Frederick L. Klein

VaYechi :The End of Days

My third son’s name is Binyamin Tzemach, or as he is affectionately known, Benny.  He was born on Yom Ha’atzmaut, 2001 in Jerusalem.   My then wife and I were living in Israel for two years, studying and teaching. Living in Israel at that time, during the explosion of the second intifada was a trying time emotionally for every Israeli.  Should we go out for dinner?  Should we ride the bus? Should we walk in a certain neighborhood?  On a regular basis we heard the explosions of bombs strapped onto suicide bombers, and from our sukkah on our roof in Jerusalem we could literally see the helicopters (the news called them ‘warships’), shooting into neighborhoods in Bethlehem, in response to the daily shooting into the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo.  Unlike Israelis, at any point we could have picked up and returned to our Upper West Side apartment, but the thought never entered our minds.  While at the time we new we were returning to the U.S. after our studies, Israel was our home as well.

When our son was born at Hadassah Ein Karem hospital,  we felt an immense sense of gratitude.  We named him Binyamin, to remember another Binyamin, Binyamin Ze’ev Herzl.  I believe we are the only ‘religious’ Jews who named a child after Theodore Herzl, but it was Herzl that had not only the vision, but the drive to build the foundation of what was to be the modern Israel.  His second name, Tzemach (flourishing), was named after an individual who had a major influence on the life of my then wife, but also alluded to the prayer for the State of Israel, in which the State is described as reishit tzmichat ge’ulateinu, the beginning of the flourishing of the ultimate redemption.   If his first name points to the decidedly national dimension of Jewish existence, the latter hints to a more cosmic and spiritual process. Indeed, the state of Israel is both an historical fact, but it is simultaneously grounded in the religious imaginations which have fueled Jewish dreams for millennia.  Naming our son Binyamin Tzemach seems in hindsight as statement of gratitude for the present, even in the midst of deep uncertainty and challenges, as well as the hope for the awaited universal messianic future which lies at the core of Jewish spirituality.  If the former was a recognition of the blessings of the present, the latter was a prayer for the vision for a more glorious future.

What happens when the messianic imagination and hope fuels the decisions of the present? Particularly in times of deep uncertainty, the messianic impulse can explode and inform political movements which claim will bring about God’s kingdom. We are living through such a time, a time in which there are those who are very certain they see the end of history.  The beginning of the redemption has yielded to the redemption and required radical action to bring about the imagined end.

This tension goes back to the very beginning, to the very promises given to our patriarchs.  Abraham is told “to your offspring the land will be given”, and yet the book of Genesis ends not with an evolution towards this reality, but rather a regression.  Like the present moment, the children of Jacob after an extended period of discord are united, but they descend to Egypt, and the future is all but certain. One might imagine the psychic map of the children of Jacob, who are confounded by the reality in which they find themselves.

Last week, Jacob was told upon leaving for Egypt ‘not to fear’, and that God ultimately would deliver his progeny from Egypt.  It is clear even Jacob is conflicted, standing between God’s promises and the present reality.  This insecurity is further expressed in our parashah when Jacob makes Joseph promise that he will be buried in the Land of Israel.  It is clear that Jacob fears the Egyptians will choose to embalm him and give him a royal burial in the land of Egypt, and Jacob intends to indicate to both the Egyptians and his own family that they are sojourners in this land; the story concludes not in Egypt but in the land promised to his grandfather.  When the children remember Jacob, they will remember his burial place in Hebron, and they will remember God’s promises to take them from there.  Indeed, the last words of the book of Genesis are about Joseph, who similarly as the to take his bones to the land of his father; he is ‘embalmed and placed in a coffin in Egypt’ (Gen. 50:26).

If Jacob, who is spoken to by God expresses deep fears and anxieties about the future, what can we say about the brothers, to whom God did not speak?  The midrashim immediately notice this tension in the opening words of our parashah.  Our parashah is called a parashah setumah, literally a ‘closed’ parashah, because in the Torah scroll our parashah begins in the middle of a paragraph.  Noting this syntactical anomaly, the midrash comments:

“Jacob lived in the land of Egypt” – why is this portion more closed than any of the Torah portions? It is because once our patriarch Jacob died, the enslavement in Egypt began. Another explanation.  Why is it closed [setuma]? It is because Jacob our patriarch sought to reveal the End of Days, and it was prevented [nistam] from him. (Bereishit Rabbah 96:1)

In this midrash, the actual transcription of the Torah text as a ‘closed’ text conveys a message.  While they have been given the choice of the land and are treated as royalty, in fact the enslavement has already begun, as they have been uprooted from their homes.  God’s promise to Abraham that they would be ‘strangers in a strange land’ has in fact already begun.  The closed parashah is meant to indicate the lack of clarity and certainty for which people hope.  Their bodies may have been free, but their inner hearts were already in turmoil.  They did not know how the present would unfold according to the past promises.  There must have been more than a little cognitive dissonance. [1]

The second half of the midrash alludes to a verse later in the parashah, when Jacob charges and blesses his children.  It is at the end of Jacob’s life, and he begins his words by declaring, “Come together that I may tell you what is to befall you at the end of days,” (Gen. 49:1), but then proceeds to speak of other things.  The midrash declares that he intended to reveal the end of days, but for some reason it was ‘closed off’ from him.  While the actual blessings do allude to possible futures for each child based upon their present personalities, they are revealed completely through metaphors and poetry.[2]  His words serve not to clarify, but only confide.  Jacob’s attempt to nevertheless reveal the end underscores the very anxiety fueled by the situation his family faces.  However, why was the vision ‘closed off’ in the first place?

Some Jewish thinkers point to the fact that this eclipsing of vision is reflective of the very tension that separates the professed future world fueled by prophecy and the present reality circumscribed by actual reality.   Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz writes

The ability to relate to the end of days is limited not only by shortcomings of human nature, but also by something more basic: limitations in the nature of reality. Reality allows us to relate only to things that belong to the plane of being, experience, and action in which we exist. Just as we cannot fit a large object into a small receptacle, we cannot fit anything into a vessel – a concept, a description, or a figment of our imagination – that cannot receive or contain it.[3]

In essence, we must simultaneously live in the light of eternity and know that history is moving towards an ultimate future, while at the same time understand we have no idea the form in which this end will take.  We are limited by our own psychic horizons; the prophet may see farther than us, but to describe what they see is the equivalent of describing color to a blind man.   We are only allowed glimpses at best.

In times of particular uncertainty, there is a temptation to overcome the chasm which divides imagination from reality, and to subsume the latter in the service of the former.  In our situation, the present war with Gaza in the minds of some are experienced with the backdrop and the trauma of the 2006 disengagement from Gaza, which in many religious Zionist circles was seen as a betrayal of the State of Israel’s messianic plan.  At the time, many questioned the actions of the Israeli government, even ordering religious soldiers to defy orders.  Motti Inbari, in his study of messianic Zionism and territorial compromises describes no fewer than three schools of thought to explain events which seemed to contradict the expected messianic end of history, as the government was reversing the gains of 1967.  While for some rabbis, redemption is relegated to a mystical hidden process, and other rabbis who retreat from their former beliefs, there are not a few who- convinced of the truth of their visions- attempt to ‘hasten the end’, to double and triple down on a messianic and theocratic vision.[4]  Especially in the last formulation, the absolute respect for the Israeli governmental authority is tenuous, as the government seemed to subvert God’s will.  Especially in certain centers of the settler movement, the secular government needed to serve the messianic foundation upon which the state was founded.

While Inbari authored his book in 2012, the disasters of October 7 for some can confirm the absolute justice of their claims many years earlier.  They may argue that present events are indications that history is inevitably accelerating, and the time has come to realize heaven on earth. All values must be sublimated to achieving this messianic end, a decidedly theocratic end establishing a Torah state, a state which has never existed in reality, but only in the religious imaginations of its protagonists.  Similarly, bureaucratic institutions like the (liberal) court of the State of Israel only further subvert the goals of the expected messianic kingdom, as the court is perceived to ensconce the secular regime, preventing the next stage of the redemptive process from blossoming. It remains to be seen how recent events will impact the thinking of these groups, but I fear the potential for further radicalization. For me, and most outside these circles, this religious vision is terrifying in its self-righteousness and absolute conviction, even in the light of countervailing evidence.

The Talmud teaches that three things come suddenly, ‘the messiah, a scorpion, and a found article’ (Sanhedrin 97a).  Last year, Rabbi Leo Dee’s wife and two daughters were murdered by terrorists in the middle of Passover, as they drove on the Jordan valley road to celebrate the intermediate days.  Rabbi Dee has been an inspiration to thousands, never succumbing to despair or hate.  Rather, he doubled down on the power of kindness and love.  In a recent podcast, he invoked this gemara.  He spoke of his murdered wife, Lucy, who was like a gift from heaven, a found article.  One cannot plan fortuitous events like this, and he mentioned that his life was forever changed in meeting her.  Similarly, he compared the scorpions to the evil terrorists who killed members of his family.  Often in life one cannot make rhyme or reason, neither of blessings we receive nor the tragedies that  befall us.  We really do not know God’s calculus.  In this same vain, the time of redemption is unknown.  We pray for it, we wish for it, but we ultimately neither know when it will come nor what it will look like. Messianic expectation has fueled the Jewish utopian impulse to always look to tomorrow, but the secret of messianism is perhaps in the secret that tomorrow remains tomorrow.

It is this message that Jacob gives to his children.  He was not able to describe the contours of the messianic age, or even a program to lift themselves out of Egypt.  The time was not yet ripe. However, he did remind them that there will be a future day, a better day.

Our people have never been so unified.  Suddenly left and right, secular and religious, Israeli and diaspora Jews are united in mutual support and love for one another.  We need this unity not only to defeat those who would destroy us, but also to bring the next stage in Jewish history. Yet, like our parashah, beneath the unity is deep anxiety about the next step, what comes the day after.  Knowledge is denied to us.  It is precisely at this time that various ideologies professing certainty about the end can try to pursue political goals which are not only dangerous, but potentially antithetical to Jewish values.  We need to have the faith to carry us through these days, while at the same time knowing we do not know.  If Jacob- a prophet!- could not tell his children what was to happen yet, we need to have that same approach.  We are armed not with the certainty of any predetermined future, but a Torah which is the blueprint to move forward to redemption.  Only when it occurs will we know.

Shabbat shalom

[1] See Sefat Emet, Vayechi, 5635

[2] There are midrashim which try to fill the gaps, indicating what was revealed.  See e.g. Bereishit Rabbah 98:2.

[3] Adin Steinsaltz, Talks on the Parasha,  Parashat Vayech (The Toby Press English edition)

[4] Motti Inbari, Messianic Religious Zionism Confronts Israeli Territorial Compromises  (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2012) p.8-9

About the Author
Fred Klein is Director of Mishkan Miami: The Jewish Connection for Spiritual Support, and serves as Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami. In this capacity he oversees Jewish pastoral care support for Miami’s Jewish Community, train volunteers in friendly visiting and bikkur cholim, consult with area synagogues in creating caring community, and organize conferences on spirituality, illness and aging. As director of the interdenominational Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami, Fred provides local spiritual leadership with a voice in communal affairs. He has taught at and been involved with the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, Hebrew College of Boston, the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, CLAL– The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and the Shalom Hartman Institute. He is Vice President for the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America, former Chair of the Interfaith Clergy Dialogue of the Miami Coalition of Christians and Jews, and formerly served on the Board of the Neshama: the Association of Jewish Chaplains.
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