Our Parasha tells the final chapter in the incredible life of Yaakov Avinu. After reuniting with Yosef following twenty-two pain-filled years of separation, the family lived in Goshen- where Yaakov was finally able to study Torah and lead his extended family without distraction. After these seventeen tranquil years, Yaakov now prepares to leave this world. He gathers his children and grandchildren in order to impart blessings and guidance- for them, and for future generations.
We know, of course, about the divinely inspired words our holy forefather would go on to express, as he identified the strengths and propensities of each of his sons, and defined the role that every tribe would play in B’nei Israel. Yet in addition to all this, Yaakov actually intended to reveal a secret at this time…
Yaakov called to his sons, and he said, “Gather, and I will tell you what will happen to you at the end of days…”
He wanted to reveal to them the end [the date of Mashiah’s arrival], but the Shehina [God’s Holy ‘Presence’] left him- and so he started to say other things.
-Rashi, from Gemara Pesahim 56a
Our Sages actually describe this fascinating scene in more detail. When Yaakov recognized that he was suddenly unable to convey his message, he feared that it was because his children were unworthy.
Thus, he anxiously asked them, “Perhaps one of you does not believe in Hashem?” His sons were indeed all righteous, and they certainly believed in Hashem. They immediately responded in unison, to alleviate their father’s worry:
“Shema Yisrael, Hashem Elokeinu- Hashem Echad!”
“Hear, Yisrael: Hashem is our God; Hashem is One!”
Upon hearing this declaration, Yaakov realized that his fears had been unfounded. They were all worthy of hearing the secret- but, for His own reasons, Hashem wanted this information to remain a secret. As disappointing as this development may have been, we can imagine that Yaakov was, on the whole, greatly relieved. His life mission had been to raise a complete, totally virtuous group of children, so that each son would be worthy of fathering a tribe within the future nation. All of them being righteous meant that Yaakov had, in fact, fulfilled his mission, and that the nation he produced- and so named after him as “B’nei Israel-” was intact.*
With the joy of a life’s struggle validated, though perhaps with apprehension about the difficulties the young nation would soon face, Yaakov Avinu whispered:
“Baruch sheim kevod malchuto le’olam va’ed.”
“The Name of the Honor of His kingdom is blessed forever.”
Today, of course, the Shema is known as perhaps the most fundamental of our prayers (see “Shema Yisrael: Meanings and Messages;” July 2021). We make this declaration of faith loudly (just like Yaakov’s sons did) and then say Baruch sheim in an undertone (just like Yaakov himself did).
Now that we’ve reviewed the context of Yaakov Avinu’s blessings, let’s look back to the introduction to his address. Note how Yaakov made a point of calling everyone together before delivering his address- although they were already there:
“Gather, and I will tell you…”
The first Sassover Rebbe, Rav Moshe Yehuda Leib Erblich (1745-1807), sees a vital message in this phrase. As Yaakov Avinu braces his children for the darkness of Egypt- and for all future exiles- he tells them: “Gather.” Stay together.
Additionally, the next word in the verse, “ve’agidah,” “and I will tell you,” also alludes to this idea- as it hints to the word agudah– which means “group.”**
Do you want to know the way to survive exile? Band together. Become close with one another. Do kindness for one another. Feel each other’s happiness and pain. This provides another meaning to Yaakov wanting to “reveal the end of days;” he is saying that in order to see the End of Days and to bring Mashiah, we must unite.
It isn’t enough that the brothers are already physically together. They need, Yaakov teaches them, to be emotionally united.
Perhaps we can add yet another layer to this teaching. The brothers were not only physically together at that moment, but actually also shared the same intention– they all wanted to hear Yaakov’s holy words before he would pass away- and yet Yaakov still told them to “gather.” This means that it was insufficient that they merely shared a common goal; that did not necessarily indicate that they were united! Instead, Yaakov taught them now, B’nei Israel must be also connected on a deep, intrinsic level, aside from their shared goals.
Our nation has made many a Kiddush Hashem by way of holy public events- such as the Citi Field Asifah regarding technology awareness about a decade ago, and, of course, the Siyum HaShas. Yet as important and incredible as these gatherings were, it is a mistake to call them “a sign of great ahdut, togetherness.” True, tens of thousands of people showed their dedication to Hashem, and attended and followed the proceedings alongside their fellow Jews- regardless of other attendees’ exact customs and leanings. But simply going to an event you believe in, and not minding that the person next to you dresses and talks differently than you do, does not equate to true ahdut– a term reserved for inherent unity. Instead, it simply means that you personally wanted to go, and that you (rightly) didn’t care who would sit next to you.
This idea is famously seen through two different comments by Rashi. First, here is what he cites on the passage of B’nei Israel’s encampment at Sinai to accept the Torah- where the nation is referred to as one unit…
…They camped in the desert- and Yisrael camped there, opposite the mountain.
-Yitro, 19:2 (abridged)
Like one man, with one heart…
-Rashi, from Mehilta
-In other words, B’nei Israel were truly unified, as if all one person, and also, on top of that, had one heart– meaning they shared the goal of accepting the Torah.
When chasing after B’nei Israel following the Exodus, the Egyptians are also described in the singular. Our Sages use similar words there- but in the reverse order:
…Behold, Egypt was traveling after them…
-Beshalah, 14:10 (abridged)
With one heart, like one man.
-Rashi, from Mehilta
Commentators point out that the Egyptians did not have the same togetherness as B’nei Israel; they pursued us first with one heart– with a common goal, and only in this sense were they “like one man.” Their unity was superficial and pragmatic, and only went as far as their shared purpose- unlike ours, which was innate.
May we attain true peace and unity, and merit the Mashiah- speedily, in our days.
Here are some points to think about until next time:
- Are the Shema that the brothers said and the unity required of them connected?
- What is the significance of the Egyptians appearing unified but not really being so?
- How exactly does our unity help us in exile?
*In fact, some commentators write that Yaakov’s pain upon losing Yosef was so acute because he thought that he had failed to achieve his goal; Yosef may have been killed as a Divine punishment because Yaakov himself was found lacking. The Shehina no longer rested upon Yaakov Avinu when he concluded that Yosef must have been killed by a wild animal. Yaakov interpreted the Shehina’s departure as a reflection that he had somehow failed in his life’s work. (He did not realize at the time that it was really due to his sadness- only a happy person merits Divine Revelation- or for other reasons.) Once he heard that Yosef was alive, and that he had remained completely righteous over the years, the Shehina returned (“The spirit of Yaakov, their father, lived:” The Shehina rested upon him– Midrash), and he even received prophecy again, while on the way to Egypt (“Hashem said to Yisrael in a vision of the night…”).
**This seems like merely a ‘hint,’ but the words may actually be related. See Patterns in Time: Chanukah, whose author independently promotes this idea.
Have a great Shabbat!
Elli Schwarcz is an alumnus of the Toras Moshe, Ner Israel, and Carteret Yeshivos, and has been involved in Jewish outreach for almost 15 years. He is a Hebrew School and English Language Arts teacher, and has a Master’s Degree in Counseling from Johns Hopkins University. Of all his pursuits, Elli most enjoys teaching high-level Jewish thought and Talmud to teenage boys, exposing them to the beauty and wisdom of their heritage while highlighting their own ability to engage in advanced Torah learning. Elli lives in Lakewood, New Jersey, with his wife and children.