The veiled ketz

Jacob calls his sons and says to them, “Gather yourselves together, that I may tell you what will befall you in the end of days.”1 But in practice, Jacob’s prophecy merely relates to distant times and does not reach the actual end of days.

Rashi’s comment on the subject is well known: “‘Gather yourselves together, that I may tell you’ – he wished to reveal the ketz, the end of times, but the Shechinah departed from him, and he began to speak of other things.” To be sure, after the departure of the Shechinah, Jacob does not suddenly become an ordinary person speaking of ordinary things. After all, his words here are still words of prophecy. Although those “other things” do not relate to the actual end of days, still, they refer to the distant future, hundreds and thousands of years ahead. Thus, the Shechinah does not depart completely; it is still with him to a certain extent.

Jacob attempts to cut through the veil that conceals the events of the future, but he is stopped at a certain stage. Why does this happen to him?

According to the Yalkut Shimoni2 and other midrashim, a great dread falls upon Jacob, as he does not understand why this has happened. Concerned, he asks his sons, “Are you all believers?” They answer him, “Hear, O Israel: God our Lord, God is one.” When the time of the Messiah’s coming was concealed from Jacob, he was overcome with anxiety that perhaps not all the tribes were worthy of blessing. After hearing their answer, he is encouraged, and the Shechinah rests upon him once again.

What emerges from the midrash is that this concealment, the curtain that stands before Jacob, is neither a result of sin nor a result of a defect in his sons or in himself. Jacob faces something else, which does not let him see through to the end of days. This is a phenomenon that we all experience: At one point or another, every person wants to know what will happen in the distant future, but this is always denied him.

Limitations of the audience

Why can’t Jacob reveal the ketz? When a person describes things or situations that lie within the range of his perception, he has words, concepts, and modes of expression for this. But when Jacob must speak of a phenomenon that is beyond his audience’s range of perception, it turns out that he lacks the vocabulary to express himself. How can we explain to someone who has been blind from birth what other people see in the world? How can we explain to someone who is colorblind the difference between green and purple? These are things of which the listener has an utter lack of understanding. In such a case, there is a block, a real barrier in communication.

In other words, there are some fundamental gulfs that are impossible to bridge. Nothing can be said to get one’s ideas across; any attempts to do so would be meaningless. The problem of how to talk about the incomprehensible, how to describe what cannot be described, is a problem that has no solution. At the point of transmitting the essence, there is a curtain that blocks the audience’s view. It is not a matter of finding the right words, because the right words simply do not exist.

Consider, for example, the Maaseh Merkavah, Ezekiel’s vision of the workings of the divine chariot. We take for granted that the angels, the ofanim, and the holy chayot are spiritual entities, or, as Maimonides put it, “separate intellects.”3 But when we read Ezekiel’s account, he seems to be describing physical forms, as if these are creatures that one might see at some kind of bizarre zoo. What is happening here? Ezekiel sees the holy chayot, and for some reason he is compelled to describe them in words. Though he sees and feels the reality of his vision, he lacks the right words to describe it. Instead, he settles for the inaccurate language of physical descriptions.

This point is part of the reason that the Shechinah departs when people begin to speak of the end of days. Jacob sees all the way to the true ketz; not just “until he arrives in Shiloh,”4 but even afterward, after the end of the exile. When he tries to tell his sons about this, he discovers that this is a vision that cannot be communicated – not because he is not permitted to do so, but because any attempt to speak about it is irrelevant.

There is a recurring prophecy in Tanach – “every man will sit under his grapevine or under his fig tree”5 – that is meant to describe a condition of wealth and tranquility. Yet there are many people today who, if promised a future in which all they do is sit under a tree, would be completely uninterested – they would rather attend a nightclub instead. The prophecy tries to describe a future of wealth and harmony, but this can only be communicated using the range of concepts that people have. We can make an effort to describe the future using the most beautiful words that exist, but my message will only be successful if it is couched in terms of what is presently meaningful to our audience. When we have to transcend these bounds, anything we say will be incomplete. We are unable to describe things that are not within the range of the human imagination; even if we are able to comprehend these things, the concepts turn out to be meaningless without the proper tools of expression.

No eye has seen

The ability to relate to the end of days is limited not only by short­comings of human nature, but also by something more basic: ­limitations in the nature of reality. Reality allows us to relate only to things that belong to the plane of being, experience, and action in which we exist. Just as we cannot fit a large object into a small receptacle, we cannot fit anything into a vessel – a concept, a description, or a figment of our imagination – that cannot receive or contain it.

This idea is expressed in the following talmudic passage: “All the prophets prophesied only regarding the days of the Messiah, but regarding the World to Come, ‘No6 eye has seen, O God, but You.’”7 No prophet’s eye has seen what God will do for those who wait for Him; it can be seen by God’s eye alone. The Talmud then asks, “What is it that ‘no eye has seen’? Rabbi Yehoshua b. Levi said, ‘This refers to the wine preserved in its grapes since the six days of Creation.’”

Similarly, the Talmud states8 that in the World to Come, the righteous will partake of the Leviathan’s flesh. Both of these rewards for the righteous – the wine preserved in its grapes since the six days of Creation and the Leviathan preserved in salt by God even before the creation of man – are things that have never existed in the realm of human experience. These descriptions of the World to Come are beyond our limits as human beings. It is a promise of things that we have never seen and cannot hope to comprehend.

The end of days is a period that “no eye has seen” – it is beyond our perceptual range, beyond the human conceptual ability that exists in the reality of the present day.

When we speak of the ultimate ketz, we refer to what cannot be seen or understood. When we speak of what will happen in the future, we can reach a certain point until we are stopped by a thick curtain. Even those who can see through this curtain cannot bring back a report of what they have seen. They cannot relate what they have beheld, because there can be no point of comparison to it, nothing in their lexicon to describe it.

In our generation, because of the many technological advances we continuously witness, we have a better sense of the gulf between the reality of this world and the reality of the World to Come. Products are invented, the likes of which we could not have even dreamed beforehand, whose existence we could not have imagined.

This also explains a puzzling talmudic statement: “Three come unawares: the Messiah, a found article, and a scorpion.”9 At first glance, this statement raises a question: What does it mean that the Messiah comes unawares? After all, there are always Jews who pray for, talk about, and concern themselves with his coming. The entire Jewish people mentions the Messiah, in one form or another, in its prayers. So how can it be that he will come unawares?

The answer is that the Messiah whom everyone talks about, and whose coming everyone prays for, is not the Messiah who will actually arrive. We have no way of knowing or imagining what will happen when the Messiah comes, because his coming is something that “no eye has seen.” It is inevitable, then, that the Messiah will come unawares, because no one really knows what to expect.

An example of this problem can be seen in the Or HaChayim’s commentary on Parshat Acharei Mot. As a rule, the book is written as a standard commentary, each section according to its particular case. In Parshat Acharei Mot, however, something interesting happens: The author attempts to describe the experience of man’s contact with what is beyond him. Some of the language in the commentary is confusing: It is evident that the author felt and understood certain things that he was unable to communicate with his readers. It is the same block that Jacob encountered when he sought to reveal the ketz, the same block that inherently exists in these matters, and there will be no full solution for it until the end of days.

Developing sensitivity

The inability to define certain things has ramifications beyond esoteric discussions of the divine chariot and the end of days. The expression, “the heart cannot reveal to the mouth,”10 appears in connection with all sorts of subjects, for not everything that a person thinks can be expressed easily in words. There also exists a much more complex and difficult situation, when “the heart cannot reveal to the heart,” that is, that the heart cannot reveal even to itself. These are difficulties that every person experiences at one point or another in his lifetime.

The Talmud11 presents a list of things that are concealed from us: the day of a person’s death; the day of consolation; the full depth of justice; that which is in another person’s heart – and the list goes on. The connection between these things is that they are all impossible to determine.

Why is it impossible to know what is in another person’s heart? Because everything that a person draws from deep inside him he must communicate through an intermediary mechanism, the translation from thoughts and feelings into words. The listener then transfers the matter from those words into his own heart. My contact with another person’s heart is, at best, twice removed from the source; there is no possibility of direct contact, of one spirit truly connecting with another.

We constantly try to solve the difficulty of communicating what is in our heart to the best of our ability, since that is the only way that a person can have an impact on the world around him. We hope that the other person not only hears our words, but is able to translate them back in his own heart while maintaining some of the purity of the original emotion. To be sure, the content of a person’s heart is difficult to formulate in words, but if there is true resonance between two people, between two beings who are otherwise entirely separate, then while perhaps it cannot be said that each person knows what is in the other’s heart, at least they are on the same wavelength.

There are some skills that are not included in any course of study, yet everyone must learn them. Sometimes a person must dedicate much of his life to these skills. One of these skills is the ability to develop a keen sense for things that cannot be said. Every Jew has his own inner dilemmas, but everyone shares the universal problem of faith – whether it is faith in God, or in other things. In matters of faith, anything that can be studied or articulated in words is irrelevant and unhelpful. If only we had a kind of window that would give us a direct view of God’s glory! But there is no such window. What remains is the responsibility to learn to sense, to intuit, that something exists that is beyond our comprehension, beyond the range of man’s ordinary perception, and to learn to relate to it. We must reach a point where we have, in addition to the vague awareness that such a thing exists, the maturity to understand that there is more to explore on the other side of the curtain, a continuation of our path. There may be no way to reach it, see it, or explain it, but it is possible to sense what lies on the other side of existence.

Our task, in any form of faith, is to develop an awareness that beyond the place that I know lies a place that I do not know. If we can accomplish this task, we can truly claim to have experienced even that which “no eye has seen.”