These essays follow the annual cycle of Torah readings in synagogues the world over, and provide a taste of rabbinical exposition of each such reading in the week it occurs. For a fuller appreciation of the background and underlying premises, please click here.
Dëvar Torah — Parashath Vayëchi (Genesis XLVII,28-L,26)
“And Ya‘aqov (Jacob) called to his sons and said, Gather together and let me tell you [vë’aggida lachem] what will befall you in the end of days [bë’acharith hayamim],” (XLIX,1).
The Talmud tells us of Ya‘aqov’s intentions in these deathbed remarks: “Ya‘aqov sought to reveal to his sons the end of days, and the Divine Presence vanished from him,” (Pësachim 56a; cf. also Bëréshith Rabba XCVII,3). The implication of this, as the commentators bring out, is that G-d did not wish Ya‘aqov to reveal the end of history to his sons, and lifted the power of prophecy from him before he could do it.
Yet, it is obvious to anyone who reads the line that follows that they are, in the main, a string of prophecies. Moreover, some of them involve the very climax of history which Ya‘aqov was supposedly prevented from revealing; how else are we to understand, e.g., “A sceptre will not depart from Yëhuda, nor a legislator from between his feet, until Shilo comes, and his shall be the assembly of peoples,” (ibid., 10), when the Talmud (Sanhedrin 5a) tells us that the “sceptre” refers not merely to the kings of Israel, but also to the reishei hagaluyoth, the descendants of the Davidic line who ruled in Babylon until long after the destruction of the Temple, and the “legislator” refers to the descendants, physical and spiritual, of Hillel, who perpetuate the Torah among Israel, and that “the name of the Anointed One will be Shilo” based on this verse — found later in the same volume (98b) — an interpretation echoed by Onqëlos and cited by Rashi? Furthermore, Rashi relates the “assembly of peoples” to Isaiah XI,10, which clearly refers to the “end of days.”
What, then, was Ya‘aqov prevented from revealing and why?
The 19th century commentator Rabbi Naftali Tzëvi Yëhuda Berlin, in his Ha‘améq Davar, takes note that Rashi applies the above Talmudic comment to the phrase vë-aggida lachem, as opposed to the last clause of the verse. Ya‘aqov was not being prevented from revealing many things far in the future; indeed, many of the details of which Ya‘aqov spoke were characteristics of the times of the Judges and Kings, but not of the very end. For example, in v. 13 we read: “Zëvulun will dwell on the seacoast,” which does not match the division of land described by Ezekiel XLVIII,27 on Israel’s return from the final exile. Therefore, he explains, we can see that the phrase acharith hayamim does not necessarily refer to the climax of all history, but can refer simply to the end of one particular historical epoch. The Ha‘améq Davar considers the period in question, that of the original conquest and settlement of the Holy Land by Israel, to have ended only with the reigns of David and Shëlomo (“Solomon”), when the borders were at last secure and the Temple erected on its proper site in Jerusalem.
“And since that is so,” he goes on, “there is no place for the interpretation that Ya‘aqov wished to reveal the end of the Anointed One, save by inference from the phrase ‘vë-aggida lachem,’ since haggada has connotations of [discussing] a concealed matter or hidden secret.”
And so we are back up against it. The future in general – hidden from most of us – was an open book to a prophet of Ya‘aqov’s stature, and as we have seen, the “removal of the Divine Presence” to which the Talmud refers supra did not prevent him sharing what he read in it with all his future descendants.
So what was the “concealed matter,” the “hidden secret” which he was not permitted to reveal?
In Sanhedrin 97b, amidst a welter of suggestions concerning the conditions which will precede and accompany the advent of Israel’s Anointed King, occurs the following: “May the bones of those who calculate the end swell, of those who would say, Since the end has come and he has not come, he is no longer coming.”
As we have seen, Ya‘aqov was not prevented from saying that there would, in fact, be an end to Israel’s long and bitter final exile, nor was he prevented from revealing the comforting truth that Israel would not be bereft or abandoned, but would possess suitable people and great Torah scholars at all times to provide leadership and inspiration throughout that exile. What he was prevented from revealing was the date on which it would end.
Listen to how the great 12th century sage Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam, sometimes called “Maimonides”) ruled in his classic codification of Jewish law, based upon this Talmudic passage. He lists the events which are foretold concerning the Anointed King’s advent, then tells us: “And concerning all of these things and their like, no matter how they come to be, for they are obscure matters with the prophets; even the Rabbis have no accurate tradition concerning these things,” (Hilchoth Mëlachim XII,2). Messianism, he goes on, must not be made a major principle of religion, “for these matters lead neither to fear nor love of G-d, and so one should not try to calculate the end.”
The purpose which Ya‘aqov bequeathed his children — a life of learning Torah, observing Torah, and disseminating Torah — is a transcendental one which will, we are assured, eventually transform the world. The details concerning the climax of this mission are at most of merely academic or intellectual interest to the true ben Torah who is bent to his task. It is so that we will not preoccupy ourselves unprofitably with the follies of the distant past, that the events of the antediluvian period — which lasted 1,656 years — are covered only schematically in the first few chapters of Genesis; it is to prevent us from becoming too wrapped up in equally pointless eschatology that Ya‘aqov was prevented from revealing the end, and the Talmud makes a point of telling us so.
If, then, this business of Mashiach, “Messiah,” is so peripheral to the daily practice and progress of the Jewish mission, why did the prophets and the Sages of the Talmud expend as much effort as they have done in telling us of it?
If the alert reader with a living sense of the Hebrew language examines the original text of our introductory passage, he (or she) will note that the word which I have followed the Aramaic paraphrases in translating “befall” is not constructed from the usual root quf-réysh-hé, but rather from quf-réysh-alef, which literally means “call” (as in the first verb in the passage). The great 19th century rabbi of Frankfurt am Main, Rabbi S. R. Hirsch, explains that we have a duty to be sensitive to events unfolding around us, for nothing is haphazard. G-d runs His world, and every event is pregnant with meaning and “calls” out to us.
As the Rambam confidently asserts, when the events actually happen, we shall know it; tortured speculation born of superheated hopes is counterproductive. Mashiach will call to us bë’acharith hayamim; it will only be for us to hear the call.