In a Torah class, sponsored by Yiboneh and delivered in Jerusalem earlier this week, Orthodox scholar Rabbi Yitzchak Breitowitz explained that there are alternative scenarios for the messianic figure known in Judaism as Moshiach ben Yosef (Messiah, son of Joseph).
Quoting the Vilna Gaon, who was among the foremost 18th century Jewish leaders, Rabbi Breitowitz explained that, “Moshiach ben Yosef as a person will be killed in the horrendous wars of Gog and Magog. But Moshiach ben Yosef can take another form. It doesn’t have to take the form of a person. It can take the form of a movement and a philosophy.”
As is well-known, a portion of the Five Books of Moses is read in synagogues around the world each Shabbat. What is less well-known is that there is also a reading from the Books of Prophets that has a parallel theme to something in the Torah portion. This prophetic reading is referred to as a Haftarah. In Hebrew, a haftarah is a conclusion.
The Torah portion for this coming Shabbat is Vayigash (Genesis 44:18–47:27) in which Yosef (Joseph) reveals his identity to his brothers after Yehuda (Judah) pleads for the release of the youngest brother Binyamin (Benjamin). Thus, Yehuda and Yosef are reunited.
The Haftarah, the corresponding prophetic reading, comes from Yechezkel (Ezekiel) 37:15-28 and illustrates that, just as Yehuda and Yosef were reunited in Egypt, there will be a final reunification of the kingdoms of Yehuda and Yosef during the Messianic Era
And you, O mortal, take a stick and write on it, “Of Yehuda and the Israelites associated with him”; and take another stick and write on it, “Of Yosef—the stick of Efraim—and all the House of Yisrael associated with him.” Ezekiel 37:16
Yosef, sometimes referred to as Efraim, represents the Ten Northern Tribes that Sennacherib exiled long before Ezekiel lived. Yehuda represents the Southern Kingdom, from which the Jewish people of today are descended and from whom they take their name.
Rabbi Breitowitz fleshed out the parallel even further. There was an initial reunification of Yehuda and Yosef in Egypt. There will be a reunification of the Northern Kingdom (Yosef) and the Southern Kingdom (Yehuda) in the End of Days. And there will be a messianic figure from the House of Joseph and a messianic figure from the House of David, who comes from the Tribe of Yehuda.
He continued by explaining that, before Moshiach ben David (Messiah, son of David) appears, there will be a Moshiach ben Yosef (Messiah, son of Joseph) who will pave the road for Moshiach ben David. Their roles at the End of Days, explained Rabbi Breitowitz, mirror the initial reunification of Yehuda and Yosef in this week’s Torah portion.
“In the same way Yosef in Mitzrayim (Egypt) prepared the physical infrastructure of the economy so that Yehuda could then create the spiritual community of the Jewish people that sustained them in Egypt,” he elaborated, “So too the role of Moshiach ben Yosef as a movement is to prepare a physical structure in Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel).”
Breitowitz acknowledged that this physical building up of Israel is an allusion to Zionism. “The Vilna Gaon concludes that the physical building of Eretz Yisrael is an indispensable condition for the bringing of Moshiach. The return to the Land and the building of the Land, in terms of agriculture, in terms of industry, in terms of people living here, is the condition that will bring Moshiach ben David,” he argued.
He ended this segment of his talk with an important clarification. “The Vilna Gaon was not endorsing secular Zionism. The Vilna Gaon emphasizes over and over again in his writing that this should be done in the ruach (spirit) of the Torah and mitzvot (Biblical commandments).” Today, Zionism based on Torah principles is referred to as Religious Zionism.
Rabbi Breitowitz concluded by stating that it was common knowledge among Torah scholars in Eastern Europe during the 18th century that, “building up Eretz Yisrael in a physical sense was a necessary redemptive stage and that was the precursor to Moshiach ben David.”