Light from the Sidra

Vayechi ('And he lived...'). 2nd January 2015. 12th Tevet 5775

Torah: Genesis 47:28-50:26. Haftarah: 1 Kings. 2:1-12

It takes a Jew to solve the world's problems

The Jewish record producer Rick Rubin will probably be best remembered for revitalising the career of the legendary country singer Johnny Cash in the final years of his life. Rubin’s sparse, stripped-down, musical arrangements perfectly complement Cash’s weary, lived-in voice and the ‘American’ recordings are arguably the best albums Cash ever released. There is a musical integrity about the material, especially on the very last albums when the former hell-raiser turned born-again Christian knew he was dying, and it seems Cash carefully chose songs in order to make a statement to his listeners. You’ll not find Sinatra’s hubristic ‘My Way’ on Cash’s final albums. Knowing the end was near and he faced the final curtain, Johnny Cash sang about what mattered most to him: his faith.

‘Depend upon it, Sir,’ said Samuel Johnson, ‘when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.’ The Sidra this week consists of the concentrated thoughts of another man; a man who like John Cash knew he was dying and wished to say what was most important to him. In Genesis 49, Israel speaks of the future of each of his sons and what will befall them ‘in the End of Days.’

In Jacob’s first encounter with HASHEM, he dreamed of angels ascending and descending on a ladder to heaven and received a promise that in his seed all the families of the earth would be blessed (Genesis 28:14). At the end of his life, with his eye on that great promise and under the guidance of the Spirit of HASHEM, Jacob’s blessing on Judah revealed that his once wayward son would become the ruling tribe in Israel: ‘The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler's staff from between his feet, as long as men come to Shiloh; and unto him shall the obedience of the peoples be’ (Genesis 49:10. Jewish Publication Society Bible, 1917).

‘Shiloh’ is a personal name that stems from the same root – shalah – as ‘shalom.’ ‘There is no peace for the wicked.’ declares HASHEM in Isaiah 48:22 and 57:21 and, in 32:17, the prophet states that ‘the product of righteousness shall be peace; and the effect of righteousness quietness and security for ever.’ The Jewish people, particularly those living in Israel, understandably long for peace but to imagine that we must have peace before we can pursue righteousness is to put the cart before the horse. Peace is the fruit of righteousness. When the nations obey Shiloh – the Messianic King – will there be peace. That’s why it takes a Jew to solve not only the Middle East problem but also the world’s problems. Only when Israelis and Arabs and all nations are obedient to the Jewish Messiah will there be peace on earth, which is why, at the birth of Jesus, angels proclaimed peace and goodwill to all.

Rashi, regarded by many as Judaism’s greatest Bible commentator, recognises Shiloh as a reference to the Messiah. The reason so many Jewish commentators reject Jacob’s prophecy as a Messianic reference probably lies in the fact that from the earliest days, the followers Jesus have believed the Shiloh prophecy is Messianic. But since the destruction of the Jerusalem in 70CE and, with it, the genealogical records of the tribes, no messianic contender has ever been able to prove membership in the tribe of Judah. The last Messianic claimant who could prove descent from Judah was Jesus of Nazareth, and the New Testament accords him the kingly title, ‘the Lion of the tribe of Judah’ (Revelation 5:5)

But we don’t have to refer to the New Testament for evidence of a Messianic understanding of the Shiloh prophecy. The Parasha itself seriously challenges the interpretations of the sages. Why, for example, is Judah rather than Joseph granted the privilege of ruling the tribes of Israel and the nations? Given the account of Joseph and his brothers from chapter 37 to chapter 48, we might reasonably expect to see Joseph as the ruling tribe.

Judah was hardly a paragon of virtue. He himself admitted that his non-Jewish daughter-in-law, Tamar was more righteous than he was (Genesis 38:26), so in what way did he excel Joseph? God alone knows why he chose Judah to be the royal tribe but if there was a reason, perhaps it lies in the fact that although Judah persuaded his brothers to sell Joseph, his willingness to sacrifice himself for Benjamin set him apart from his brothers and foreshadowed the substitutionary sacrifice of the Messiah on behalf of his people.

Furthermore, in the midst of the blessings on his sons, Israel suddenly interjects, ‘I have waited for your salvation, HASHEM!’ Jacob knew about God’s promise of salvation and longed for it. If the ‘salvation’ for which Israel waited was nothing more than safety from his physical and material enemies, Jacob faced no such threat when he uttered those words. Nor was the family. Jacob was facing death, and death is the consequence of sin. As a prophet, Jacob had waited for the coming of the Messiah whose name was Yeshua – ‘salvation’ – because Yeshua was to save his people from their sins.

Israel exclaims his longing for HASHEM’s salvation after calling Dan – whose name means ‘Judgement – a ‘serpent’ that bites the horse’s heel, causing the rider to fall backward. Attentive readers of the Bible will remember where they have encountered the terms ‘judgement’, ‘serpent’, ‘heel’ and ‘suffering’ before. In Genesis 3 judgement came on the world because of a serpent, and in the fifteenth verse HASHEM promised Adam and his wife – a promise that must have been known to Jacob – salvation from the consequences of their sin. Salvation would come when the ‘seed’ of a woman crushed of the head of the serpent and, in the process, was bitten in his own heel. As the dying Jacob uttered those words about Dan and Judah it must have concentrated his mind wonderfully and it should not surprise us, therefore, if his thoughts were drawn to God’s promise of salvation in Eden.

The great challenge for all of us is how we will face death. What will be uppermost on our minds when we prepare to meet our God? The great architect of modern Judaism, Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai, had no hope and wept that before were heaven and hell, and he didn’t know where he was going. If the great son of Zakkai had no hope for the hereafter, what hope can those who follow his teachings have? If only Rabban Johanan had been like Israel’s great forefather and had longed for God’s salvation, God’s Yeshua. Instead, Johanan ben Zakkai built his hopes on his own works and, just when it mattered most, they failed him. Even more tragic was that in his own lifetime God’s Yeshua had appeared but instead of embracing him, Rabban Johanan and the Sanhedrin persecuted his followers.

Shiloh has come. The fact that millions of Gentiles around the world obey him is evidence that Jesus/Yeshua – the Lion of the tribe of Judah – is the one foretold in the prophecy of Jacob. To him is the obedience of the peoples. Will you repent and be among those who obey him or, like Rabban Johanan, will you face death with two ways before you, not knowing where you will end up?

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