The messianic prophesy is one of the most fascinating and crucial aspects of Judaism. The belief that the world will one day be redeemed by a single individual to usher in a new era of peace is so essential that it is one of the Rambam’s 13 Principles of Faith. But it is also one of the most misunderstood concepts of the religion.
Unlike the Christian take, Judaism makes no mention of the Messiah (or Moshiach) having any kind of miraculous super powers. In fact, the word Moshiach literally translates to anointed, as the prophets would anoint a king with oil as an inauguration to their kingship. He won’t be resurrected from the dead and he certainly won’t come from the womb of a virgin. Actually that last one would completely contradicts one of the few criteria Judaism does explicitly outline – that he will descend from the line of King David (since family lineage comes down through the father). Other criteria include that he will be a military general who will wage a war against evil, he will unite the Jewish people, and most importantly he will usher a new era of peace where the third Temple will be built.
But what is less known is that according to Jewish tradition there will actually be two messiahs. Moshiach ben (son of) David and Moshiach ben Joseph. And this week’s parsha, Vayigash, subtly demonstrates how the prophesy says it will unfold.
The First Messiah
First the world will see Moshiach ben Joseph and much like the Joseph in the bible, Moshiach ben Joseph will pave the way. If we look in the Torah portions surrounding this week’s parsha we see that Joseph comes to Egypt, gains political power, puts into a place a system to sustain the world’s food needs, and creates a place for the Jewish nation. All of which results in uniting his brothers (and in essence the Jewish people). Jewish tradition says that just as Joseph did in Egypt, Moshiach ben Joseph will do in the coming days. After he has united Israel and led the fight against evil will the final Moshiach come. Some say Moshiach Ben Joseph will be the one who is the military leader and some say he will die tragically. But ultimately his purpose will be to prepare all of Israel for Moshiach ben David.
Moshiach ben David will come from the line of David which traces its lineage back to Judah. And that brings back to this week’s Torah portion, Vayigash.
Joseph, with his identity hidden from his brothers and acting as the highest regent to Pharaoh, holds his youngest brother, Benjamin captive. The brothers are desperate to free Benjamin and their leader Judah steps up to plead their case.
Judah approached him and said, “Please, my lord, let now your servant speak something into my lord’s ears, and let not your wrath be kindled against your servant, for you are like Pharaoh. (Bereishis 44:18)
Now this sounds like Joseph is pleading with respectful diplomacy. But the Hebrew can be read very differently. The first word of the parsha (and also the name of the parsha) יחוַיִּגַּ֨שׁ Vayigash, is translated as approached. But it can also be an affront or stepping up to. And בִּ֣י אֲדֹנִי֒ usually translated as “if you please, my lord” can also be translated as “in me, is God.” In essence what Judah is saying is, if you want to take my brother, you’d better know who you are dealing with because I’m preparing to go to war over this. It is a tense moment that tests Judah’s dedication and integrity.
A Future Forefold
But the Vilna Goan ask an interesting question. Jospeh instantly recognizes his brothers. But why doesn’t Judah recognize Joseph? One answer I gave to this in a previous post. However the Vilna Goan’s answer speaks to the messianic prophesy.
Throughout Jewish history the lines of Joseph and Judah have been in conflict. Judah is the one who led the charge against Joseph when they threw him in the pit and sold him into slavery. King Saul tried to have David killed before he was able he to assume the throne. Jeroboam rallied the split from Jerusalem which led to the creation of two Jewish kingdoms. And several other events exemplify this schism.
Just as Joseph brought physical nourishment to the world, Moshiach ben Joseph will bring the Jewish people together in a physical unity. All Jewish people, secular and religious. Moshiach ben David however will nourish the world spiritually. Joseph represents the physical side of Judaism while Judah represents the religious side. And according to the Vilna Goan, the tragedy is that the religious side of Judaism does not fully recognize or give the legitimacy to the secular side that it deserves. It does not give the proper gratitude for the security, sustenance, and infrastructure that they benefit from. And in doing so, its blinds them in the way Judah was blind from seeing the amazing things Joseph had prepared for the family. So until the line of Judah does recognize the line of Joseph for all its labors in the physical sense, Moshiach will not come.
But the prophet Ezekiel foresaw a medning for this rift.
…take for yourself one stick and write upon it, ‘For Judah and for the children of Israel his companions’; and take one stick and write upon it, ‘For Joseph, the stick of Ephraim and all the house of Israel, his companions. And bring them close, one to the other into one stick, and they shall be one in your hand….And I will make them into one nation in the land upon the mountains of Israel, and one king shall be to them all as a king; and they shall no longer be two nations, neither shall they be divided into two kingdoms anymore.
(Ezekiel 37: 16-22)