In our sedra, Yaakov senses that his end is near, so Yosef and his sons are summoned to his bedside. Yaakov asks Yosef to ensure that he is buried in Eretz Yisrael, and gives him the secret signs of the redemption. He promises that Yosef’s two sons will be counted as his own sons, given equal shares in Eretz Yisrael, and effectively giving Yosef a double share in the Holy Land. Yaakov then notices that his two grandsons are also present:
וַיַּרְא יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת בְּנֵי יוֹסֵף וַיֹּאמֶר מִי אֵלֶּה
And Yisrael saw the sons of Yosef and he asked: who are these? (בראשית מח:ח)
Assuming our third forefather was not suffering from dementia or an ancient variation of Alzheimer’s, it seems quite unusual that Yaakov spent the past five minutes speaking about his grandsons, only to ask who they are. Surely, there must be a deeper level of the question “מי אלה”- what did Yaakov mean when he asked “who are these”?
Rashi, in a style which he will later echo in the remainder of Parshat Vayechi, answers that Yaakov’s “ראיה” was a deeper type of sight, seeing beyond the present. Yaakov foresaw that Yosef’s descendants would include Israel’s most evil kinds, especially Yeravam ben Nevat, who was instrumental in dividing the Jewish kingdom, and Achav, who promoted avodah zara and challenged Eliyahu Hanavi’s reform. At this point, before giving a final blessing to Yosef’s sons, Yaakov questions whether they’re truly worthy.
Yosef, an insightful person to say the least, gives a simple answer:
וַיֹּאמֶר יוֹסֵף אֶל אָבִיו בָּנַי הֵם אֲשֶׁר נָתַן לִי אֱלֹהִים בָּזֶה
And Yosef said to his father: They are my sons, which Hashem gave me with this.
Yaakov finally consents, saying:
וַיֹּאמַר קָחֶם נָא אֵלַי וַאֲבָרֲכֵם
And he (Yaakov) said: Bring them to me and I will bless them. (מח:ט)
Following in Rashi’s approach to Yaakov’s question, it’s difficult to see how Yosef’s answer of “they’re my sons” should assuage Yaakov’s concerns. After all, Yaakov saw firsthand the danger of giving a beracha to an unworthy recipient who would later have evil children- this episode with Eisav very much shaped his life. How could the simple fact that Menashe and Efraim are his grandsons possibly have convinced him to bless them, despite their future evil offspring?
My rebbe Rav Menachem Akerman told me a very creative answer based on a principle found in Kol Hator. This sefer, written by Rav Hillel Rivlin of Shkolv based on the teachings of his rebbe, the Vilna Ga’on, deals with the topic of Mashiach ben Yosef from the perspective of the Gr”a, whose students truly began the modern-day return to Zion. This work, despite its strict following of the Gr”a teachings and scrupulous footnoting and referencing, is one of the most controversial sefarim in modern history. Rav Moshe Shternbuch, the head of the Eda Haredit of Jerusalem and a direct descendant of the Gr”a, claims that the authors deliberately misinterpreted the words of their rebbe, that his forebear would never have said these things and therefore none of the sefer is true. Even in the Bet Midrash of Machon Lev, a very open-minded and respectful place of Torah learning, all three copies of Kol Hator have been defaced and vandalized, with someone disrespectfully writing on the inside cover “כל ספר זה שקר ואינו דברי הגר”א זצ”ל- this entire sefer is a lie and not following in the words of the Gr”a.” (For anyone born in our generation to claim to know better than the Vilna Ga’on, no matter how much of a well-respected religious leader he is or who he’s descended from, is a horrible chillul Hashem and a desecration of Torah so terrible that it is of the caliber that caused the destruction of both Temples, something especially pertinent to us as we just commemorated Asara B’Tevet… but I digress.)
In the first chapter of Kol Hator, the Vilna Ga’on explains an interesting phenomenon. Hashem, in His infinite wisdom, created human beings with בחירה חופשית, free will, to make decisions as they see fit. However, when approaching messianic times, sometimes Hashem will influence humans’ decisions a little bit, in order to bring the redemption closer. This concept, called בחירה סגולית, was apparent in the period of time immediately before the Exodus, when Hashem hardened Pharoah’s heart to ignore the makkot being stricken against his people and continue to enslave the Jews. The Gr”a writes that in the times of Mashiach ben Yosef, immediately before the ge’ulah, בחירה סגולית will once again show itself, but in a completely different and infinitely more positive way.
People who are so disconnected from Judaism, so enlightened by western culture that they no longer see G-d in their lives, will suddenly change direction and move to Israel. They might not magically become religious overnight during the move, but they will lay the groundwork, economically, militarily and logistically, for the second mashiach. They will not really understand why they did this, but we do- it’s because they are Mashiach Ben Yosef, and Hashem will have intervened to ensure that they could do their job of returning Jewish sovereignty in Israel.
Rav Akerman explained to me that this generation of Mashiach ben Yosef, the secular Zionists that the Vilna Ga’on predicted over fifty years before Theodore Herzl even thought to go to the Dreyfus trial, are also the spiritual children of Yosef, and they are the reason that Yaakov consented to give Efraim and Menasha their beracha. Yisrael was hesitant to give his blessing to individuals who he knew who would have children who would eventually cause great spiritual and physical harm to their brethren. Yosef, however, reminded him that they are his children, and even though their nature may not always be so great, they are his descendants, and, when the time is right, they will play a tremendous role in אחרית הימים. Yaakov, understanding the important role that Yosef’s less than righteous offspring will eventually play, consents to give Efraim and Menashe his blessing, and the rest, as they say, is history.
This past Tuesday, Jews around the world commemorated the fast of Asara B’Tevet. This day of mourning commemorates two difficult times in Jewish history- the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar- and, by extension the destruction of the Temples- and the Shoah. Rav Yosef Zvi Rimon, a world-renowned expert in halacha, founder of the Machon L’Torah V’hora’ah, and my Rosh HaYeshiva, prefaced his Asara B’Tevet remarks on Tuesday with the warning that no one can ever claim to know why bad things happen in the world. Nonetheless, he continued, it is clear that on Asara B’Tevet, our people must work on strengthening ourselves in the areas that caused the two tragedies we remembered on Tuesday. Both of these fall under the umbrella of “derech eretz“- one is the well-known figurative understanding, which is strengthening of unity between Jews in contrast to the sin’at chinam which caused the destruction of the Temples; the other is a more literal meaning, which is to work on our physical fulfillment of yishuv ha’aretz.
It is my belief that, based on Rashi, the Vilan Ga’on, Rav Rimon and Rav Akerman, it is clear that on Asara B’Tevet (and moving forward), we must work especially hard on respecting those who had the courage to come and found the Jewish yishuvim in Eretz Yisrael, and, by extent, all Jews who live in Israel, of all shapes and sizes. It has been suggested lately by various spiritual leaders that the responsibility for three month terror wave that Israelis continue to suffer from on a daily basis sits on a specific group of people. Some have said that it is the non-observant Jews who go up to Har Habayit. Others have suggested that it is those who don’t keep Shabbat properly. Yet others have opined that the very fact that Jews live in Israel is spiritual cause for our Arab neighbors to terrorize us. The list goes on and on.
We must remember the principle that Rav Rimon reminded us about on Tuesday- that nobody on earth can claim to know why Hashem is causing us to suffer. We can suggest effective and smart solutions, but to say without a shadow of a doubt why anything is happening in the world is tantamount to placing oneself on an equal level to G-d, which is straight out kefira.
Furthermore, we have demonstrated that while every group of Jews is holy in their own way, the non-religious Jews who settled Eretz Yisrael are on an especially high level- based on the teachings of Gr”a, it is clear that Hashem has come to each and every one of them to influence them to move to and stay in Israel (Israeli expat statistics are decently high, so it’s not the most uncommon occurrence for secular Jews to want to distance themselves from Eretz Yisrael– yet most of them stay here anyways). This is a level which religious Jews such as you, me and, frankly, even our Ultra-Orthodox brethren who try to undermine the words of the Vilna Ga’on and deface his sefarim, have never merited and probably never will.
This should serve as chizuk for our national unity, especially in these difficult times. Each and every one of us is a special and unique individual, and, as we’ve seen, we have the ability to have a part in mashiach, to be mashiach itself. Our reaction to the constant violence against Jews, and the world’s resounding silence in the face of the attacks, should be to work on respecting our fellow Jews. Whether they are Hareidi, extremist settlers, non-observant, or even, dare I say it, our troublesome brethren who are trying to portray any of the above as the source of our problems, we must try extra-hard to feel and show only love and respect to them.
Furthermore, it is incumbent on us, especially now, to follow in the footsteps of Mashiach Ben Yosef and come to Eretz Yisrael. At a time when growing aliyah numbers are at risk of faltering by violence from a nation of terrorists, we cannot be afraid. We must stay strong, and work on staying together and coming home to where we belong, to the source of thousands of years of Jewish hope, to our national homeland.
Today, as we come off of the commemoration of Asara B’Tevet and return to the pain of the so-called silent intifada, of terrorist attacks in Israel and anti-semitism abroad, let us not only look for future salvation but also appreciate past salvation. Let us realize that every single Jew has a piece of G-d in them, and that the secular Jews who founded and continue to run Medinat Yisrael not only have this, but are part of a bigger plan, of the redemption. Only by removing our sin’at chinam for Mashiach ben Yosef, and truly opening our hearts to love every single Jew (not to mention following in their footsteps by moving to Eretz Yisrael), can we ever hope to merit the coming of Mashiach ben David, an end to our suffering, and the final redemption, very very soon.