment, the very nature of humanity, and of G‑d’s creation as a whole, mandates that it not only can, but will, attain the perfection of the era of Moshiach.

Moshiach means that the true nature of creation will ultimately come to light. That evil is but the shallow distortion of this truth, and has no enduring reality. That man will free himself of hate and ignorance. That every human being will fulfill his divinely ordained role as outlined in the Torah, transforming the world into a place suffused with the wisdom, goodness and perfection of its Creator.

Moshiach means that the Torah is for real.