A Paradox

The phrase1 עקבתא דמשיחא (“the footsteps of Mashiach), signifying our era at the very dawn of the Redemption, appears to point in two opposite directions.

The first word derives from the root עקב, meaning “heel”, the part of the body that is so far from spirituality that it has been called2 “the Angel of Death in man.” As such this word indicates that in these latter generations, Divinity is revealed in this world only minimally.

On the other hand, it is this very generation, lowly as it may be, that will witness the Redemption. Indeed, this era is called עקבתא דמשיחא because, as the latter word of the phrase indicates, we can feel and hear the footsteps of Mashiach.

It could well be argued that the second concept in this phrase depends on the first. Precisely because this generation is a “heel” in the sense that it is located at the extremity of Jewish history, the last generation that comes after and in the wake of all the preceding generations, it benefits from all the accumu­lated spiritual energy of its predecessors. For this reason, indeed, it is our generation that will be privileged to experience the Ultimate Redemption. A man’s heel is certainly situated lower than all the other organs, but it is upon the heel that they all, including the heart and the head, stand. Indeed, when the head wishes to move from place to place, it is the heel that makes this possible.

At the same time, a heel should realize that it is no more than — a heel. Being aware that all the other organs are superior to it, it is able to hold them erect and to move them about according to need. And the same is true of the generation of ikvesa diMeshicha. This “heel”-generation should realize that it is no more than a “heel”: its superior quality consists only in the fact that it comes after and in the wake of all the preceding generations.

From a talk of the Rebbe Shlita on Shabbos Parshas Bo, 5744 [1984]

Working on the Lower Levels of the Soul

In the days of the tannaim and amoraim,3 the spiritual task of the Jewish people primarily entailed the refinement and elevation of the intellective faculties (the “brain”) of the soul — Chochmah, Binah and Daas,4 and of the emotive faculties (the “heart”) of the soul — Chessed, Gevurah and Tiferes.5 In our days, the main avodah involves the refinement and elevation of the lower, more practical faculties (the “nether limbs”) of the soul — Netzach, Hod and Yesod,6 for this is the generation of the “footsteps of Mashiach.”

An allusion to this concept may be perceived in the prophetic verse7 which describes the stance of Mashiach at the End of Days: ועמדו רגליו ביום ההוא על הר הזיתים — “On that day his feet shall stand upon the Mount of Olives.”

Likkutei Torah, Chukas, p. 63d

Reason Can Be Misleading

In this era, the generation of the “footsteps of Mashiach,” it is essential that one not follow the dictates of rationalization, for mortal reasoning can mislead a man. Rather, we should observe the Torah and its commandments out of simple and unquestioning faith in G‑d.

The Rebbe Rashab, quoted in Igros Kodesh (Letters) of the Rebbe Rayatz, Vol. I, p. 488

What Counts is the Deed

During the period of ikvesa diMeshicha, the era of “the approaching footsteps of the Mashiach” — the “pre-nuptial era” of which the Zohar8 speaks — the chief spiritual task is at the basic, practical level symbolized by akev, the heel. It is specifically this level of divine service that will bring about the Redemption, for9 “The beginning [of the Sefiros] is wedged in their culmination, and their culmination is wedged in their beginning.” That is to say, the realization of the prime intent underlying Creation hinges upon the last and lowliest levels of spiritual endeavor.

This, after all, is the overall goal of avodah — to construct for G‑d10 “a dwelling place in the lower worlds.” I.e., it is man’s spiritual endeavors in this physical world, particularly on the nethermost level of practical action, that create an abode for G‑d’s Essence.

This has been illustrated by a familiar analogy. If a house has to be lifted off the ground, it is lifted from the bottom, for then it is raised in its entirety.

We can now understand why the forthcoming Redemption will be distinctive in that it will not be followed by any further exile. For since the divine service carried out throughout the years of exile has already elevated even the lowest elements of the universe, any further experience of exile is now impossible.

From a talk of the Rebbe Shlita on Shabbos Parshas Vaes’chanan, 5745

The Final Beirurim

Now is the time for the very last beirurim of this period of the “footsteps of Mashiach.”

In a period such as this, our reason might mistakenly tell us that certain aspects of this world appear to be far removed from any chance of being refined and elevated. By way of analogy: It is during the final stages of cooking that a pot boils most vigorously, so that the very dregs of its contents are thrust up to the surface. This is what is happening in these times of intensive beirurim. Things that we previously considered to be beyond restitution may now well prove to be very close to their beirur, for in such times the refining and rehabilitating processes of beirurim and tikkunim do not follow the usual patterns of orderly progression.

Igros Kodesh (Letters) of the Rebbe Rashab, Vol. I, p. 266

The Hem of Aaron’s Robe

In describing the robe of the Kohen Gadol the Torah states that there shall be alternately11 “a gold bell and a pomegranate, a gold bell and a pomegranate, all along its lower border..., and the sound [of the bells] shall be heard when he enters the Sanctuary....”

According to all the signs which our Sages have given us at the end of Tractate Sotah, our generation is the generation of the “footsteps of Mashiach,” the last and lowest stage of the exile before the coming of Mashiach — the “lower edge of the robe.” Hence, when one is endeavoring to bring every single Jew “under the wings of the Shechinah,” so that every single Jew will ultimately “enter the Sanctuary,” this needs to be done publicly and audibly, so that “the sound will be heard.” In our days, it is necessary to bring our people back to the practice of Yiddishkeit in a clamorous manner — to go out into the streets and to announce loudly that Jews ought to put on tefillin, affix mezuzos to their doorposts, and so on.

Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XVI, p. 341

Gathering In All the Camps

Speaking of the order in which the Twelve Tribes journeyed through the wilderness, the Torah finally describes Dan as12 “the gatherer of all the camps.” This Rashi explains by saying that “if anyone [in any of the previous tribes] lost something, [those in the tribe of Dan] would return it to him.”

Now if Dan was responsible for finding and returning the mere property of a Jew, then it is certain that if a Jew was lost — spiritually — from the camp of Israel, it was their responsibility to find him and to return him to the camp.

Since our generation, in the era of the “footsteps of Mashiach,” is the last generation of the exile, its crucial role is to undertake the task of Dan — to gather in all those who in the course of their wanderings have lost their way, and to bring them home to their parent camp.

From a talk of the Rebbe Shlita on the Last Day of Pesach, 5742 [1982]

A Generation Reincarnated

The AriZal writes13 that the last generation before the coming of Mashiach is a reincarnation of the generation of our forefathers who came out of Egypt.

Just as that generation was found worthy of our people’s first redemption through the agency of Moshe Rabbeinu, so will this generation, the generation of the “footsteps of Mashiach,” be found worthy of our people’s final and ultimate Redemption — through the hands of our Righteous Mashiach.

Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XII, p. 175

Moshe Rabbeinu Contemplates Our Generation

As he looked into the Book of Adam, Moshe Rabbeinu was shown the Sages and the leaders of all the generations of the future.14 When he thus gazed ahead at the generation that would live to witness the footsteps of Mashiach, he saw that they would have but a modest conception of Divinity, and in serving G‑d with their minds and their hearts they would not attain the loftiest peaks of avodah. Rather, they would actively observe the Torah and its commandments in a spirit of self-sacrifice. At the same time, he was shown what joy this service would bring about in the heavens Above.

In the light of what his eyes then beheld, Moshe Rabbeinu became exceedingly humble; as it is written,15 והאיש משה ענו מאד מכל האדם אשר על פני האדמה — “The man Moshe was very humble, more so than any man on the face of the earth.”

Sefer HaMaamarim 5710 [1950], p. 237

The Righteous and the Wicked

In earlier generations there were tzaddikim of absolute truth, who were near the level of prophecy and divine inspiration.16 On the other hand, there were exceedingly wicked people. In these latter generations, in the era of the “footsteps of Mashiach,” there are no consummate tzaddikim and no utter resha’im.

Shaarei Orah, p. 44

The “Lightweight” Mitzvos

There is a verse in the Torah that begins with the phrase,17 והי' עקב תשמעון. Plainly translated, this verse would read as follows: “And it shall be, that as a result of your heeding these laws, safeguarding and keeping them, the L‑rd your G‑d will keep in mind the covenant and the love with which He made an oath to your fathers.”

Since the Hebrew word eikev (here translated “as a result”) shares the same letters as the Hebrew word akev (“heel”), Rashi interprets the opening phrase of the verse as follows: “If you will heed the akev, the ‘lightweight’ commandments that people trample underfoot....”

Looking at the same word eikev from a different perspective, the teachings of Chassidus perceive in it an allusion to ikvesa diMeshicha,18 the era of the “footsteps of Mashiach.” Accordingly, the above-quoted Hebrew opening phrase can be understood as a reassurance to our people: והי' עקב — “When the generation of the ‘footsteps of Mashiach’ comes about,” תשמעון — “you will certainly heed [these laws]....” This reassurance recalls the promise of Parshas Nitzavim,19 that the approach of Mashiach will witness the fulfillment of the verse, ושבת עד ה' אלקיך — “You will return to the L‑rd your G‑d.”

Though they appear to be very different, one can find a common theme underlying these two interpretations; i.e., (a) the interpretation of Rashi, which speaks of the mitzvos which are trampled underfoot, and (b) that of Chassidus, which speaks of the way in which the mitzvos will be observed by the generation which will hear the approaching “footsteps of Mashiach.”

In the time of the Beis HaMikdash, the Divine light shone forth manifestly. Accordingly, it was the blissful delight20 of perceiving this that motivated the people of that time to serve G‑d. Inevitably, this pleasurable experience involved a certain consciousness of self.21

The time of exile, by contrast, and especially this last period of the “footsteps of Mashiach,” is a time during which G‑d (so to speak) hides His Countenance.22 Thus, in the absence of palpable spiritual delight, the individual is not conscious of his own self. Indeed, what comes to light is his utter self-annulment before G‑d.23

If a person’s divine service involves an awareness of himself, he will differentiate between the various kinds of command­ments. For example, he may give preferential treatment to the mitzvos of the “head” — i.e., to those mitzvos that are intellectually oriented — because of the superior divine irradiation that their performance calls forth, while the mitzvos of the “heel” will be observed less punctiliously. This will not happen if he fulfills the commandments by “accepting the yoke of heaven,” as an act of kabbalas ol. For when a person acts because of the command of his Master, he fulfills all the mitzvos with equal care, whether they appear to be “lightweight” or not.

Likkutei Sichos, Vol. IX, p. 71

A Long Wait

The closing stage of this long exile, ikvesa diMeshicha, is being painfully prolonged, yet Mashiach, the son of David, has still not arrived to signal the Redemption of our people.

A hint of this may be perceived in a certain phrase in the Book of Tehillim,24 הגדיל עלי עקב. It refers to one of the enemies of David HaMelech, and its plain meaning is understood by Rashi to mean, “He has made a great ambush against me.” However, the word עקב, here translated “ambush”, also means “heel”, and may thus be seen as an allusion to עקבתא דמשיחא — “the footsteps of Mashiach.” Understood in this sense, the phrase can be heard to echo the above plaint: “He [i.e., G‑d] is making the ikvesa so long!”

Toras Levi Yitzchak, p. 182

The End of the Tunnel is in Sight!

The Mishnah25 forewarns us: “On the eve of the coming of Mashiach, ...each day’s curse will be heavier than that of the preceding day.”

What possible good could come from giving us this somber prophecy?

Yet it serves a purpose. Had the Torah not foretold this situation, it would have been so perplexing that the Jewish people would have become dispirited. But now that the Torah has told us what to expect as the era of exile finally draws to a close, Jews can take heart, and can tackle their divinely-appointed tasks with zest.

From a talk of the Rebbe Shlita on 19 Teves, 5742 [1982]

A Painfully Tight Shoe

We are living in the generation of the footsteps of Mashiach. Now as everyone knows, wearing a hat that is too small is bearable, but a tight shoe — that’s something altogether different. So shouldn’t the Merciful One take it easy on us...?

Quoted in the name of the Rebbe Rayatz

Yearning for Those Footsteps

The saintly Kabbalist, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson, of blessed memory, father of the Rebbe Shlita, passed away on the twentieth day of Menachem Av, 5704 (1944).

Throughout the morning of that day, unceasingly, his lips were seen to murmur. As one of the chassidim at his bedside leaned over, he heard a few words from the Book of Tehillim26 being uttered with a sigh: ועקבותיך לא נודעו — “Your footsteps were not known.”

And then he heard a whisper, yearning for those footsteps: “Ah! Ikvos Meshicha, ikvos Meshicha!”

Reported by one of those present