Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Parshat Vayechi 3

Ya’akov called to his sons, and said, ‘Gather yourselves together, that I may tell you that which shall befall you in the last days. Gather yourselves together and hear, you sons of Ya’akov, and listen to Yisrael your father.” (Genesis 49; 1, 2). Ya’akov seems to suddenly change the subject, promising to tell his sons about the end of days, but instead continuing with the blessings.

The Talmud explains that Ya’akov wanted to reveal the time of the coming of the Messiah to his children, as they gathered at his bedside. However, at that moment the Holy Spirit departed from him, and he was unable to do so. (Pesachim 56a). Why did Ya’akov want to reveal the events of the end of days, and why G-d prevented him from so doing.

Many of the people in the Torah have had their name changed, but Ya’akov is unique in that he is still known by his former name as well as the new one. ““Your name shall no more be called Ya’akov...” (Genesis 35; 10). Not that the name Ya’akov should not be used, but that Ya’akov should be in addition to Yisrael. Yisrael is the main name, and Ya’akov secondary.” (Yerushalmi Berachot 1; 6). The simplest explanation for Ya’akov’s two names is that when he is referred to as an individual the name Ya’akov is used, and when the Torah speaks of him as the father of the nation, symbolically encompassing all of the nation, he is known as Yisrael.

The Talmud (Ta’anit 5b) states: Rav Yitzchak said to Rav Nachman, thus said Rabbi Yochanan, ‘Ya’akov our father never died.’ He replied, ‘In that case why did they eulogise him, embalm him and bury him?’ He said ‘I learn this fact from a verse, as it states (Jeremiah 30; 10), “Therefore fear not, my servant Ya’akov, says G-d, for I will save you from afar, and your seed (children) from the land of their captivity...” The verse connects Ya’akov to his descendants. Just as his descendants are alive, so too he is alive.’

The simple explanation of this perplexing piece of Talmud is that Ya’akov was the father of the twelve tribes, and the only patriarch to have all his children follow in his spiritual footsteps. Therefore he is more directly connected to the Jewish people, and remains alive as long as we do. However, it is strange that Rabbi Yochanan stated that Ya’akov never died. I would have expected him to use the name Yisrael, since it is referring to the patriarch in his role as progenitor of the nation.

The name Ya’akov was given to him because he was born holding on to the heel of his brother Esav. This name shows both that he is subordinate to Esav, in that he was only able to grab the lowest part of him, but also that he is involved in a constant struggle with his brother. Ya’akov managed to take away Esav’s birthright, and his blessings, but it is still the descendants of Esav who control the world physically and financially. The Jews have always remained only a small, though influential, part of the human population. The name Yisrael was given to Ya’akov after his struggle with the angel, who represented the spiritual side of Esav. The name means ‘You have struggled with angels and with people, and prevailed’. (Genesis 32; 29).

Ya’akov’s life was a microcosm of Jewish history. The trials that he faced, with his brother, Lavan, Shechem and the loss of Yosef, are trials that we are still facing today, on a national scale. Therefore it would appear that the name Ya’akov relates to the events that are part of the struggle of our existence throughout history, whereas the name Yisrael represents the final vindication and victory of the Jewish nation, that will come at the end of days. This is why Rabbi Yochanan said that Ya’akov never died. As long as the Jewish nation are still in exile, still having to face trials and suffering, Ya’akov is still alive. However, in the future, when history has run its course and the Jewish nation will be recognised for having prevailed it will be Yisrael who is alive.

Perhaps we can say that allegorically when Ya’akov wanted to reveal the end to his children, G-d hid it from him to teach him that the struggle, and the process is as important, or even more important than reaching the goal of the end of days. Realising this, Ya’akov changes his final words to his children from being an esoteric description of the Messianic era, to giving them the blessings which will help them through the world as it is at the moment.

This seems to contradict the statement from the Yerushalmi that Yisrael is the main name, and Ya’akov only secondary. However, the continuation of the Talmud there records a discussion between Ben Zoma and the sages as to whether the Exodus from Egypt will still be remembered in the times of the Messiah (a discussion which is part of the Pesach Haggadah). Ben Zoma claims that the miracles of the Messianic era will make the miracles of the Exodus irrelevant. However the sages counter, “Not that the Exodus from Egypt will be removed, rather the Exodus will be additional to the future redemption. That will be the main redemption, and the Egyptian one secondary to it.”

Though ultimately the future redemption will overshadow the Exodus from Egypt, for the present that one is more relevant and important to us. Even at the time of the ultimate redemption, we will still remember the trials, tests and miracle of the Exodus from Egypt. This is the message that Ya’akov received through the temporary loss of Divine inspiration. Though ultimately the end of days will overshadow the present events of history, our current struggles won’t be forgotten, and for the moment they are the ones that are more relevant to us.

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