With parsha Vayechi, we end the book of Bereishis (aka Genesis). It feels just like yesterday we were at Rosh Hashanah closing in on the end of the Torah. As we cross into Shemos, there is a shift as the narrative transitions from the patriarchs to Moses who we will follow until next year when we restart the Torah again. Now as we end the final chapter of the first book, there is another ending that is alluded to. But you can only see it if you know where to look.
Yaakov called for his sons and said, “Gather around and I will tell you what will happen to you in the end of days. Come together and listen, sons of Yaakov; listen to Yisrael, your father.” (Bereishis 49: 1-2)
It is at this point Yaakov gives each of his son’s a blessing (many of which feel more like rebuke.) But if you were reading closely, you may have noticed a bit of a redundancy. First Yaakov tells his sons to “gather around,” then immediately in the next sentence tells them, “to come together.” Why the repeat? The Rabbis say that Yaakov was prepared to tell them when moshiach will come but suddenly he lost the prophesy.
We all know how problematic knowing our own future can be. But that’s because we grew up with movies like Back to the Future, Looper, and Hot Tub Time Machine. Yaakov obviously wasn’t aware of the cataclysmic ramifications of time paradoxes or the wrong person having a post dated sports almanac. But in all seriousness, had the brothers known just how long the nation would be slaves in Egypt, followed by the moral decay of the Kingdom of Israel, and just when you think it can’t get worse there’s 2,000 years of dispersed exile. Kinda makes a person think, “What’s the point?” So you can see why God decided to pull the plug on Yaakov’s spoiler warning.
How to Bring About the End of the World
Okay, so we don’t know what Yaakov didn’t say. But we do know what Yaakov did say! Meaning that though he didn’t get out what he wanted to, he did leave some important instructions.
End of Days
First off, no this doesn’t mean apocalyptic rapture that the book of Revelations talks about (I think, I’ve never read it.) The Jewish end of days refers to a time when the moshiach comes and the world reaches completion. Yes, Judaism firmly believes the world was created for a purpose and we are inching toward that purpose every day. When the moshiach comes, we will experience the revelation of God not seen in the world since Mount Sinai. Even though Yaakov wasn’t able to reveal when it will happen, he did touch on how it will happen. So let’s look back at what he said.
The first thing Yaakov says to the brothers after bringing them together is to listen. On the surface you might think he’s just telling the brothers to make sure they hear what he has to say, but this is actually part of the instruction.
Now you may be thinking, “Of course listening is super important, duh.” But how many times are we in a conversation but are slightly distracted. I mean, you just need to send a text but you totally know what’s being said. Then that person calls you on it saying, “You’re not listening.” To which you reply “Uh huh!” and proceed to recall all pertinent details. You’re pleased with yourself but they look at you with a disappointed expression and say, “You just don’t get it.” What happened?
You’ve hit turbulence because listening is more than just recalling facts and figures. True listening is taking in the relevance of what is being said. Sometimes that means being emotionally supportive rather than giving a solution (marriage 101 amiright?) Sometimes it’s seeing the question behind the question. Sometimes it’s just about being present, detached from anything else going on. But what listening is not is being the one to have the right answer. What Yaakov is telling the brothers is that in order to usher in the era of moshiach, they are going to have to be more concerned about taking in and understanding the world around them than just projecting out. Be aware of what the world is crying out for and understand it.
Next, Yaakov addresses his children as the sons of Yaakov. He’s reminding them that the Jewish people must never forget that we are a family. Unfortunately, this is one we seem to keep losing sight of every century. Whether it is the observant verses the secular, the Hasidic versus the Litvish, or Sephardic vs the Ashkenaz, the Jewish people seem to divide and express animosity towards one another. But when the Jewish people unite for a cause, literally anything can be accomplished.
Finally Yaakov says, “Listen to Yisrael, your father.” Once again it sounds like we’re hit with a redundancy. He just said sons of Yaakov, why is he telling them he’s their dad again. But there is one notable difference, this time he refers to himself as Yisrael. Ever since parsha Vayishlach, Yaakov has been going around with this double name thing after his wrestling match with that angel. But unlike Avraham, who is never referred to as his first name (Avram), Yaakov switches back and forth throughout the Torah. The understanding being that when he’s in touch with his spiritual higher self, he’s referred to as Yisrael, but when he’s not so on point, he’s called Yaakov.
For this instruction, he’s telling his sons to remember to not just be united, but that they have a mission to accomplish. What’s that mission? Prepare the world for the end of days.
The Beginning of the End
We have a commandment to look forward to the coming of moshiach. You can only look forward to something if you believe it is going to happen. There is a cynicism in the world to the effect of “What does it matter if I do the right thing?”, “What difference does it make?” Part of the mission of the Jewish people is to make the world realize actions do make a difference. But it’s going to take more than a single person to do it. It’s going to take all of us getting on the same page. And the only way we’re going to do that is if we’re tuned in, listening, to get a sensitive and honest grasp of what the world needs. It may sound impossible. But remember, the dying words of the man who is our namesake says it’s going to happen. He just didn’t say when. Perhaps it’s time for us to make that happen… now.