There was intense discussion a few years ago about the coming of the Messiah. Some said the Lubavitcher Rebbe was Mashi’ach: others were adamant that he wasn’t. Everybody agreed that when the Messiah arrived – whoever he was – the Jewish people and hopefully the whole world would sit up and take notice, and everything would be different.
Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, in the days of the Mishnah, had a different thought. He said it would all depend on what you were doing at that moment. In his view, if a message came to say the Messiah was here and you were engaged in planting a tree, you had to go on with your planting and only then go out and welcome him.
The background to this statement is essential to an understanding of what Rabban Yochanan was saying. The Temple had been destroyed, the Holy Land was in ruins, the people’s morale was low. Only the long-awaited Redemption would brighten the future. In what sense? The coming of a Divinely-appointed leader would regenerate the nation, but that was up to God. The regeneration of the land depended on rehabilitating the trees, forests and vegetation, and that was up to the people’s own will and effort.
Maybe that’s what the Torah is telling us in the words, “Why do you cry to Me? Tell the Children of Israel to go forward!” (Ex. 14:15).