CLARITY THROUGH THE FOG OF TIME
Rabbi David Walk
As I grow older there is a very specific kind of frustration that pervades my teaching. There are so many ideas which I want to tell my young students and my grandchildren. Things about life which my years on earth have made clear to me are foreign to these young charges. They don't want to hear about being careful or about getting enough sleep or about mortality. It's clear to me that all we can do is just state these verities, and accept that they won't understand them until they've lived through enough years. I just heard a retired quarterback on the radio talking about how he advised young players to take care of their bodies, but, he explained, they don't listen until the first signs of wear and tear begin appearing. And, of course, I remember not listening to my elders back in the day. I think that the first person to have experienced this phenomenon was our alter zeidie Ya'akov in this week's Torah reading. He gathers his sons for the last time around his death bed to give them vital information which he knows will take them years to digest and comprehend, but he tells them what he must say and they must hear.
This section which contains Ya'akov's last testament begins with him telling his beloved sons: Gather and I will tell you what will happen to you at the end of days (Genesis 49:1). Like so many statements in our holy script, this seemingly straightforward pronouncement has sparked a controversy. What did our Patriarch want to tell them? The most popular and famous opinion is that he wanted to tell them about the final climax of history, the low down on the highest moment of human experience, the inception of the Messianic Era. Clearly, he didn't impart that info. So, what happened? God prevented him from handing over this knowledge, and that's why this week's parsha is the only Torah reading which begins without a space between it and the previous week's reading. This closed start to our reading represents the hidden wisdom withheld from the twelve sons. So, we don't know what will happen at the end of time; we'll just have to live day by day and wait to find out the ending. There will be no peeking at the last page of this book.
Well, that's the famous approach. But I never liked it. I've always thought that Ya'akov Avinu did exactly what he had wanted to do, namely to tell them about themselves. This knowledge would help them reach their full potential, and thereby find out what will happen at the end of their own days. This critical data is predictive of what will occur to them and their progeny. But is this knowledge engraved in stone? Will they (and we) be able to make the necessary mid-course corrections to achieve a different outcome than the one predicted? That's a definite affirmative. We actually have a clear example of this. Levi and Shimon are given the same chastisement by Ya'akov. Shimon, sadly, fulfills his father's worst fears. However, Levi accepts the rebuke and learns to sublimate his fiery nature to Divine purposes, and so changes his fate to achieve a new destiny. Levi becomes God's minions on earth (although they're not cute and yellow). That's what I've always thought is going on in these momentous verses. But I saw a cool new way of looking at this attempt to reveal 'the end' by Ya'akov Avinu.
In these weekly articles I've often quoted from the great Chassidic thinker, Reb Aryeh Leib Alter of Gur (1848-1906). He suggested a novel and clever approach to this topic of hidden information. Ya'akov did want to reveal the end of exile and oppression, but not in terms of dates or historical events, for the Rebbe explains, 'What profound secret is involved in that? And what is the practical ramification (nafka mina) in that knowledge?' Rather 'he wished to clarify for them the 'root of exile and redemption.' What we see as exile (and all evil, for that matter) is just the concealment of the Divine and the good. Had they understood that idea then the exile couldn't have affected their souls. This is why the Midrash says that the exile only started with the death of Ya'akov, since he understood this truth that no exile could afflict him and his progeny even though they were already in Egypt. Exile isn't about where you are located; exile is about how you think.
The concealment wasn't a blockage of the teaching; it was the teaching. The end of galut (exile) isn't a matter of time but of attitude. There is no comfort in knowing when the geula (redemption) will come. The only comfort comes from the knowledge and understanding of the fact that God is concealed within and by the world. The only danger of galut is losing the faith and hope of Divine presence. Galut doesn't describe geography, which is good news for those who are map-challenged. Galut describes the fog which descends upon our minds and souls.
The Rebbe mentions the aspaklaria or lens through which people observe the word of God. This lens (or looking glass) can be bright or dim. The Rebbe explains that Ya'akov observed through a bright lens, whereas the sons perused a dim one. Normally we explain the difference between the two as dependent upon the prophetic power of the observer. I'd like to suggest a different approach. I think that the luminescence of the lens directly relates to the observer's sense of the imminence of the Divine Presence. Galut ends when this reality is grasped.
Ya'akov communicated exactly what he wanted to, and that was the fact that concealment is the role of the world and our redemption depends upon us seeing through it. We try to do the same thing for our children and grandchildren. We want them to understand things that aren't apparent to their younger eyes. We want them to see through the smoke and fog and distortions of the world around us, and these distractions only get larger and louder over time. We want them to pierce the veil and see that the world is only a bright, shining stage for God to present us with tasks, wonders and truth.