“Jacob called for his sons. He said, ‘Gather together, and I will tell you what will happen in the end of days.'” (Gen. 49:1)
In fact, Jacob never did reveal to his sons when the final redemption would take place. According to the Midrash, this esoteric knowledge was hidden from Jacob. The Midrash uses a parable to explain what happened between Jacob and his sons.
The Parable of the Devoted Servant
“This is like the case of a devoted servant whom the king trusted with all that he possessed. When the servant realized he would soon die, he assembled his sons in order to set them free and inform them where their will and deed were located.
“The king, however, discovered [this plan] and stood over his servant. When he saw the king, the servant backtracked from what he had planned to tell his sons. The servant began to entreat his sons, ‘Please, remain servants of the king! Honor him just as I have honored him all my days.’
“So, too, Jacob gathered his sons to reveal to them the end of days. But the Holy One revealed Himself to Jacob. ‘You summoned your sons, but not Me?’ … When Jacob saw God, he began to entreat his sons, ‘Please, honor the Holy One just as my fathers and I have honored Him.’ …
“The sons responded, ‘We know what is in your heart,’ and they all proclaimed, Shema Yisrael [‘Listen, Israel!’] … Jacob quietly responded, ‘Blessed be the name of the honor of His kingship forever.’ The Holy One then told [Jacob], “It honors God to conceal the matter” (Proverbs 25:2). This attribute does not belong to you.” (Midrash Tanchuma VaYechi 8)
This Midrash raises many questions. Why did Jacob want to reveal to his sons when the final exile would end? Why was he prevented from doing so? Also, parts of the parable do not fit. It should have been the king who hid the deed from the servant, just as God hid the end of days from Jacob. And the servant wanted his sons to be free — how could Jacob have wanted his sons to abandon the yoke of Heaven? Why did God reprimand Jacob for not calling Him? And finally, what does the declaration of Shema Yisrael have to do with Jacob’s intention to reveal the end of days?
The Reason for the Lengthy Exile
We first need to examine why the exile has lasted so long. It is written that the people of Israel “were punished twice for all their sins” (Isaiah 40:2). How could God, the compassionate Father, punish the Jewish people more severely than what they deserve?
The key to understanding this matter is in the verse:
“I have only known you from all of the families of the earth. Therefore, I visit upon you all of your iniquities” (Amos 3:2).
If the Jewish people were like all other peoples, then the destruction of the Temple would have sufficed to atone for their sins. However, the Jewish people are destined to acquire a true love of God, permanently fixed in their hearts. In order to achieve this level of unfailing, constant love, they need to undergo great purification to remove all hidden blemishes. Otherwise, these faults could reawaken and induce moral relapses in a future generation. This is the meaning of the verse: “I have only known you” — to attain this special level of love — “from all the families of the earth.” And since your purpose is to achieve this constant love of God, “Therefore, I visit upon you all of your sins” — even greater than the severity of the offense itself. All this is in order to purify your hearts from the corruptive influence of sin, and enable you to attain the holiness of sincere love of God.
For this reason, the Sages wrote that Israel sinned doubly, were punished doubly, and will be consoled doubly (Pesikta deRav Kahana, Nachamu). The sin was double: besides the gravity of the sin itself, it led to their estrangement from loving God. They were punished doubly: in order to both cleanse the sin and to purify the heart to love God. And they are consoled doubly: not only are their transgressions forgiven, but they will also merit God’s holiness and Divine presence.
Calculating the End of Days
The second issue that must be clarified is: is it possible to know when the end of days will come? The Sages interpreted the verse, “A day of retribution is in My heart” (Isaiah 63:4) — “to My heart I have revealed it, but not to My limbs” (Sanhedrin 97a). How could Jacob know that which even the angels — God’s ‘limbs’ in the Midrashic metaphor — were not informed?
Theoretically, if we knew the spiritual level that the Jewish people needs to attain, and the errors that future generations will commit (and the time needed to rectify those errors), then we should be able to calculate when the end of days will occur. However, even this complex calculation is not so straightforward. Perhaps God will not wait until Israel, in their own merits together with the expiating quality of exile, attain their final goal. Perhaps God will hasten the end, elevating Israel even before they have properly prepared themselves for it?
In fact, this is precisely how Daniel interpreted King Nebuchadnezzar’s prophetic dream, a dream foretelling “what shall be in the end of days.” In the dream, “a stone, broken off without hands, smote the statue” (Daniel 2:34). This statue symbolized the four great empires and the corresponding four exiles of Israel. The stone, the Divine tool for destroying the image and ending the exile, was “broken off without hands.” The final redemption will not be achieved solely through the efforts of the Jewish people to elevate themselves. God desires that Israel will partially correct themselves. But their eternal spiritual greatness will not be through their own hands, but by God Himself (See Zohar Pekudei 240).
Growth versus Submission
The righteous who walk before God always try to attain spiritual perfection on their own accord, without ‘burdening’ Heaven. Jacob wanted his family to acquire their final objective of eternal love of God through their own merits. He wanted to reveal to them the end, to inform them of the goal that they must strive to attain, so that they could achieve this level through their own actions.
God, however, had different plans. The world was created with free will, so that we should not suffer from the ‘bread of embarrassment,’ but feel that we have earned our reward. Yet, there is a drawback to attaining perfection through our own efforts. Our goal is to attain love of God, but also to express our awe and submission before God. In truth, for all of our remarkable potential, we do not deserve to be called ‘God’s servants.’ God willed that Israel recognize their subservience before Him out of awe for His greatness, in addition to the relationship of a son who loves his father.
Therefore, the Midrash tells us, God held Mount Sinai over Israel like a bucket, forcing them to accept the Torah (Shabbat 88a). This act demonstrated that we acknowledged our subservience to God. Similarly, in the future end of days, God will not wait until the people of Israel have perfected themselves. For then they would only have the quality of loving God, and would be missing the sense of awe and servitude to Him. God will redeem the Jewish people before they are ready. The redemption will arrive like “a stone that is not by hand.” Thus, it is impossible to know the hour of the end of days; this date is only revealed to “My heart” — i.e., to God Himself.
Explaining the Parable
Now we can properly understand the parable. The king’s servant wanted to free his sons, so that they could serve the king purely out of love. When the king stood above him, however, the servant recognized the majesty of the king was so great that the highest goal is in fact to be the king’s servant. That is why God rebuked Jacob when he only summoned his sons: did you want the final redemption to be achieved only through your efforts?
Human perfection is attained on two levels: correct beliefs in knowing God’s infinite perfection; and secondly, when our actions are in harmony with God’s Will. When Jacob’s sons heard their father begin to reveal the end of days and then stop, they said, “We know what is in your heart.” Perhaps you think we do not deserve this goal of eternal love of God, due to lack of faith. Therefore, they proclaimed to their father, “Listen Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” Jacob responded that it is not faith but deeds that need to be corrected. “Blessed be the name of the honor of His kingship forever.” Kingship (malchut) implies observance of the king’s laws.
Complete adherence to God’s will, however, could only come after the Torah was given at Sinai. Thus, the Midrash concludes with God’s rejoinder to Jacob, ‘This matter is not for you.’ True subservience to God will only be possible after the revelation of the Torah.
When the faithful servant saw the king in all his majesty standing above him, he backtracked from his original plan of freeing his sons. Similarly, after God revealed Himself, Jacob recognized God’s infinitely exalted nature. He realized that, even in the end of days, the true goal is to combine love with submission and awe. Therefore, Jacob abandoned his plan to reveal the spiritual level of pure love of God that the Jewish people need to attain in the end of days. Instead, he admonished his sons to honor and fear God, just as he and his fathers had.
(Adapted from Midbar Shur, pp. 273-280)
Copyright © 2006 by Chanan Morrison