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.”
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, 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 Shimoni
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
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.
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.”
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,” 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
There is a
recurring prophecy in Tanach – “every man will sit under his grapevine
or under his fig tree” – 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, ‘No
eye has seen, O God, but You.’”
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.’”
Talmud states 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
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
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.”
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.
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
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.
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.”