Shabbat Vayehi: Predictions

December 16, 2021 by Jeremy Rosen
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The twelve tribes have now come to live in Egypt under Josef’s protection.

This is where they will stay for over 300 years. Jacob, now close to death, asked Josef to bring his two sons Menashe and Ephraim to bless them. Although Joseph placed the children before him in the order of seniority. Jacob switches his favoured right hand from Menashe to Ephraim the younger son. Yosef, perhaps having experienced the harm that favouritism had caused him, tried to reverse Jacob’s right hand to Menashe. But Jacob insisted. This is why to this day when we bless our children, we put Efraim before Menashe. Jacob’s preference for meritocracy, for judging each person based on his or her actions and capacities was then repeated when he called all the other sons together to bless them.

The term blessing has multiple meanings. It can be an expression of love, gratitude, hope for future success. Here it is rather an analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the sons and where Jacob thinks they will find their places in life.

To begin with, he accuses his firstborn Reuven of being hot-headed and as unreliable as water, remembering the cases where Reuven let his father down or offended him. This is why he will not be the leader of the tribes. He expresses his anger at Shimon and Levi, the brothers who killed the citizens of Shechem after their sister Dinah had been raped and said that they had to be separated. And he went on through each tribe analyzing their strengths and predicting their future.

He says that Judah will be the dominant tribe and produce monarchs. And he predicts that Joseph and his sons will become successful leaders too. This is what happened. It was only after the failure of the first king Saul of the tribe of Benjamin, that David, of the tribe of Judah, became king and founded the dynasty of David. And after the death of Solomon the Ten Northern Tribes of Israel withdrew to establish their state and monarchy. Historically Jacob was proved right.

But first, Jacob said. He wanted to tell them about what would happen “at the end of days.” This phrase “the end of days,” is a mistranslation of the  Hebrew words Acharit HaYamim.” They mean after a passage of time. The “end of days” would be “Sof HaYamim.”  When the prophet Isaiah uses the phrase Acharit HaYamim he was referring to King Hezekiah who lived at the same time and brought about a peaceful, religious renaissance after years of corruption, idolatry, and violence. Similarly in the book of Daniel, the expression Acharit HaYamim was referring to the return of the Jews to Jerusalem and the Second Temple within a generation. And that is what it means here.

It was Christianity that adapted the phrase to refer to an apocalyptic era thousands of years in the future when its founder would return to bring peace on earth. So, was Jacob predicting for the short term or very long term?

What did Jacob mean when he said (Genesis 49.10) that  Judah would rule “when coming to Shiloh”? It could be a reference to the fact that when David took over the monarchy, the Tabernacle was in Shiloh. That was the seat of religious authority at that time. But some commentators say that is a reference to the Messiah the son of David in the very long term. Thousands of years later. In which case Acharit HaYamim, would indeed have to mean the end of days literally, and who knows when that will be? Is that really what Jacob meant?

When one considers this whole episode, one is bound to ask what predictions are based on. Are predictions based on knowledge of a person and his or her talents and capacities? Or are they based on inspiration that may or may not come from God? I prefer the pragmatic approach. We are more likely to be able to predict based on knowledge and facts. We can tell a great deal about a person’s capacity and future based on observation. Whereas something as uncertain and undefinable, such as the end of time, can only be pure speculation which the Talmud says is not very helpful and should be avoided. I prefer predictions based on facts and merit. As I think did Jacob.

Genesis 47:28-50:26.

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