Efrat, Israel — “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the judicial interpreter’s staff from between his feet, until Shilo shall come, and unto him shall be the ingathering of nations.” [Gen. 49:10]
While purchasing books in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea Shearim many years ago, the shopkeeper informed me that the Messiah was in the city. Despite my rationalistic bent, I excitedly went to pray at the Western Wall, searching devout faces in the hope of identifying the savior. At last, in despair, I returned to my bookseller in frustration and perplexity. “But didn’t you tell me the Messiah was in Jerusalem?,” I accusingly asked. “Rabbi Riskin, you have it all wrong,” he replied. “You think that we are waiting for the Messiah. In reality, the Messiah is waiting for us!”
In fact, the first Biblical reference to the Messiah appears in our portion, Vayechi, when Jacob blesses each of his twelve sons. Jacob establishes the character of Judah by comparing him to a lion, and bestows upon him the gift and responsibility of the birthright: “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the judicial interpreter’s staff from between his feet, until Shilo shall come, and unto him shall be the ingathering of nations.”
The real linguistic difficulty of this verse is found in the middle of the blessing, where we come up against the etymological mystery of the word Shilo. It appears in this context only this once in the Bible (although it is also commonly used as the name of a city in Israel that housed the Sanctuary prior to the construction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem).
Rashi also refers to the word Shilo in its messianic implication, quoting first from Targum Onkelos, and then adding that the etymology is derived either from the Hebrew pronoun of possession (“until the coming of the one to whom [the kingdom] is his – shelo”) or a contraction of “the gift is his” (shai lo).
Ba’al Haturim shares a striking gematria between the phrase yavo shilo [Shilo comes] and the word mashiach (messiah), both of which add up to 358.
Seforno takes the word Shilo as being synonymous with shalom (peace) and writes that it refers to the ultimate peace at the time of redemption.
All these comments make it clear that our Sages understood that the initial reference to the emergence of a messianic line in Judaism is to be found in the blessing to Judah, who is the progenitor of Boaz, Yishai and David, model and ancestor of the long- awaited Messiah.
Thomas Cahill, in his best-selling book The Gifts of the Jews, points out that it was the people of Israel who bequeathed to the world the idea of the progress of history, the ideal of the ultimate perfection of humanity and human society, the goal of a messianic age of peace.
Greco-Roman civilization saw the world and history in cyclical terms, iterating and reiterating much like the myth of Sisyphus, never truly reaching any kind of end-game. It is the Torah that provides a lineal imagery, insisting that there is purpose and significance to world history and human life.
What is important for us is that we constantly strive to be worthy of the period of perfection, understanding that with each passing year when the Messiah is not revealed, yet another opportunity has passed us by. Indeed, the Hatam Sofer (Rabbi Moshe Sofer, 19th Century Slovakia) teaches that in every generation, there is an individual worthy of being King-Ruler-Messiah—but the generation must be worthy for him to be revealed.
Ultimately, we must continue to prepare ourselves in repentance and good deeds, especially in the realm of interpersonal relationships, in order for the Messiah to come. Hence the real commandment as expressed by Maimonides lies in our preparing ourselves for his coming, in making ourselves worthy of his majestic rule. And this is what my bookseller really meant when he said that the Messiah is waiting for us.