Quarantine Critique: The Life Of The World To Come—The Mountain Goats

Zachary Bahar, News Editor

I have always considered myself to be a religious person living in a secular world.

Cover art copyright belongs to 4AD Records.

I go to a public school; I don’t keep the Shabbos; I don’t adhere to strict kashrut; I don’t know the 613 mitzvahs by heart nor the rabbis who comment on them. Yet, I consider myself to be a deeply religious person. Every Saturday, without fail, I wake up feeling refreshed and head with my family to my shul, Beth Hillel B’nai Emunah; I don my tallis, prostrate, and pray with all my might and all my soul. While I may not be a proper follower of the commandments, I structure my life around my Judaism and around faith in a God that knows all and acts in this world with an abundance of lovingkindness.

It may not be a surprise then that when confronted with the pandemic sweeping the world, my first reaction was a simple yet everlasting prayer. The same prayer that my ancestors murmured through generations of religious persecutions and desert wanderings, through pogroms and genocides: an eight-word prayer for the coming of the Messiah.

I hope and pray to see the coming of the Messiah, and yet I know I will not. My people have been praying for generations and yet the pain, the suffering, the torment of exile and the fear of distance from that which is holy and precious in the universe has never ceased. I know I will not live to see the coming of the Messiah and doing so is not central to my identity; my belief that the Messiah will one day come is.

It offers me a final destination to look forward to as I traverse this vale of tears. I may not live to see the sunrise slay the darkness and restore light to the world, but my children or my children’s children might. The Messianic age is the undying hope that has kept the Jewish people alive, has kept us wandering on a path that exacts a toll with each and every stride.

The Life Of The World To Come, released in 2009 by The Mountain Goats, is a concept album with songs taking on the attributes of biblical verses. Ranging from the dying thoughts of the last member of a species (“Deuteronomy 2:10”) to a man returning to a house he once called home and reminiscing upon the “hours we spent starving within these walls” and the distant storms that comprised them (“Genesis 3:23”). Despite this narrative range, each and every song echoes the same message: we shall overcome the pain and suffering of this world and arrive in a better one, the world to come.

It makes sense that given the anxiety that we’ve all been feeling with regard to this world, that I would seek a reminder of the world to come.

I wholeheartedly believe that it will, but the reminder helps.

John Darnielle—the lead singer, lyricist and guitarist for The Mountain Goats—captures the pain that someone sitting on this side of the Messianic age feels a longing for that future; like Gatsby stretching his arms out toward the distant green lantern, we must reach towards the burning presence of the divine knowledge that despite our best efforts we cannot reach it. This is the human condition: the grief brought forth by the knowledge that no matter what choices we make, we will never be able to reach the life that awaits us all and the heroic struggle we all undertake against that deterministic view.

As I sit in my bed, late at night as a storm rages around me covering the world with a fog that yields only to our memory of a past that never was and to our hopes for a future that never will be, I know but one thing: belief in the Messiah, in the world to come, is not futile. Hope will outlast this pandemic. Hope will outlast the dying of the light. Hope will outlast me and hope will outlast my children and my children’s children. Hope for a better future is not futile, nor is the hope that one day we can reach dreams others view as lost. Hope is undying. Hope is ineffable.

American theologian and philosopher Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote that “the essential message of Judaism is that in doing the finite we may perceive the infinite.” I don’t know if I will ever catch a glimpse of Messianic green light, but through acting with lovingkindness in this world, in fighting through the vale and is hoping for the world yet to come I may one day find that eternal “light [which] is never quenched.”

So say it with me. Wherever you are, raise a glass to the coming of the Messiah and speak with unadulterated hope and faith in a living God:

: יִשְׁלַח לְקֵץ יָּמִין מְשִׁיחֵנוּ, לִפְדּוֹת מְחַכֵּי קֵץ יְשׁוּעָתוֹ

At the end of time, God will send the Messiah, to redeem those who wait for his salvation.

I give The Life Of The World To Come five out of five stars.