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The Secret


And Jacob called his sons, and said: “Gather yourselves together, that I may tell you that which shall befall you in the end of days.”

Genesis 49:1

The Talmud explains that “Jacob wished to reveal to his sons ‘the end of days’ (ketz hayomin—the time of the final and complete redemption by Moshiach), whereupon the divine presence departed from him.”[1]

This raises the obvious question: Why did Jacob wish to do such a thing? What would such knowledge have achieved? On the contrary, had the children of Israel known the date of Moshiach’s coming, would this not have had a most adverse effect on their morale? Would not the knowledge that the Redemption would be more than 3,500 years in the future be a source of discouragement and despair for the Jews in Egypt?

The Opportunity

In the “Song at the Sea” (the psalm of praise the people of Israel sang at the shore of the Red Sea upon their deliverance from Pharaoh’s armies), there is a verse that reads, “Bring them and plant them on the mountain of Your inheritance, the base for Your dwelling You, G-d, have made; the Sanctuary, O L-rd, that Your Hands have established.”[2] The Zohar explains that had we been worthy, G-d Himself would have brought us into the Holy Land and would Himself have constructed the Beit Hamikdash (Holy Temple) in Jerusalem, making these eternal and unalterable deeds. In other words, the Exodus from Egypt would have constituted the ultimate redemption. It was only because of a series of failings on our part (including the sin of the Golden Calf and that of the Spies) that our entry into the land of Israel and the construction of the Beit Hamikdash were achieved by human means,[3] and were as mortal and vulnerable to corruption as their achievers. Thus we still await the day when G-d Himself will gather us from the ends of earth and rebuild the Beit Hamikdash,[4] making His manifest presence in our lives invincible and everlasting.[5]

It was this “end” that Jacob wished to reveal. Had we known that the Exodus from Egypt (which was foreordained in Abraham’s covenant with G-d) was meant to be the final and ultimate redemption, we would have been driven to seize the moment and ensure that its full potential would indeed be realized.[6]

Building in the Dark

Nevertheless, G-d prevented Jacob from disclosing this to his children. The “end of days” was to remain a mystery, regardless of how its revelation might encourage our efforts to perfect the world and prepare it for redemption. For in order for man to truly participate in the perfection of creation, it is crucial that the time frame for the advent of the messianic era be unknown to him.

As we said above, the final redemption is a divine act, unequivocal and eternal; so if man is to play a meaningful role in bringing it about, it is through deeds that are themselves unequivocal and eternal. Hence the state of galut in which we find ourselves: a state of physical and spiritual displacement, a state in which G-d’s guiding hand in history is hidden and our lives seem abandoned to chance and caprice. When a person retains his integrity and loyalty to G-d even under such conditions, he is manifesting an “eternal” commitment—a commitment unshakable by equivocations of time and place.

Thus, galut is not only something from which we need to be redeemed, but also the condition that enables our meaningful participation in the redemption process. Galut means being in the dark: inhabiting a world in which a corporeal husk obscures its rich spiritual content; a world that is deaf to the chimes of the cosmic clock of history and blind to its own steady advance toward harmonious perfection. Only under such conditions are our positive deeds vested with the eternality that categorizes the messianic; were we privy to the “end of days,” our deeds would be of a provisional nature, buttressed by our clear vision of history’s progression toward perfection.

Supra-Conscious Knowledge

And yet, Jacob did reveal the “end of days” to us. Not that he actually told us when Moshiach is coming—G-d prevented him from doing so to ensure that our experience of galut is complete and yields the “eternal” commitment that makes us genuine partners in the divinely perfect world of Moshiach. But the very fact that he desired to tell us had its effect. The Torah states that “G-d does the desire of those who fear Him”;[7] if Jacob desired that we know, then, on some level or another, this knowledge was communicated to us.[8]

Furthermore, Jacob is one of the three Avot (forefathers) of Israel, of whom our sages have described as “served solely as a vehicle for the divine will, every moment of their lives.”[9] If Jacob desired that we know the secret of the “end of days,” it is a desire that is utterly consistent with the divine will. G-d wants that we should want to know, and that we should indeed know, so that we should be driven by this desire and knowledge. At the same time, He does not allow us to expressly know, so that our deeds should be true and unconditional—not contingent upon such “inside information.”

So we live our lives in the dark, bereft of any conscious sense of our place in history. Seconds before the outbreak of dawn, we perceive only the blackest of nights. But this is only the surface of our lives—the level on which we act to bring redemption to the world. Underlying this surface is a knowing soul—a soul attuned to the supernal timetable, a soul sensitive to the moments most opportune for redemption and empowered to reveal this knowledge and potential.

So we live our lives in the dark, bereft of any conscious sense of our place in history. Seconds before the outbreak of dawn, we perceive only the blackest of nights. But this is only the surface of our lives—the level on which we act to bring redemption to the world. Underlying this surface is a knowing soul—a soul attuned to the supernal timetable, a soul sensitive to the moments most opportune for redemption and empowered to reveal this knowledge and potential.

Based on an address by the Rebbe, Shabbat Vayechi, 5741 (December 20, 1980)[10]

A Holy Man in a Sack

In his blessings to his children before his passing, Jacob assigned to each of them their role in the formation of the Jewish nation. The twelve sons of Jacob became the twelve tribes of Israel, whose twelve individual callings collectively realize the mission of Israel.

Judah, Jacob’s fourth son, was granted the role of sovereign and ruler. In Jacob’s words, “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the legislator’s pen from his descendants; to him nations shall submit, until the coming of Shiloh[11].”[12] Beginning with King David, all legitimate rulers of Israel—kings, nessi’im, exilarchs—up to, and including, Moshiach, were and will be from the tribe of Judah.

By rights, the sovereignty belonged to Reuben, Jacob’s firstborn. But Reuben had sinned against his father,[13] forfeiting this right, which was then transferred to Judah. Why Judah? Our sages[14] identify two virtues for which Judah merited the leadership of Israel:

(a)  When the other sons of Jacob plotted to kill Joseph, Judah saved his life. “What shall we profit by killing our brother and covering his blood?” argued Judah. “Let us sell him to the Ishmaelites and not harm him with our own hands, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” The others accepted Judah’s reasoning, and Joseph was taken out of the snake-infested pit into which he had been thrown and sold into slavery.[15]

(b)  Judah publicly admitted his culpability in the incident of Tamar, thereby saving her and her two unborn sons from death.[16]

It would seem, however, that Reuben was no less virtuous than Judah. Indeed, in both these areas, Reuben’s deeds were greater and his intentions purer.

Regarding the plot to kill Joseph, it was Reuben who first saved Joseph’s life by suggesting to his brothers that, instead of killing him, they should throw him into the pit. As the Torah attests, he did this “in order to save him from their hands, [so that he may later] return him to his father” (Reuben did not know that there were snakes and scorpions in the pit). The Torah also attests that Reuben was not present when Joseph was sold, and records his shock at not finding Joseph in the pit when he returned to take him out and his berating of his brothers for what they had done.[17] Judah, on the other hand, only suggested a more “profitable” way of disposing of Joseph (the Torah says nothing about any hidden intentions), and was the cause of Joseph’s sale into slavery. Indeed, we later find the others accusing Judah: “It was you who told us to sell him. If you would have told us to return him [home], we would have listened to you.”[18]

As for Judah’s public penance, here, too, Reuben excelled him. Reuben, too, admitted and repented his sin. And while Judah was faced with a choice to either admit his responsibility or cause the destruction of three innocent lives, there were no such compelling factors in Reuben’s case. Furthermore, Reuben’s penance did not end with a one-time admission of guilt, but continued to consume his entire being for many years. Indeed, the reason why Reuben was not present at the time of Joseph’s sale—nine years after his original wrongdoing against his father—was that “he was occupied with his sackcloth and fasting.”[19]

Time to Act

As far as personal virtue is concerned, Reuben indeed surpassed Judah, both in the purity of his intentions regarding Joseph and the intensity of his repentance over his failings. But Judah was the one who actually saved Joseph, while Reuben unwittingly placed him in mortal danger. In the same vein, Judah’s repentance saved three lives, while Reuben’s remorse helped no one—indeed, had he not been preoccupied with “his sackcloth and his fasting,” he might have prevented Joseph’s being sold into slavery.

Indeed, Reuben retained his rights as Jacob’s firstborn in all that pertained to him as an individual.[20] But he forfeited his role as a leader, by neglecting the most basic prerequisite for leadership. Believing Joseph safe for the time being, Reuben rushed back to attend to his prayers and penance, forgetting that concern for one’s fellow must always take precedence over one’s own pursuits, no matter how pious and lofty these pursuits might be.

While Reuben prayed and fasted, Judah acted. Judah earned the leadership of Israel by recognizing that when another human being is in need, one must set aside all other considerations and get involved. Even if one’s own intentions are still short of perfection and one’s own character is yet to be refined. Sometimes, one cannot afford to wait.

Based on an address by the Rebbe, Shabbat Vayechi, 5730 (December 27, 1969)[21].

Adapted from the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe by Yanki Tauber

[1]. Talmud, Pesachim 56a.

[2]. Exodus 15:17.

[3]. Joshua leading the conquest of the Holy Land with the aid of armies and arms, and King Solomon building the Beit Hamikdash with the aid of 150,000 masons and porters and 3,600 overseers.

[4]. See Deuteronomy 30:3 and Rashi, ibid.; Rabbeinu Bechaya on Genesis 26:22.

[5]. Zohar I, 221a; See also Talmud, Eruvin 54a and Midrash Rabbah, Shemot 32:1.

[6]. At the time of Jacob’s passing, the Exodus was still 193 years away—beyond the plausible lifetimes of Jacob’s children and grandchildren, but near in the context of its potential as the culminating event of history. Furthermore, the “end of days” is not a fixed time but a “deadline”—a point in time that marks the latest possible date for the Redemption, which can be achieved earlier through the positive deeds of man (Talmud, Sanhedrin 98a. Indeed, the Exodus did take place well before its final deadline, after 210 years in Egypt instead of the 400 years prophesied to Abraham—see Rashi on Genesis 15:13; Ralbag, ibid.). Thus, if Jacob would have revealed the true significance of the Exodus to his children, they would have been even more driven to hasten it with meritorious behavior.

[7]. Psalms 145:19. See Likkutei Torah and Ohr HaTorah on Deuteronomy 3:23.

[8]  The elimination of Moses’ name from the Torah-section of Tetzaveh, because he said to G-d, “If You will not [forgive the children of Israel for the sin of the Golden Calf], erase me from the book You have written” (see p. 205 and sources cited there). So certainly a positive desire of a tzaddik has its effect, since, “A positive phenomenon is exponentially more potent than a negative one” (Talmud, Sotah 11a, et al.).

[9]. Tanya, ch. 23.

[10]. Likkutei Sichot, vol. XX, pp. 228-234

[11]. Moshiach.

[12]. Genesis 49:8.

[13]. See verse and Rashi, Genesis 35:22 and 49:3-4.

[14]. Midrash Rabbah, Bereishit 98:7 and 99:8; Midrash Tanchuma, Vayechi 10; Rashi on Genesis 49:9.

[15]. Genesis 37:26-28.

[16]. Genesis 38:13-26.

[17]. Ibid., 37:21-22; 29-30.

[18]. Rashi, ibid., 38:1.

[19]. Ibid., 37:29.

[20]. Ibid., 35:23

[21]. Likkutei Sichot, vol. XV, pp. 439-446.


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