Every day on our way home from Gan my kids and I pass a kiosk that sells ice cream. Outside there is a wrought-iron gate where an old man whose arm is always covered in bandages sits in front on a low stool, smiling at passersby and waiting for customers. “Can we get ice cream today?” my kids ask me every day. “On Friday,” I always promise. “If you behave nicely all week, we can have ice cream on Friday.” I want them to learn to delay gratification, and I want them to emulate Shammai, who, we are told, would save anything special he found during the week to enjoy on Shabbat. It’s not easy for the kids because they want ice cream now, but we do stop every Friday — or at least we did until very recently.
Last Friday, for the first time, I refused to get them the treat they’d been anticipating all week. I was at my wits’ end. My son and daughter were fighting over a scooter the entire way home, and my toddler refused to sit in her stroller or hold my hand when we crossed the busy street, and my other daughter screamed, “I want ice cream now” from the moment I picked her up at Gan, even though I asked her repeatedly to lower her voice and say “please.” I was annoyed at their behavior and in no mood to indulge them. And so when we passed by the kiosk, I held my ground and insisted that we walk on.
Later that afternoon, long after the inevitable tantrums had subsided and I was setting up the candles for Shabbat, my daughter Liav came over to me, prepared to have a rational conversation. “But Ima, you promised us ice cream. That’s not fair. You can’t promise and then change your mind.”
She was right, but not exactly. I told her the story I’d learned in daf yomi this week about Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, who once stumbled upon Elijah at the entrance to a cave. “When is the Messiah coming,” Ben Levi asked, seizing the opportunity to ask the question that was always on everyone’s mind. Elijah shrugged. “Why don’t you go ask him that yourself?” he suggested. “Where can I find him?” Ben Levi asked. “At the gates of Rome.”
Ben Levi was surprised; Rome was just a few days’ journey away. “How will I recognize him when I get there?” he asked, already packing up for the trip. Elijah explained that the Messiah would be sitting among the afflicted, all of whom would be wrapping and unwrapping their bandages; only the Messiah would take off one bandage at a time, conscious that at any moment it might be time for him to come.
Ben Levi set off for the gates of Rome, where sure enough he found the Messiah dressing his wounds one at a time. “Greetings Ben Levi,” the Messiah said to him. “When are you coming?” asked Ben Levi, getting right to the point. ‘Now,” said the Messiah. Ben Levi could hardly contain his excitement. He rushed back to share the good news with Elijah, heralding the herald. By the time he arrived back at the cave, several days had elapsed, and alas, the Messiah had not come. “He lied to me,” Ben Levi complained to Elijah. “He promised he would come today, but he didn’t come.” Elijah smiled down at Ben Levi like patient father prepared to explain it all again, more slowly this time. “Ah,” Elijah sighed. “You didn’t listen. He said ‘Today if you heed Him.’”
This statement, “today if you heed Him” is a quote from Psalms (95:7):
“Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker; for He is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care. Today, if you heed Him.”
I explained to Liav that just as the Messiah would come today only if the people listened to God, so too would the kids have gotten ice cream today only if they’d listened to me. Instead, though, my kids had tried my patience, not unlike the Israelites in the wilderness, as we read in the very next verse of that psalm:
“Do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah, as you did that day at Massah in the wilderness, where your ancestors tested Me. They tried Me, though they had seen what I did. For forty years I was angry with that generation; I said, ‘They are a people whose hearts go astray, and they have not known My ways.’ So I declared an oath in My anger, ‘They shall never enter My rest.’”
Yes, I would buy the kids ice cream today. But only if they listened and behaved. If they spent our long walk home from Gan fighting with each other and trying my patience, then I would make an oath in my anger to deny them the treat they so fervently desired. “They shall never eat my ice cream.”
We would be reciting those verses later that evening – they are part of the liturgy of Kabbalat Shabbat. Each week we remind ourselves, as Ben Levi reminded Elijah, that the Messianic era of chocolate and vanilla bliss will dawn “today,” but only if we heed God’s voice. Until then, the man at the kiosk will continue to smile and beckon, but we will merely walk on.