September 19, 2019 |

End of Days

Our forefather Ya'akov gathers his sons together in the last days of his life, seeking to give them a final testament and ethical will. His life has been a hard one, full of turmoil and strife and he knows that his family is not only divided but also in great peril. They have descended to Egypt and Ya'akov knows - as an oral tradition from his grandfather Avraham - that they will now be enslaved for many years. He is very nervous. The Torah says: "And Ya'akov called to his sons and he said: gather together and I shall tell you what will happen to you in the end of days"(Gen 49:1) However, though he indeed blesses them, chastises them and prophesies about them, he does not reveal the end of days. In the Talmud (Pesachim 56a) the Rabbinic tradition teaches that he had indeed meant to reveal to them the secrets of the end of days, but at the very moment of truth, it was hidden from him. Ya'akov then panicked, thinking that perhaps one of his children was unworthy and God had taken his vision of the future away so that it would not be revealed to the unworthy child. Just as Avraham gave birth to Yishmael and Yitzchak to Esav, so too Ya'akov thought, perhaps I too have not merited to create a unified family. At that moment, the 12 sons of Ya'akov thundered forth "Listen O Israel, Hashem Is Our God, Hashem is One!" There are no traitors here. In relief, Ya'akov blessed God by saying "Blessed is the name of His honor of His kingship forever" and this, indeed, is the source for our custom of saying that line as part of the recitation of the Shema.

This beautiful and intriguing story has many depths to plumb, but I want to focus on the conclusion. Ya'akov had believed that the vision of the end of days had been obscured because something was deeply and tragically wrong, but then he was quickly reassured that everything was fine. Why, then, was the end of days taken away from him? Why couldn't he share, as part of the Jewish oral tradition, the amazing secret of what the future would hold?

Because you can't know the End of Days. No one really knows the future and no one has any guarantees of what will happen. We know that we have to do the best we can to live good lives, to seek favor in the eyes of God and man, to be good children, siblings, spouses and parents and to hope that that will be enough. Even prophets don't really know the future; that's not their job. The job of a prophet is to convey a message from God to the people.[1] When it is necessary to foretell the future in order to authenticate the messenger or authenticate the message, then the prophet is shown and reveals the future. Other than that, we all look through a glass darkly.

Like our forefather Ya'akov, having the future obscured from us can be extremely disconcerting. We may be afraid that all of our religious actions will amount to nothing at the end of our lives. We may be afraid that despite all the sacrifices we have made for our children, they will one day turn their backs on us and our values. We may be afraid that all our savings and 401ks will be wiped out in a stock market crash. We may be afraid that Iran will take over the world, that there might be another 9/11, or, chas v'shalom, another Holocaust, no matter what we do. There are plenty of things to fear when the future is a dark room in a scary place.

To combat that future, we have the Sh'ma -- recited twice each day -- as our guide. "Sh'ma Yisrael" ("Listen, O Israel"), we proclaim. Do not be afraid of what your eyes cannot see. Listen instead to the teachings of the Torah and our tradition, the heard instruction that reverberates through the centuries and is passed from generation to generation. That is what we can rely on. "Hashem Eloheinu" ("Hashem is our God"), Believe in us, the Jewish people. We can rely on our communities and our fellow Jews to help us get through the darkness and uncertainty. "Hashem Echad" ("Hashem is One"). Believe in God and in a personal relationship with Him (or Her). This is what we can rely on. With these tools, we can believe in ourselves, we can move on to the next verse.

There are no guarantees in life. But when faced with fear and uncertainty, the Sh'ma teaches us to center ourselves and remind ourselves of the things we have to rely on - an eternal Torah, the one God, the Jewish community and, finally, our own selves, each one of us a unique soul -- and to take blessing from that. "Blessed is the name of His honor of His kingship forever." These things will help us last through eternity.

If we do not believe in something, it is not that we just become skeptics, agnostics, or vulnerable and isolated individuals. Much more than that, we sacrifice the great strength and potential that believing provides. Believing makes the improbable possible, the unthought thinkable, the undreamt real. It gives us power we didn't know we had. Think of what you would do if this story happened to you[2]:

"Let me tell you a story about myself," the Netziv[3] said. "When I was a boy I was far from being considered a genius. While I struggled with my studies, there were several students in my class who were quite outstanding. Some of these boys had agile minds and were able to grasp vast amounts of material quickly. Others were blessed from an early age with an ability to delve deeply into the material. But I was considered to be quite an average student. Therefore, when I got older, it was obvious to all --including myself -- what my future would be. In those days only the most brilliant young men could go on to learn at yeshiva, so when my father told me that it was time for me to conclude my studies and learn a trade, I readily agreed. But then something happened that made me change mind.

"One night I had a dream," the Netziv continued, "and in this dream I seemed to see my whole life passing before my eyes. I had lived out my days as a simple shoe-maker, and when the time came to present myself before the Heavenly Court I humbly stated the simple merits I had in my favor. Throughout my life I had davened regularly and given tzedaka and tried to get in a little learning when I wasn't too exhausted from plying my trade. When I was finished speaking, I was handed a sefer (a Hebrew book) and asked to read from the title page. The book was not familiar to me, so I struggled with the words. 'Ha'emeik Davar',' I read out slowly, 'by Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin.'

"I looked at the Heavenly Court in wonder, and said, 'But I am Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin and I didn't write this sefer.' Then I heard a voice speaking to me, and the voice said just two words, 'Why not?'

"When I woke up, my mind was in a great turmoil," the Netziv continued. "I could still see this sefer before my eyes, with my name written in clear letters on the first page. I now knew I had it in me to become a scholar and write this sefer, and I also knew that if I became a shoemaker the book would be lost forever. You shouldn't think, however, that from that day on my studies suddenly became easy," the Netziv concluded, "The difference was not in my ability to grasp the material, the difference was in my belief that my struggles to improve and progress were worthwhile. I knew I was on the right path and once I knew that, there was no problem so difficult that it could make me lose hope. With just a little further research, I was sure that I would one day reach my goal."

I don't think we need a heavenly vision to have the confidence in ourselves to actualize our greatest ambitions. I don't think we need to be able to see the future to make sure that we can do it. But we do have to believe and we have to renew that statement of belief - out loud - every day. At the very least, we have to say the Sh'ma every day, so that like Ya'akov and his sons, we can dispel the fear and darkness. Shabbat shalom!

Footnotes
[1] And, when necessary, to advocate for his constituents with God.
[2] Originally printed and borrowed with minor editing from the Yated Neeman newspaper.
[3] Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin (acrostic forms NTZB, or Netziv) was a leading scholar of 19th century Orthodox Judaism and the head of the illustrious Volozhin yeshiva. His commentary on the Torah - the "Ha'emeik Davar" (which means "delve deep into the matter") has become a latter-day classic and is a paragon of thoughtful and bold p'shat commentary.

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