Perhaps the most tragic of all Jewish divides was that of the ten tribes versus the two (Israel and Judah). This split, which was divinely ordained, began with a political motive. The overwhelming majority of the people were disenchanted with Rechavam (Rehoboam), the heir to King Solomon, and ended up forming their own state.

The real trouble began, however, when Yeravam (Jeroboam) ben Nevat, the leader of the revolt and its appointed king, did not think it was a good idea for his people to visit the Temple in Jerusalem. The ruling monarchs there were Rehoboam and later his successors from the Davidic dynasty, and for his subjects to maintain a strong connection to the opposing state was not politically wise. Jeroboam therefore banned all pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and instead erected two large golden calves at the two ends of his kingdom for pilgrims to visit in worship. The spiritual elite, as well as many kohanim and Levites, were obviously appalled by this act. Slowly but surely, many of them made their way out of Israel and settled in Judah.

The net effect of all this in subsequent generations was the spiritual devastation of the entire state. Over the next two centuries, most of the rulers were quite wicked, and the people went in similar ways. Many of the prophets warned time and again that their actions would bring on catastrophe, but their warnings were hardly heeded. In the end the state fell to the Assyrians, and its inhabitants were scattered across the globe. Most of the exiled Jews assimilated in the local population and were lost to their people.

Lost, but not totally. In this prophecy of Ezekiel, he speaks in clear and certain terms of the eventual ingathering and return of all Jews from wherever they may have been exiled. They will return to their homeland and reside under a united kingdom—no longer split in two. It will be Moshiach who will reign over all Israel: Moshiach, who is the ultimate heir to King David.

The spiritual ills of the past will be entirely cured, and the Jews will once again attain the holy state in which they were destined to be. No longer will they need to fear exile, for the redemption, the Temple in Jerusalem and Davidic rule will now all be final and eternal.

To demonstrate this, Ezekiel is instructed to take two sticks of wood; on one he was to write “For Judah” and on the other, “For Joseph and for Ephraim.” He was to bring these pieces together, thus demonstrating that the two kingdoms, that of David (from the tribe of Judah) and that of Jeroboam (from the tribe of Ephraim, son of Joseph) would in time to come be united.

The connection to the Parshah is quite fascinating. The portion of Vayigash begins with the confrontation between Judah and Joseph about the fate of Benjamin. The difficult exchange between them served as a precedent for the future rivalry between the descendants of these two leaders.1

Who wins?

Something quite clear that emerges from Ezekiel’s narrative is that the united kingdom of Israel in time to come will be ruled by the descendant of King David. Even though previously the majority of the Jews had been under the rule of a monarchy that started with a king from the tribe of Ephraim, this would cease to be in the days of Moshiach.

The explanation for this on a simple level is that there was a hereditary quality of leadership in the descendants of Judah, and specifically in the descendants of King David. “The scepter shall never leave Judah,”2 said Jacob on his deathbed. Indeed we find that Judah himself had assumed the role of leader among the brothers, even though he was not the oldest sibling. As for monarchy in particular, G‑d had sworn to King David that his descendants would always be the kings among Israel.3 But as with all elements of Torah, there is a deeper meaning to this idea as well.

“Once Rabbi Tarfon and the elders were reclining in the attic of the House of Nitzah in Lod, and this question was asked in front of them: Is study greater or action greater?

Rabbi Tarfon answered and said, “Action is greater.” Rabbi Akiva answered and said, “Study is greater.”

They all answered and said, “Study is greater, since study brings about action.”4

The Torah’s mandate is that a Jew must both learn Torah and perform mitzvot. The question that arose was which is the higher ideal. The answer is not simple: each of these endeavors has a virtue that is lacking in the other one.

Learning, by its very definition, means that the learner grasps and understands the subject being learned. As the Torah is G‑dly wisdom, the very concept of “learning Torah” means that we are grasping and understanding something G‑dly. The mitzvah of Torah learning is, for the most part, accomplished only when one understands the subject being learned. It is through learning Torah that we can internally identify with all that it means to be a Jew.

Mitzvot, on the other hand, are mostly to do with performing an act. Action is something that we can do even without identifying with the action at all. Moreover, we can actually act in a way that counters the understanding or feeling we have. This idea is something that characterizes mitzvah fulfillment: as opposed to Torah learning, which is all about internalization, when it come to a mitzvah our internal identification with it plays no role. Even if a person is both ignorant of and apathetic to this deed, it has no bearing on his or her obligation to perform it; It must be done regardless.

Action without mental or emotional inspiration is something that calls out a very deep element inside of us: subordination to something higher than ourselves. This indeed is a great virtue. The very nature of observing mitzvot is putting one’s own agenda aside and fulfilling the will of the Creator. In short, while learning Torah enhances us, mitzvot enable us to rise higher than ourselves altogether.

These two ideas are reflected in the two names Yosef (Joseph) and Yehudah (Judah).

When Rachel gave birth to her long-awaited son, she named him Yosef, “saying: ‘May G‑d grant me yet another son.’” The Hebrew word Yosef has its root in the word hosafah, meaning “addition.”

When Leah gave birth to her fourth son, she said, “‘This time I will thank G‑d!’ Therefore she called him Yehudah.” The word Yehudah comes from the word hoda’ah, which means “to thank.” This noun also serves as the root in Hebrew for “acknowledgment,” “admission” and even “confession.” All these are associated with setting aside one’s self in recognition of something else. (Leah indeed felt this when giving birth to her fourth son. Knowing by Divine inspiration that Jacob was destined to have twelve sons, Leah realized that she had now taken more than her equal share of sons among Jacob’s four wives.)

When primarily engaged in learning, one is “adding” to the self—building, increasing and growing internally. In contrast, the area where a person might subordinate oneself is exclusively in action. The definitions of “instruction” and “obedience” cannot apply to understanding or feeling, but they can be exercised in action. Which, then, is greater? The emphasis on either one most certainly brings a person closer to G‑d. But might one form of closeness be greater than the other? This was the question that occupied the Talmudic sages.

Oddly, the question was never answered. “Study is greater, since study brings about action.” In other words, studying is greater only because studying will also bring about action. As for each on its own—go figure.

“Yosef” and “Yehudah” in their esoteric meanings are a deep spiritual contrast between elevation on one side and subordination on the other. Kabbalah and Chassidut teach that this in fact is the Divine meaning in the historic tension between Judah and Joseph, between Judah and Israel. There however will come a time when the matter will be resolved in favor of one side: “My servant David shall be king over them, and one shepherd shall be for them all.” It is Judah who will prevail.

Which pursuit is greater is relevant only when there is possibility for such a question to arise. In our reality today, because G‑d created our world as a place where His infinite presence is concealed, there is importance and validity to the finite person and in ensuring that he or she develops spiritually in one way or the other. The days of Moshiach will be a time when G‑d in His ultimate self will be our reality. Divine service when living in such a time can take on only the most ultimate and complete fashion. Any level of service on which we say that there is importance to the limited self of the person cannot be ultimate; after all, it is limited by to the capacity of the human being. The ultimate state of being is that of “Yehudah”—being released from all limitations and inhibitions, and being included and united in G‑d.

That is not to say that there will not be the other side of the coin. In the days of Moshiach, both Torah learning and mitzvah fulfillment will have their place—and in their most complete sense. When looking more carefully at the haftarah, we notice that the groupings of Judah and Israel will not be dissolved totally; it is only that the king will be from David. In the spiritual sense, the virtues of both Torah and mitzvot have their place, but the “king”—spiritual precedence—will be to the un-limiting factor that is brought out through mitzvot.5