08 May 2011

Joan of Arcadia

In 2003 a TV show on CBS aired called “Joan of Arcadia.” It was a contemporary version of the story of Joan of Arc who, you might recall, heard the word of God and undertook to lead the French to several military victories in the Hundred Years War (1337-1453). She was burned at the stake in 1431 when she was nineteen years old but eventually canonized as a saint in the Catholic Church, as if she cared. The contemporary Joan is a high school student in small town Arcadia, Wisconsin who receives regular visits from God who assumes a variety of human forms and roles when s/he calls upon Joan. (Indeed, God appears not only as either male or female but as adult and child as well.) In each show God advises Joan to act in ways that are often at odds with her daily life and that often conflict with it. And though Joan resists God’s words, she nevertheless always follows God’s lead. In her actions, she changes herself and the world. That’s the point. 
What if God were one of us? I’ve wondered about that before. 
There is a story in Bava Metzia, a tractate in the Babylonian Talmud. 
Elijah would frequently appear at Rabbi’s academy. One day, it was the first day of the month, [and] he was delayed and did not come. Rabbi asked him, “What is the reason that you, sir, are delayed?” And Elijah responded politely: “[I had to wait] until I awakened Abraham and washed his hands, and then he prayed, and I laid him down. And then I awakened Father Isaac, washed his hands and then he prayed. When he was done I laid him down again. Finally, I awakened Father Jacob, washed his hands, then he prayed, and I laid him down again.” “But Elijah,” Rabbi said, “why didn’t you just awaken them together!” And Elijah said, “Oh, Rabbi, I was afraid that if I awakened them together then they would pray fervently and would bring the Messiah before his time.” 
Elijah is a familiar figure in Jewish culture; historically, Elijah is the Prophet from Gilead. (I think of Poe’s poem, Lenore: “Is there no balm in Gilead?” The legends of Elijah suggest that there is, indeed, such succor.) Elijah was the outstanding religious leader of his time. The Bible records that he did not die, but was carried to heaven in a chariot pulled by horses of fire. Among the many stories told about the Prophet Elijah, perhaps the most important ordains him as the forerunner of the Messiah. In this tradition, Elijah is charged with devising and announcing the coming time aright. This Talmudic story quoted above rests clearly in that Messianic tradition. I will return to this matter shortly. But it intrigues me that this Elijah is portrayed first, as a common servant and second, as a regular visitor to the Rabbi’s studio. Could it be that even the prophet Elijah continues to study? I wonder if his study, perhaps, is connected to the coming of the Messiah? The centrality of study in Judaism, its placement at the center of faith, argues for this position. 
Another aspect of this story intrigues me: Elijah explains that he has taken the more inefficient route in his actions because the conjoint praying of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob would have been so impassioned that they would have brought the Messiah before his time. Now, the Messianic theme speaks, according to some traditions, of the advent of a time of illimitable peace and happiness. The Messianic era portends the end of exile, of suffering, and of political and economic strife. The Messiah offers the redemption for which the Jew waits. Not unlike Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon who wait for Godot, the Jew waits in great expectation and hope for the Messiah. Yet, oddly enough, in this story, unlike the desires of Vladimir and Estragon who are desperate for Godot’s appearance, Elijah is fearful of bringing the Messiah before his time—he would rather, as it were, keep Godot off stage and thereby, continue to await his arrival. In this Talmudic text, waiting is a consummation devoutly to be wished. 
It is often written that Elijah can assume many appearances to accomplish his purposes, but here, however, Elijah appears as a common citizen familiar to Rabbi Yehudah Ha-Nasi and as a regular visitor to his academy. It intrigues me that Elijah would be so regular a visitor here—again I wonder, could it be that the Talmud suggests that study is intrinsic even to the lives of the prophets—and that even the great Prophet Elijah must continue his study at Rabbi’s academy. Elijah is, we are told, a daily visitor. Second, it is interesting that in this story Elijah is portrayed as servant to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the traditional founding male ancestors of Judaism. He awakens them each and every day and cares for their diurnal needs. The patriarchs pray each day—it interests me that Elijah does not appear to pray with them; rather, he is wholly preoccupied with the exigencies of their daily lives. Could it be that the Talmud suggests that the great Prophet Elijah who will usher in the messianic era must live a quotidian life until he is called upon to announce the coming of the Messiah? 
As there is a story that the Messiah exists even now among us, it is clear that Elijah, too, must exist now among us. It is he or she who ministers to our daily lives. Who makes it possible for us to pray, or in more contemporary terms, as it were, to study. Elijah comes daily to our studios, to our offices, perhaps even to our homes. I wonder what would it be like if we treated every visitor to our offices as if they were the Prophet Elijah. As if they had just come from ministering to Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob—or Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, or Leah—performing necessary duties executed separately for each to ensure that their conjoint praying not bring the Messiah before his time? Indeed, what if we considered ourselves to be Elijah so mindful of our responsibility to others that we put off our own prayers and studies until we had completed our ministrations to the Other? I suspect that were we to think of each other and ourselves as this Elijah, the time for the coming of the Messiah would, indeed, be here.
And why not awaken the patriarchs at once? Certainly it would prove to be the more efficient method. And, some would argue, wouldn’t now be an appropriate time for the Messiah’s coming? But Elijah says that the simultaneous prayers of the patriarchs would bring the Messiah before he or she is due! The coming of the Messiah for whom we wait is here contingent on human action. That is, in this story the Messiah will not usher in the era of peace but will arrive at its moment. According to Talmud, the Messiah, paradoxically it would seem, must wait for us. Of course, we might say that Godot waits for Vladimir and Estragon, but they do not see it this way. 
There are two arresting possibilities concerning this story of Elijah. The first is that the coming of the Messiah will not bring redemption but rather, acknowledge it. That is, human action must prepare the world for the Messiah. The second possibility is equally as astonishing: that the Messianic era is only possible by human action. Were the patriarchs to pray in unison the Messiah might arrive, but the world would be as yet unprepared for the Messiah’s coming. There is, it would seem, very much something to be done.  
What if the Messiah were one of us and already here? I think that Joan of Arcadia suggests this very possibility.
No wonder it was canceled!


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