Midrash Tanchuma Vayechi: The secret that Jacob could not reveal 

(According to the classical Biblical commentator Rashi, one reason given why the parsha starts with no space around it “setuma” - see image above - is because the Jews were closed off from Jacob’s message of hope and faith). 

Our Parsha contains a mysterious attempt by Jacob to reveal the end of days to his children. “And Jacob called his sons and said, “Come together that I may tell you what will transpire at the end of days.”(Genesis 49:1) 

It was an event with such far-reaching theological consequences that G-d had to intervene. Midrash Tanchuma points out that Jacob wasn’t the only one:

“Both Isaac and Jacob desired to disclose the secrets of the Holy One, Blessed Be He. Concerning Isaac it is written: ‘And he called Esau, his eldest son’ (Genesis 27:1), to reveal to him what was to transpire in the Messianic age.”

What does it even mean “to reveal the end of days”

Were Isaac and Jacob only trying to disclose an idyllic time after G-d is revealed to humanity and there is peace on earth? Were they going to leave out all the tumultuous events along the way? Was that supposed to influence Esau or the sons of Jacob for the better? These are all fascinating unknowables.

If Jacob wanted to divulge the exact timing of the final redemption, it certainly upends what the Talmud says about the timing of the Messianic era:

Rabbi Alexandri says: Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi raises a contradiction. It says “In its time I will hasten it (the Messianic era)” (Isaiah 60:22)… (Rabbi Alexandri explains): If they (the Jewish People) merit redemption I (G-d) will hasten it (the coming of the Messiah). If they do not merit it, (the Messiah) will come in its designated time.” (Tractate Sanhedrin 98A)

A set time for redemption would also necessitate a change in lyrics to a moving song from our prayer book (based on Maimonides’ thirteen principles of faith) “I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah, and, though he will tarry, I will anticipate, daily, his coming.”   

No use anticipating what’s not coming for thousands of years. 

In fact, the Talmud actually lists the prohibition of  “not revealing the end of days” (Ketubot 111A) as one of the oaths that the Jewish People took upon themselves.  

So what exactly was Jacob attempting to reveal? Midrash Tanchuma actually provides an analogy:

“This may be compared to a slave to whom a king entrusted all his possessions. When the slave was about to die, he summoned his sons to tell them where the documents of  emancipation were to be found so that they could become free men. The king found out (about his plan) and remained at his (slave’s) bedside. When he saw the king, he suppressed what he wished to reveal and (instead) admonished his sons saying: “You are the king’s slaves, honor him as I have all my life.”

The Midrash takes its analogy of the slaves and the master and applies it to the interaction between Jacob and his sons.

“Similarly when Jacob summoned his sons to reveal to them what would transpire in the Messianic age, the Holy One, Blessed Be He appeared before him (Jacob) and said: You have summoned your sons, but you did not summon Me!” 

Revealing G-d’s Messianic checklist

In the example above, the elderly slave wanted to give his children a document which could set his children free. Perhaps the elderly slave symbolizes Jacob. The “document of emancipation” symbolizes G-d’s criteria for redemption. Jacob sensed that the impending Egyptian bondage will overwhelm his children. If he could only reveal  the divine requirements for redemption, his children could implement them and  force G-d’s hand. They could bring in the Messianic era and break free of an otherwise long and torturous exile.

Perhaps G-d’s response to Jacob is that his approach was flawed. What Jacob should be teaching before the dark exile is exactly what Jacob should have done in the first place.  Namely, (as the Midrash said) “to summon Me.” Meaning, to pray. Teach your children to maintain their relationship with G-d, have faith in G-d and don’t despair. Teach them that G-d alone is the source of redemption. 

The Midrash says that after Jacob was prevented from revealing the end of times, his children thought that perhaps Jacob had doubts about their faith in G-d so they recited the “Shema” in unison. The most fundamental declaration of faith in Judaism. 

They replied: we know what is in your heart, and they declared together: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One’ (Deuteronomy. 6:4). Upon hearing this, ‘Israel bowed down upon the head of the bed’ (Genesis. 47:31), and began to say in a whisper: ‘Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom for ever and ever.’”

Unfortunately their collective prayer of faith did not prevent future generations of Jews in Egypt from falling into despair under the yoke of slavery.  

There is another, far reaching approach to what exactly Jacob wanted to reveal. The source is The Sfat Emmet –  a towering Torah scholar and original thinker who was a Rebbe in the Gerrer dynasty at the end of the 19th century (Special thanks to Dr. Mark Rutenberg’s weekly Sfat Emmet email, click here to subscribe).

Sometimes clarity can only come through obscurity

According to the Sfat Emmet, Jacob’s secret was knowing that the true nature of the Egyptian Exile and the mighty Egyptian empire was all an Illusion. When you know that G-d runs the world everything is ultimately for the good. Yes, there are tests of whether you see G-d’s hand in world events. But once you start to believe the headlines and lose hope,  you’re obscuring G-d’s presence in the world. After Jacob’s death, his family lost sight of Jacob’s core belief that “the true essence of exile is redemption.” (Sefat Emmet: Taf Reish Lamed Hey – Section 5). Exile is actually the conduit to redemption. 

Since Jacob was prevented from conveying this perspective, the Jewish People descended into a spiritual morass. The exile started as a deficiency of their faith.   “Because every physical exile starts as a spiritual exile” (ibid). Now they would have to learn these lessons themselves by developing faith in G-d. A faith that would be born out a miraculous redemption from the oppressive Egyptian bondage. A light that could only be perceived after the bleak darkness of extreme suffering. 

G-d chose to block the ‘easy path’ that Jacob sought to provide. G-d preferred that Jacob’s descendants live these lessons of faith so they would sustain the Jewish People throughout our long history. 

Our collective experience of slavery and degradation as well as our witnessing a world empire brought to its knees is embedded deep in our Jewish consciousness. It’s part of our DNA. 

Is health an illusion as well

Perhaps, in the next 2 pieces,  Midrash Tanchuma wants to drive home the same point – that despite illusions to the contrary – G-d runs the world. 

According to  Midrash Tanchuma there was a 13 year period in Israel (around 200 BCE) in which no woman died in childbirth or miscarried.  Although this might have been ascribed to improved diets and competent midwives, it was not the case:

Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Nasi suffered from a toothache for thirteen years, and during that time no woman in the land of Israel died in childbirth or had a miscarriage.”

Unfortunately,  Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Nasi then had a falling out with the great Rabbi Hiyya. To patch things up, the Prophet Elijah disguised himself as Rabbi Hiyya and touched  Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Nasi’s tooth – thereby curing his toothache. When Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Nasi tried to thank Rabbi Hiyya the next day they both realized it was in fact Elijah the prophet. Rabbi Hiyya  cried out that, sadly, women would once again die in childbirth and suffer miscarriages.  

It seems that as long as someone of the stature of Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Nasi lived with a major discomfort, he merited to safeguard women giving birth. But once he got angry at another great scholar, he lost that merit.  

G-d’s mysterious alchemy for the Davidic dynasty 

We started with Jacob’s desire to reveal the end of times – when a descendant of Ruth, the great grandmother of King David, will ultimately usher in the Messianic era. How did Ruth merit to be part of this royal lineage?  We see her exemplary behavior in the Book of Ruth but Midrash Tanchuma offers another, rather surprising reason: 

In the Book of Judges, The Judge (Shofet) Ehud killed Eglon (the overweight king of Moab). Eglon was warring with Israel for 18 years (Judges 3:14)

How did Ehud manage to get close enough to kill the king? Ehud presented tributes to the king from the Jews and told the king that he had a private message from G-d. As a gesture of respect to the G-d of Israel, the king got up from his throne.

“The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: You honored Me by arising from your throne; be assured, I will cause your daughter (Ruth) to rear a son who will sit on My throne.

If this seems mysterious, the Gemara brings a related incident which is even more implausible:

“Rav Yehuda says in the name of Rav: A person should always engage in Torah study and performance of a mitzvah even if he does not do so for their own sake, because through engaging in them not for their own sake, he will ultimately come to engage in them for their own sake. Proof for this can be cited from the example of Balak, as a reward for the forty-two offerings that Balak sacrificed, even though he sacrificed them to facilitate the destruction of the Jewish people (through the curses of Bilam), he was privileged to have Ruth descend from him. Rabbi Yosei bar Huna says: Ruth was the daughter of Eglon who was the grandson of Balak, king of Moab.”

For these seemingly inconsequential acts by Eglon and Balak G-d granted them a magnificent  role in the messianic era.  We cannot fathom why certain aspects of their character traits needed to be in the gene pool of the Messiah.

Balancing respect for authority and the illusion of power

As much as Jacob tried to break the rules by revealing the end of time, he played by the rules when it came to Joseph. When Jacob summoned Joseph, Jacob made a great effort to sit up on his bed and address Joseph with the self deprecating  phrase  “if I have found favor in your eyes…” (Genesis 47:29). The Midrash explains that even Jacob had to honor authority. Surprisingly, the Midrash criticizes Mordechai who put the entire Jewish People at risk when he refused to bend to Haman’s authority in the Purim story. 

So which approach to respecting authority is correct. Those in positions of power are just an illusion – as the Sefat Emet posited. Or those in power need to be respected as Midrash Tanchuma makes abundantly clear.

In a classic Jewish response, they’re both right. If one nation is ruling the world it is only because G-d determined it to happen. The prophet Daniel already foresaw that  Babylonia, Greece, Persia and Rome will subjugate the Jewish People. To rise up against Greece (the Chanuka story) was correct because they were trying to stifle our spiritual lives. To rise up against Rome (as the Zealots did when they burnt all the storehouses of  food to force Jews to join their rebellion) was wrong. The Rabbis knew that it was God’s will for Rome to be victorious. In fact, the Zealots caused thousand of Jews to starve to death. 

Jewish destiny is a complex sequence of national and individual tests that G-d imposes upon the world so that, at the end of days, the world can reach its final purpose. 

The very least we can take away from all this, is to absorb what Jacob was prevented from telling his children. What we see around us is indeed an illusion. Behind the curtain, G-d runs the world.

About the Author
After college and Semicha at Yeshiva University my first pulpit was Ogilvy where I wrote TV commercials for brands like American Express, Huggies and Duracell. My passion is Midrash Tanchuma. I am an Architect of Elegant Marketing Solutions at www.mindprintmarketing.com. We are living in (where else) the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem.
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