Midrash Tanchuma Vayechi: The secret that Yaakov could not reveal

Our Parsha contains a mysterious attempt by Yaakov to reveal the end of days to his children. 

“And Yaakov 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 God had to intervene. 

What is meant by “to reveal the end of days”

Was Yaakov trying to disclose the exact date for the advent of Messianic times? Was he going to highlight some of  the tumultuous events along the way? Since, from our vantage point, the wait would be at least 3,500 years, wouldn’t that be demoralizing. These are all fascinating unknowables.

If Yaakov 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 said: ‘Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi raises a contradiction. It says ‘In its time’ and it says ‘I will hasten it ‘’ (Isaiah 60:22)… (Rabbi Alexandri explains): If they (the Jewish People) merit redemption I (God) will hasten (the coming of the Messiah). If they do not merit  (the Messiah) it will come in its designated time.’” (Tractate Sanhedrin 98A).

If the date of the final redemption was passed down through the generations there would be no use repenting and trying to “merit it” early.

A set time for redemption also contradicts one of Maimonides’ thirteen principles of faith which is reflected in these moving lyrics:

“I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Moshiach, and, though he will tarry, I will anticipate, daily, his coming.”   

If we know the date ahead of time then the Moshiach would not tarry, he would arrive right on time. 

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 Yaakov attempting to reveal? 

A matter of loyalty

Midrash Tanchuma explains it with an analogy:

“This may be compared to a servant to whom a king entrusted all his possessions. When the servant was about to die, he summoned his sons to tell them where their 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 (servant’s) bedside. When the servant  saw the king, he suppressed what he wished to reveal to his children and (instead) admonished them saying: ‘You are the king’s servants, honor him as I have all my life.”’

Taking the Midrash Tanchuma literally

Some commentaries to Midrash Tanchuma take the analogy at face value. The documents of emancipation symbolize the date of redemption that Yaakov wanted to reveal to his children. The King [God] trusted his elder servant [Yaakov] with the date of redemption. However the king knew that a redemption date of 3500+ years in the future would surely shake the faith of future generations and leave many in despair. 

Can you guarantee the same devotion from the next generation

To allow for a more mystical interpretation we need to change the focus of our analysis. Instead of putting the emphasis on the documents of emancipation, we need to instead focus on the selfless love that the elder servant had for the king. Would the servant’s children maintain the same emotional attachment as their father. Obviously the king did not think so.

If loyalty to the king is synonymous with faith in God, what kind of faith is needed to live through a long, dark, exile. Perhaps this is what the Midrash was trying to convey. Yaakov was trying to reveal a hidden secret about maintaining faith under such dire circumstances. God did not want Yaakov’s message to reach his children.

Seeing the light amidst the darkness

This far reaching approach is found in the Sfas Emmes –  a towering Torah scholar and original thinker who was a Rebbe of the Gerrer dynasty at the end of the 19th century (Special thanks to Dr. Mark Rutenberg’s weekly Sfas Emmes email).

According to the Sfas Emmes (תרל”ה – Section 5), Yaakov’s secret was in the way he perceived the Egyptian bondage and the mighty Egyptian empire. Yaakov knew that 

the true essence of exile is redemption.” Exile is simply the conduit to redemption. You must learn how to perceive the light amidst the darkness. 

It was a tremendous test for the Jews in Egypt to maintain faith as their situation deteriorated and they were heading towards total subjugation. Yet, according to the Sfas Emmes, the exile started precisely because of a deficiency in their faith.  “Because every physical exile starts as a spiritual exile.” 

Yoseph recognized that his brothers were losing faith

After Yaakov died, the brothers approached Yoseph and told him that their father did not want Yoseph to take revenge for selling him into slavery. The Torah records that Yoseph cried upon hearing this. Most commentaries say that he cried because he realized that they still suspected him of plotting revenge. However, the Sfas Emmes implies that Yoseph also cried because they mistakenly thought that the dark times ahead was their punishment for selling him. They didn’t understand what Yaakov knew – that the exile in Egypt can’t be judged as good or bad. Rather it was a preparation for a glorious redemption. 

It was Jewish destiny unfolding. 

“In truth nothing ‘bad’ comes from God and what seems like dark times is a mistaken perception which makes it seem ‘bad’.”

The Sfas Emmes says that the ability to see God’s plan in what seems to be difficult times is vital for individuals going through difficulties as well. 

“Through this perspective one can rise above the narrow straits that every Jew (inevitably) experiences in their life.”

Since Yaakov was prevented from conveying this message, the Jewish People descended into a spiritual morass. 

Now they would have to learn these lessons themselves by developing faith in God. A faith that would be born out of the oppressive Egyptian bondage.  

God refers to the Egyptian experience as  – an “iron blast furnace” (Deuteronomy 4:20). This is a refinement process used for precious metals. An extraordinary people emerged from adversity and oppression.  

Why did God choose to block the ‘easy path’ that Yaakov sought to provide. 

Perhaps it’s not something that can be taught. No matter how difficult it was, Yaakov’s descendants had to live these lessons of faith. The Jewish People had to develop a bedrock of faith so strong that it would sustain us throughout our long history.  That’s why we are obligated to recall our redemption from Egypt every day and elaborate the exodus to our children on Passover. 

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

God’s miraculous redemption is part of every Jew’s DNA.

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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