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Showdown at Shiloh

When I was pre-teen in the early 1960s, I became obsessed with America’s Civil War. As a country, the US was commemorating almost daily centennials of Civil War events, and I followed them assiduously. On April 6, 1962, came the 100th anniversary of the battle of Shiloh. This brutal two-day slugfest established Union General Ulysses S. Grant as a force to be reckoned with. Grant, through demonstrating tremendous calm and focus, turned the tide of battle. It’s been said that Grant became Grant at Shiloh, and that event has a profound parallel in this week’s remarkable Torah reading.

Many Christian authorities assume that Shiloh means ‘place of peace’ (Wikipedia suggests ‘heavenly peace’), and point out the irony of this battle’s name. But is that true? Just like in Tennessee, the Shiloh in Tanach is primarily a place. It’s mentioned in the book of Yehoshua, ‘The whole community of the Israelite people assembled at Shiloh, and set up the Tent of Meeting (OHEL MOED) there. The land was now under their control (18:1), as the place for the semi-permanent Temple called the Mishkan.

Later, in the book of Shoftim (21:19-24), Shiloh is described as the location of an annual grape harvest festival and it is there that the tribe of Binyamin is reintegrated into the nation after the civil war described in chapter 20. However, with the capture of the ARON KODESH in chapter 4 of Shmuel 1, this beautiful town nestled in the hills of Efraim ceases to be a factor in Jewish history. With the fall of Shilo, the monarchy soon passes to King David, and the center of Jewish religious and political life to Yerushalayim.

This scenario is exactly what Ya’akov foresaw in our parsha as the content of his prophetic blessing to Yehuda: The scepter will not depart from Yehuda, nor the ruler’s staff from between his legs, when Shiloh sets (Breishit 49:10). Now that could be the end of it. The nation’s center would be in the territory of Yosef’s son Efraim (also the tribe of the conqueror, Yehoshua) for the period of the Judges, but shifts to Yerushalayim and Yehuda when that period ended in tragedy. Well, that could have been the end of it, and there are commentaries who interpret our verse in just that way. That group is the minority. Most analysts of our verse view Ya’akov’s blessing as a harbinger of events still to come even in our day. Ya’akov is predicting the rise of both King David and his future heir, Mashiach ben David.

Many people think of NEVUA, prophecy, as prediction and prognosis of what will come to be. That’s not really true. NEVI’IM have visions, which they report to us, often, in unclear poetry. These divinely inspired insights are usually open to interpretation, and can be understood in many ways. I have no idea how often the NEVI’IM themselves are clear on the exact nature of the foresight afforded them.

Most observers of our verse see it as predictions not to be found in our past but in our future. Ya’akov’s blessing has begun, with the ascendance of King David descendant of Yehudah, but has much more to come. So, perhaps Shiloh isn’t a reference to the place. The Yerushalmi translation records that Shiloh is code for MELECH Ha MASHIACH. Rashi brings the Midrash which states that SHILOH is really two words SHAI, a gift, and LO, for him. The Sforno suggests that the word means ‘tranquility’ and describes the Messianic Age, and the Midrash suggests that it will be Mashiach’s name (Breishit Raba 99). The suggestions are many; the clarity less so.

This long-term approach is definitely the most popular position. But personally, I prefer a mixed position. SHILO is a term which can refer to Yehudah, David and Mashiach. The Septuagint translates it as ‘his’ (SHELO), meaning the crown belongs to the tribe of Yehudah. Why? I think that Yehudah and King David had something in common which will also be manifest in their descendant, the Mashiach. It’s this trait which makes the throne theirs.

Ya’akov saw something in Yehudah which inspired this vision. I think this blessing was a joint operation of Ya’akov and RUACH HAKODESH (Divine inspiration). Many authorities point out that Yehudah and King David shared the distinction of being BA’ALEI TESHUVA, repentants, in the cases of Tamar and Bat Sheva, I’m not sure that Ya’akov knew about that. But Ya’akov did know that Yehudah swore to be the AREIV, guarantor, for Binyamin. Also, Kind David expressed this same sense of personal responsibility for the whole nation in his battle against Goliath.

Maybe that’s what SHILOH really means: SHELO, ‘his’, as the Septuagint had interpreted. The crown is ‘his’ in all these cases, Yehudah, David and Mashiach, because they all see communal responsibility as SHELO, ‘his’. The primary attribute of any leader and, definitely the ultimate leader, MASHIACH, is this acceptance of ultimate responsibility.

Just as in the career of General Grant, when he came into his own at Shiloh, MASHIACH will become MASHIACH, not at birth, but when he accepts the burden of leadership as SHELO, ‘his’. Many mystics claim that there is a potential MASHIACH in every generation, but the generation must be worthy. May that confluence of the right generation and the AREIV, responsible individual, speedily, in our time.

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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