Rabbi Elazar of Modai
Rabbi Yaakov Haber
June 12, 2010
“Rabbi Elazar Hamodai said: One who:
though he may have Torah and good deeds, he has no share in the World to Come.”
We will try to find the common thread that connects the five things that Rabbi Elazar Hamodai mentions.  Rabbi Elazar Hamodai, as his name implies, came from Modiin.  He was a contemporary of Rabbi Akiva, and also of Hadrian ha Rasha, the author of the Hadrian decrees.  When Hadrian, the Roman general, first came to power, he was seen as a potentially good force.  But then things deteriorated, and he disbanded the Sanhendrin, and outlawed Bris Milah and learning and teaching Torah, making them punishable by death.  Rabbi Elazar Hamodai was also the uncle of Bar Kochba, who killed him.
Let’s read from the 4th Perek of Taanis, in the Gemorah Yerushalmi.  The events it describes took place about 80 or 85 years after the Churban Bais Hamikdosh. It says, “Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai says, my teacher Rabbi Akiva said that Bar Kochba was Moshiach.  He quoted the posuk from Bilaam, “A star has issued from Jacob” (Rabbi Akiva gave him the name Bar Kochba because the root of the name is Cochav, star). Rabbi Yochonon of Toldai said to Rabbi Akiva, grass will grow on your face before we see this, Bar Kochba is not Moshiach.”  We’ll return to the Gemorah later, but let’s look at the Rambam who learns Halachas about Mochiach from this.
The Rambam says, “Moshiach will not have to perform miracles.  Anyone who thinks this is a Tipish (a fool).  Rabbi Akiva declared Bar Kochba to be Moshiach., and Rabbi Akiva carried the Kelim of Bar Kochba.”  This either can be taken literally, that he carried the armor of Bar Kochba, or figuratively that he supported Bar Kochba.  Bar Kochba was a large, strong, general.  Not the kind of person we are brought up to think of as Moshiach.  From the fact that Rabbi Akiva declared Bar Kochba as Moshiach, the Rambam learns that Moshiach does not have to be someone who performs miracles.  According to this, the coming of Moshiach doesn’t mean that money and clothing will grow on trees.  The main effect of Moshiach will be that the Jews will not be subject to Shibud Amim, the subjugation of the nations.  The Jews won’t have to answer to the nations of the world or the UN.
Let’s look at what the Vilna Gaon has to say about this.  The Gra quotes the whole posuck said by Bilaam (Bamidbar 24:17): “A star has issued from Jacob, and a shevet has risen from Israel.”  He says the two phrases indicate that Moshiach will come in two stages.  “A star has issued from Jacob” refers to the first stage, Moshiach ben Yosef. “A shevet has risen from Israel”, refers to the second stage, Moshiach ben Dovid. 
Moshiach ben Yosef can be someone who doesn’t perform miracles.  Yosef in the Chumash saved the Jewish people through natural means. Yosef  was backed up by the power of Pharoah, by means of which he provided the Jews with food.  The Gra says that the word star, Cochav, is composed of two parts.  The first two letters refers to Hashem’s name, and the second two letters refers to the 22 letters of the alphabet, from which the natural world was made. This implies that Moshiach ben Yosef will not come to power through miracles, nor will he perform miracles. The Gra says that gematria of Cochav and the gematria of Shevet add up the gematria of Moshiach.  And he says that the Gematria of Yosef is equal to the Gematria of Tzion.  That’s as political as I’m going to get.
The Gra then refers to Messechet Brochas, where Shmuel comments on this.  Shmuel throughout Shas is known as an expert on astronomy and medicine.  Shmuel says, “I know the Maarechet (system) of the Cochavim like I know the Maarechet of my streets in Nehardah”.  Nehardah was not a large town, and just as he knew the streets in his town, he knew the system of the stars.  If you look up in the sky tonight, you’ll see that the big dipper and the North star are in the same place as they were last night.  Shmuel then says, “But I don’t know what a Shevet is”.  A Shevet is a shooting star.  It’s not part of the regular system of the stars, so it’s hard to know where it’s going to come from, and where it’s going to. 
In other words, the Gra is saying that Moshiach ben Yosef will be part of the natural non-miraculous order of things, like the Maarechet of the stars, while Moshiach ben Dovid will be more like a Shevet, a shooting star, outside of the Maarechet of the stars.
During the Hadrian decrees, Rabbi Akiva declared that Bar Kochba was the Moshiach.  As we said, the root of the name Kochba is Cochav, star.  This wasn’t his real name.  His original name was Bar Kosba, after the town he came from.  After he failed, the Gemorah called him Bar Koziba, means means ‘false one’.   
According to even non-Jewish sources, Bar Kochba had an army of 200,000 men.  By comparison, the IDF today in Israel has 176,000 active duty soldiers.  (I don’t know if Bar Kochba also had Milium, reserves.)   The Gemara says that all the Chachomim in Yavna supported Bar Kochba and joined his army.  When Bar Kochba said that everyone in his army should bite off a finger to show their strength and determination, many of the Chachomim withdrew their support.  They said he was making Klal Yisroel Balei into Mumim, and that there are other ways to test these qualities.
The Gemarah in Avodah Zara says that history is divided into three periods, each lasting 2000 years.  The first 2000 years is called Tohu veVohu, confusion.  This is when the world just started to learn how to function.  Avraham was born in the year 1948.  He began teaching Monotheism when he was 52 years old.  That was the beginning of the second 2000 years, called the period of Torah, which includes Matan Torah.  Rebbe Hakodosh redacted the Mishnah in the year 3880.  The third and last 2000 year period is called the period of Moshiach.    Rabbi Akiva knew that he was about to enter the period when the world could be ready for Moshiach.  We are now in the year 5770.  According to some opinions, due to a possible error in the calendar, 160 years may have been lost.  So we are getting close to the end of the 3rd period.
Bar Kochba’s fight against Hadrian lasted a number of years, and culminated in Hadrian laying siege to Bar Kochba and his troops in Betar, which is close to where Betar is today – just south of Yerushalayim.  The Gemarah Yerushalmi in Taanis that I started before continues to tell us what happened.  It says that Bar Kochba said to Hashem, “Don’t help us, but just don’t curse us.”  It may seem strange to us that the person who Rabbi Akiva called Moshiach told Hashem that he didn’t need or want Hashem’s help.  This alienated many of the Chachomim.
It says that Elazar Hamodai, his uncle – the author of our Mishnah -  had a different opinion.  Elazar Hamodai sat in sackcloth and ashes, and all day would cry, “Hashem, please don’t sit today in Judgement, in Din”.  This was a machloket between Bar Kochba and Elazer Hamodai  Bar Kochba felt he was Moshiach – as declared by Rabbi Akiva – and as Moshiach he felt he shouldn’t ask for Hashem’s help.  Elazar Hamodai felt that it was essential to beseech Rachamim from Hashem.  Bar Kochba regarded Elazar Hamodai’s attitude as a kind of Morad Bemalchus, rebelliousness against the king, because it seemed to cast doubts on his claim that he was Moshiach.
Elazar Hamodai is not found that often in the Gemorah, but there is another Gemorah where he says, Why did the Mon fall every day in the Midbar?  He answers because Hashem wanted the Jews to pray every day for the Mon.  Elazar Hamodai believed in the power and necessity of praying every day for Rachamim from Hashem.
The Gemorah continues that after 2 years, Hadrian realized that the Jews in Betar were not going to give up, so he decided to leave.  Then a Cusi spoke up, and said, “Don’t give up, I have a plan, and I ask you to let me try it.”   The Cusi used the sewage system to sneak into Betar.  Then he stood behind Elazer Hamodai, and pretended to whisper in his ear.  The Cusi suspected that the defeat of the Jews was being held at bay by the prayers of Elazar Hamodai, so he wanted to cause him to come under suspicion.
Bar Kochba’s men caught the Cusi, and brought him to Bar Kocha, who asked him what he was talking about with Elazer Hamodai.  The Cusi said he was talking about surrendering to the Romans. When Bar Kochba heard about this, he called in his uncle, Elazar Hamodai.  He asked, “What did you and this person talk about?”  Elazar said, “Nothing”.  Bar Kochba got angry, kicked him, and killed him.  In terms of the Machloket between Bar Kochba and Elazer Hamodia, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back.   The Gemorah says that without the davening of Elazar Hamodai, Betar was soon conquered and its inhabitants, including Bar Kochba, were killed.
Now let’s go back to our Mishnah in Pirkei Avos.  Elazar Hamdai says that there are many cases when the Kedushah of something is not evident, and that in these cases we must be especially careful to respect its Kedushah. 
The first case talks about desecrating sacred things.  It’s easy to make something Hekdish. This can be done in a second.  Just point to something and say “This is hekdish”.  The object looks just as it did before, only now it has Kedushah.  If you make a pickle hekdish, it still looks like a pickle.  If you point to a cow and make it hekdish, it still looks and smells and moos like a cow – only now it is holy and must be treated as holy. 
The second case talks about disgracing Festivals. The meforshim say that this is talking about Chol Hamoed.  It’s easy to treat Chol Hamoed like a weekday – to work and act as though it is not holy.  Elazar Hamodai is saying that it is precisely because it looks like an ordinary day that we must be extra careful to respect its Kedushah.
The third case mentions humiliating a fellow in public.  After a person is embarrassed, after he turns red, he turns white.  The Gemorah says that the blood draining from his face is like killing him.  It says we should rather throw ourselves into a fiery furnace rather than embarrass another person in public. You can say to yourself that that you’re just doing it to an ordinary person, but that ignores the fact that each person is a Tzelem Elokim, full of Kedushah.
The fourth case refers to nullifying the covenant of our forefather Abraham.  In the times of the Greeks, men would add skin to themselves so as not to appear like Jews in the Merchatz.  But meforshim say that this even refers to someone coming over to you and asking you if you are a Jew.  According to this, we must be willing to give up our lives rather than deny the fact that we are Jews.  This respects the holiness of the Jewish people.
And the last item talks about perverting the Torah contrary to the Halachah.  This denigrates the Holiness of the Torah. 
All these tie directly into our story of the Machloket between Elazar Hamodai and his nephew Bar Kochba, and possibly with Rabbi Akiva.  Bar Kochba claimed that once he was declared Moshiach, he does not have ask for Hashem’s Rachamim.  Moshiach – and according to the Gra Moshiach ben Yosef – is part of the natural order of things, like the Maarechet of the stars.  This stage of Moshiach works Al Derech Ha Teva, without miracles. 
In our Mishnah Elazar Hamodai lists five things that look ordinary, but where it’s crucial not miss a dimension of Kedushah that it has.  He also felt that this was true for the approach of Bar Kochba, and perhaps also Rabbi Akiva, towards the concept of Moshiach, even Moshiach ben Yosef.  Though even this first stage of Moshiach can come by natural means, and look totally ordinary, one is missing the point entirely if he doesn’t see the spiritual and holy aspect of it.  Just like a chair that is hekdish, or Chol Hamoed, looks ordinary, it is not ordinary because it is holy.  To not see the holy aspect of it is to miss what is essential in it. It is precisely because Moshiach ben Yoseph can, as Rabbi Akvia said, look like an ordinary person, that we have to be especially careful to make sure we regard him as having a very high intrinsic level of Kedushah.
This is a Machlochet that remains today.  Namely, how much Kedushah should we see Moshiach ben Yosef – the first and natural stage of Moshiach - as having?