On this verse, the Gaon Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna teaches:
“This is one of Yosef’s attributes. Not just in his generation but in every generation, Mashiach ben Yosef recognizes his brothers and they do not recognize him. It is an act of Satan which conceals Mashiach ben Yosef’s attributes, such that the Jews unfortunately do not recognize his footsteps and in fact scoff at them… If not for this, our troubles would already be over. If Israel recognized Yosef, Mashiach ben Yosef’s footsteps comprising the ingathering of the exiles, etc., we would already be completely redeemed.” (Kol HaTor 2:39)
The Gaon of Vilna explains that there exists an awareness deliberately withheld from Israel and that the continued suffering of the Jewish people is attributed to our not recognizing Mashiach ben Yosef. In order to fully comprehend the Gaon’s words, it is necessary to understand this concept in depth. Kol HaTor, the Gaon’s teachings on Mashiach ben Yosef and the era of Redemption, was compiled by his student, Rabbi Hillel Rivlin of Shklov. In it are found great Torah secrets pertaining to some of the burning questions of our generation. While the idea of Mashiach ben Yosef is rarely discussed in today’s Torah world, it is crucial in recognizing what Israel is currently experiencing. But in order to identify with this greater awareness, one must understand the Gaon’s definition of Mashiach ben Yosef.
“According to the Gaon, all the work involved in gathering the exiles, building Jerusalem and broadening the settlement of the Land of Israel so that the Shechina will return to it, all the principles of the work and all the major and minor details are connected to the mission and role of the first Messiah, Mashiach ben Yosef. Mashiach ben Yosef is the miraculous power that will assist every act done when the awakening begins from below, in a natural manner, because he comes from the earth. Mashiach ben David, however, will come from heaven as revealed by the different aspects of Rachel and Leah, and as known regarding the footsteps of the Mashiach and the revealed end. Mashiach ben Yosef himself is a composite of two aspects: on the one hand, he is Yosef the son of Rachel of the land; on the other hand, he is Yosef son of Yaakov from heaven. It is therefore incumbent upon us to learn and to understand all the one hundred and fifty six characteristics, appellations and all aspects and special attributes of Mashiach ben Yosef. These will be a light for our feet and direct us what to do and how, in connection with what lies ahead, with the help of the Redeemer of Israel, may it be speedily in our day.” (Kol HaTor 1:2)
The Vilna Gaon describes the process of Mashiach ben Yosef as both the physical rebuilding of the Hebrew Nation in our homeland and the Divine assistance accompanying that process beginning with a nationalist awakening within the Jewish people. The first Messiah, Mashiach ben Yosef, is the physical rebuilding of Am Yisrael in Eretz Yisrael through practical human endeavors. Mashiach ben David will then be the spiritual force that comes to rest on that already constructed physical receptacle. Like Yosef, who spoke seventy languages and served as the viceroy of Egypt, the force of Mashiach ben Yosef represents that which Israel has in common with other nations (political system, economy, military, etc.). It is the forging of a super body meant to eventually house the super spirit of Mashiach ben David, the holy content that will come to guide and properly direct this ostensibly secular nation. While the Torah is the source from which we understand our collective mission, both the physical and the spiritual strengthening of Israel are crucial to G-D’s plan for the Redemption of mankind.
Souls are placed by HaShem into bodies, which function as the vehicles for the spirit to be expressed in this world’s physical reality. The stronger a physique, the greater the soul it contains can be expressed. The ideal goal is that a body be strong and developed to its maximum ability with a healthy spirit to refine, guide and direct it in serving HaShem. Each force, both physical and spiritual, must be strengthened, developed and enhanced. Neither come to negate the other because the stronger the body, the more it enables the spirit driving it to be fully expressed.
As with an individual person, the colossal soul that is Clal Yisrael requires a giant national body in order to fully reveal itself in the physical world. Israel aims to infuse the physical world with spiritual content that will elevate humanity to greater awareness of our innate connection to our Divine Source. Knesset Yisrael, the eternal collective soul of the Jewish people, must be instilled into a vast physical kingdom that will live a national life of twenty-four-hour-a-day kedusha meant to drive this world towards ultimate perfection. The force within Israel that wishes to enhance the nation’s material status is the basis for G-D’s Name in this world. Humanity subconsciously measures the G-D of Israel based on the status of His chosen people among the nations. Mashiach ben Yosef is the foundation for all of the lofty Torah ideals according to their full expression and Divine grandeur.
All facets of nationhood and life must be revealed to mankind as sanctified and pure. This can only be achieved by Am Yisrael living, and uplifting every sphere of existence, as a “kingdom of priests and holy nation” in the physical world in which we exist. This is the significance of Mashiach ben Yosef. The physical rebuilding of the Israeli Nation in our land – even if devoid of Torah and mitzvot – is the first stage of Redemption and the revelation of HaShem’s Divine Oneness in the world. Torah leaders must not allow themselves to be confused by the State of Israel’s seemingly secular character. Rather than detach themselves from our national rebirth, scholars should work to facilitate and guide our state’s institutions on the proper path leading to universal Redemption.
The Vilna Gaon warns that the source of Israel’s troubles at the end of days stems from our not recognizing Mashiach ben Yosef. We must understand and be confident that once the body is securely built, the soul will certainly come to infuse it with purpose. Mashiach ben David will come to uplift and properly direct the physical vehicle of Medinat Ysisrael to its true function and purpose as HaShem’s throne in this world that will bring all Creation to realize and experience His Divine Ideal. Shabbat Shalom.
With Love of Israel,