The Ultimate Pawn Shop
By Rabbi Pinchas Winston
And Yosef said to his brothers, "I am Yosef. Is my father still alive?"
Parashas Vayigash may be one of the shortest in the entire Torah, but it
contains the climax of the story of Yosef and his brothers, and perhaps all
of history until Moshiach's arrival. As briefly as the Torah portrays the
build-up to the climax, one can still feel from the possukim much of the
impact of the awesome resolution of a deadly conflict that spanned decades.
However, most who are familiar with the story do not recognize it for what
it really was, a near miss for the arrival of Moshiach. As the Torah says:
Yosef could not restrain himself in the presence of all who stood before
him, so he called out, "Remove everyone from before me!" Thus no one
remained with him when Yosef made himself known to the brothers. (Bereishis
On the surface, it seems as if Yosef only wanted to spare his brothers some
embarrassment before revealing himself to them. He knew it would come as a
shocker to them, and who knows what they would have felt as a result.
Indeed, the Torah records their reaction:
But his brothers could not answer him because they were left disconcerted
before him. (Bereishis 45:1)
Yosef's revelation only left them confused, overwhelmed, feeling extremely
guilty, and above all, duped. Here they had tried to dispose of their
meddlesome brother, and instead they had set him on a course that
"disposed" of them instead. What COULD they have said at a moment like
that? Silence was the safest and best choice.
However, what does it mean, "Yosef could not restrain himself"? It sounds
as if, had he been able to, he would have held out longer before revealing
the secret of his true identity to his brothers. The question is, why would
he and why didn't he?
The Midrash answers the latter question, explaining that the brothers had
been preparing for war. They were not leaving without Binyamin, and that
meant either by destroying Egypt to free him and then returning to Canaan,
or be destroyed trying to do so. Indeed, Yehudah had already begun the
process, destroying parts of Egypt, and it was when Yosef saw that Yehudah
had taken all he could handle and had hit the war path, that is when he
decided it was time to reveal himself to his brothers (Bereishis Rabbah 93:8).
Thus, Yosef did not retrain himself in order to stave off a major
confrontation that would have resulted in death and great destruction. If
Yehudah had been a bit more patient, then Yosef would have continued on
with his charade a little longer. And, then perhaps a whole different
consequence would have resulted - the end of the conflict, the end of
history as we know it, and the arrival of Moshiach.
But that is not the way the story ended, and we're still living out its
conclusion. The question is, what didn't happen? What opportunity did
Yehudah and his brothers miss that fateful day in Egypt, that doomed us to
thousands of years of exile while we still wait Yosef's descendant,
Moshiach ben Yosef to reveal himself?
It was the opportunity for Yosef NOT to reveal himself, and this requires
Do not be distressed, nor reproach yourselves for having sold me here, for
it was to be a provider that G-d sent me ahead of you. (Bereishis 45:5)
In spite of what it seems like on the surface, Yosef was not a game player.
How could he be? He was the son of Ya'akov Avinu, who was the son of
Yitzchak Avinu, who was the son of Avraham Avinu. He was well aware of what
their family was all about, of the prophecies his ancestors received, and
of the plans and promises of G-d. Ironically, it was this knowledge that
led the brothers to sell Yosef in the first place.
Everything was about building the Jewish people, for whom Moshiach would
eventually come, and with whom the world would be brought to its final
state of perfection, the perfection that Adam HaRishon failed to bring
about. They knew what had to be done, but they just weren't always sure
about the best way to accomplish it and when it would be achieved.
Furthermore, you can't go through what Yosef went through and not feel a
part of something big -too many miracles, too many close calls that worked
out. And, as we see from Yosef's attitude towards his brothers after the
revelation, consoling them until the end of his own life, he did not become
spiteful toward them, although he had plenty of reason to be. He certainly
wasn't interested in overstepping his boundaries, playing G-d by judging
the severity of his brothers' sin.
What then? Why the charade? Why hide himself from his brothers to the point
that they were prepared to destroy all that they could in order to redeem
Binyomin and save their family from further loss?
On the contrary, he had been revealing himself from the moment his
brothers first arrived before him and his dreams by bowing down to him had
Indeed, nothing would have pleased Yosef more than to have his brothers
recognize him and to rejoin the family after being separated from them for
twenty-two years. The sooner he revealed himself, the sooner he could
revive the broken spirit of his father and pick his relationship where it
had been interrupted with his sale into slavery.
But Jewish history, especially in Biblical time, is never about personal
preferences. Every Jew is an important piece of a puzzle that is incomplete
if a piece is missing. No matter how small and seemingly insignificant the
piece seems to be to us, we are here to serve the Klal - the totality of
the Jewish people - and the only question we are being asked is, "Do you
want to do this consciously, or do you want to merely be a pawn in G-d's
Of course, the difference between the two is astronomical. There is no
reward for being a pawn, but there is all the reward possible for one who
takes a consciously active role in assisting G-d's master plan on its way
to completion. It will happen in any case, just as it has always been
happening, and thus even the most evil of events can't stop it, but given
the appearance, in the end, it can speed up the process. This is what we
acknowledge when we say, "All that G-d does, He does for the good" (Brochos
History is a play and G-d is the Playwright. He is also the Executive
Producer, among many other things. Being outside of time, He has written
the script up to its conclusion, and we are its actors. And as the actors
we do not get to choose which parts we will play, but we do get to decide
what kind of actors we will be so that when G-d starts casting the scenes
of His historical play, we stand a better chance of getting our desired parts.
Or, you can just be an extra. Extras are like props, vehicles through which
the main actors can play out their roles. They're out there on stage and in
part of the film, but as a pawn they only set the stage for the more
prominent (and much better paid) leading actors, like Yosef HaTzaddik, for
Yosef HaTzaddik was bringing Moshiach. Perhaps that process would allow
him to re-unite with his father and family, and perhaps it wouldn't; only
time would tell. However, in the meantime, he was taking a conscious role
in a process that he felt was occurring all around him. He was Divine
Presence sensitive, and he saw the events unfolding before him as an
opportunity to rectify the brothers and bring about the Final Redemption.
That, Yosef knew, required that the brothers recognize him. Tikun for his
brothers meant them coming to the conclusion on their own that he was
Yosef. In other words, rather than Yosef saying, "I am Yosef," the brothers
should have said to him, "Hey, you're Yosef! You have to be! Who else could
know all that you know about us, and who else would put us through the
ringer as you have for no real logical reason?" Everything Yosef did went a
little further toward this cause, until all that remained was for Yosef to
However, the brothers missed the point and therefore the opportunity.
Redemption stood before them in the form of the Viceroy of Egypt, but
instead they only saw an enemy. Where Yosef set up an intellectual and
spiritual challenge, the brothers only saw a physical one, and when they
forced Yosef to reveal himself to them, they effectively shut the door on
the Final Redemption in their time.
Who wouldn't cry over that?
He (Chizkiah) did what was proper in the eyes of G-d, just as his
forefather Dovid had done. (II Melachim 18:3)
The drama has been repeated many times throughout history, but perhaps the
most famous story is that of Chizkiah HaMelech. The Talmud recalls how
Sancheriv led a massive army - the United Nations of that time - against
the Jewish people with the plan of conquering and destroying Jerusalem
(Sanhedrin 4a). By nightfall, Jerusalem was besieged, and all that stood
between Jerusalem and its total destruction was a few hours until daybreak.
So what did the righteous Chizkiah do? What all righteous Jews do: he
prayed. He ran to the Bais HaMikdosh at the center of the siege, prostrated
himself on the floor and prayed to G-d for redemption. Then he went to bed
and slept soundly, only as an act of total belief and faith in G-d that his
prayers would be answered.
And they were. That night as Chizkiah slept soundly in the eye of the
deadly hurricane whirling about him, G-d did His part. A terrible plague
broke out that instantaneously killed thousands of troops, causing the rest
of them to flee the scene killing others as they ran in panic. When
daybreak finally came, a totally different scenario presented itself to
Chizkiah as he opened the shade to view the product of G-d's merciful and
So great was the victory and the miracle that it had the potential to be
THE battle of Gog and Magog, and Chizkiah, Moshiach Ben Dovid. That would
have been it. History would have come to an end right then and there, and
Yemos HaMoshiach would have begun as early as the third millennium, not at
the end of the sixth millennium, as apparently seems to be the case.
What went wrong this time?
The Talmud answers that question as well: Chizkiah did not sing shirah for
the victory. Had he only taken the time to do so for the fantastic victory,
then he would have been Moshiach and Sancheriv would have been Gog and
Magog, and we would have been born in Yemos HaMoshiach instead of watching
mankind go through another downswing.
If only. If only? You mean Chizkiah HaMelech, the righteous Chizkiah,
direct descendant of Dovid HaMelech who wrote the book on praising G-d -
Tehillim - didn't thank G-d for the world-stopping miracle in his time? The
same king about whom it says he caused all of the Jewish people to rise to
great heights of Torah learning and obedience. He didn't praise G-d for his
supernatural victory? How could that have been?
It could NOT have been. Certainly Chizkiah praised G-d, and praised G-d,
and praised Him some more. However, what the Talmud probably means is that
he didn't praise G-d commensurate to the miracle that had been performed,
because, after all, it had been a phenomenal miracle. There really is no
book written about the full extent one must praise G-d for the good done
for him. The basic rules are supposed to channel what the person should
feel on his own toward G-d, which hopefully is enough.
Apparently, whatever Chizkiah felt toward G-d for the miracle, and whatever
he expressed, we would have thought it was more than sufficient. However,
Heaven did not. The righteous Chizkiah HaMelech praised G-d from the depths
of his heart no doubt, but apparently he had more to give, and it was that
more to give that would have been the difference between the Final
Redemption and thousands of years of bitter exile.
If only he had known.
"I, the L-rd, will hasten it in its time." (Yeshayahu 60:22)
This posuk is simple to understand, or so we might have thought until the
Talmud explained it. From the simple reading of the verse, it sounds as if
the prophet is referring to one time for the Final Redemption, until the
Talmud explains to us that it is really referring to two: achishenah -
hastened, as in early - and b'ittah - in its time, as in the last possible
moment (Sanhedrin 98a).
The Talmud explains that the difference between the two possible arrival
dates of Moshiach and the final redemption from exile is up to us. If we do
that which can trigger the redemption on our own, which translates into a
specific formula of teshuvah and good deeds, the precise amount of which is
known only to G-d, then Moshiach will come "early," that is, before the
last possible moment he can, based upon the master plan of Creation.
Thus, had Yosef's brothers only come to the realization of his identity
before he revealed it, Moshiach would have come achishenah - early. Had
Chizkiah only sung shirah to G-d for his great miracle and victory over the
massive army of Sancheriv, he personally would have been the achishenah
Moshiach. And, likewise, all the other predictions of great rabbis over
the millennia for the arrival of Moshiach that have come and gone the way
of Yosef and Chizkiah, if they were in fact true, would have been dates for
However, and this is a very important and controversial point because of
what it implies, we will find out that, like the posuk implies, the two
dates really were one the entire time, as the Leshem explains:
The entire period of time is referred to as 'keitz d'b'ittah' (end in its
time), and this is the simple reading of the verse, "I, the L-rd, will
hasten it in its time (b'ittah)" (Yeshayahu 60:22). The verse is promising
that the entire period of 'b'ittah' will not pass, rather that the time of
redemption will be hastened, and that 'early' will also be in 'its time'
and thus both will be fulfilled . . . It will not be delayed for the entire
period of b'ittah,' G-d forbid, but rather it will be hastened. (Kadosh,
Huh! You thought that there was a chance to bring Moshiach early, and
therefore have been working hard to make it happen. And, you thought that
Moshiach could come early, and that is why with Yosef it almost could have
happened, and also Chizkiah was almost him. But, you know why Yosef failed
to bring his brothers the final distance to redemption, and why Chizkiah
came so close, but not close enough? Because Moshiach was never meant to
come at those times.
To almost come, yes, but to come completely, apparently not.
Come early? He will. But it will also be the moment in time destined since
Creation for him to come. Only G-d, Who is outside of time, can make that
happen, and it could have been in Yosef's time, Chizkiah's time, or any
other time throughout our long history of exile that seemed propitious for
him to come. It is only after the fact, after the moment has come and
passed that we know it wasn't THE moment.
Because when the moment does finally come, we won't make a mistake. We
won't be able to. We'll simply find ourselves in the right places at the
right times, in spite of ourselves, because that is where Heaven will want
us to be. And, which place we will occupy at that time and how much reward
we'll receive for being there will depend upon the type of actor we make
ourselves into before that moment in time.
For, as with the earlier scenes, the latter scenes will also need stars and
extras, knights and pawns. The play has been written, and the script has
been set. The Director is now shopping for His characters, and so late in
time after so many achishenahs have passed, it is worthwhile to ask, "What
kind of characters will G-d 'need' at the End-of-Days?" Work on being
available for the part.
In Eretz Yisroel, it is not so uncommon that even the local carpenter knows
a lot of Torah and has great insight into Jewish history.
This morning, as I dropped ours off at his workshop, he told me a five
minute dvar Torah that is right on the money in so many ways. Quoting one
of the past Roshei HaYeshivos of the Mir Yeshivah, he explained that the
brothers really did recognize Yosef even before he revealed himself.
However, an internal struggle prevented them from admitting to what they
suspected because doing so meant scrapping the last twenty-two years of
their lives in light of the fulfillment of Yosef's dreams.
That is what forced Yosef to keep pushing them to recognize him. Yet,
instead of capitulating and admitting the truth, as Yehudah had done
earlier with Tamar, the bothers chose to ignore the truth and fabricate a
newer and more dangerous one that would have had them go to war against
Egypt and do battle against themselves. Only Yosef's own admission put them
into a corner from which they could not escape the truth, and with the
collapse of the lie and the automatic admission of truth, they were
devastated once and for all.
The nagar (carpenter) concluded that this is what holds back our own
redemption, our admission of our own mistakes and our own lack of
willingness to recognize the hand of G-d in what is going on today to bring
the Final Redemption.
I was astounded recently to hear some say, "Well, you were wrong about your
predictions back in 1999 and 2000. The redemption didn't come like you said
And that was just after reading an 11-page report on the phenomenal and
seemingly irreversible trend of growing anti-Semitism that followed in the
wake of the events of Year 2000. It was if the people were standing there
on a sunny day saying, "No rain clouds today. Weatherman blew it on this one."
But there are rain clouds today, serious ones, just as we said there would
be back then and earlier. The destruction of the World Trade Center and new
world insecurity followed in 2001, and the world has never resumed the
status quo since. Given the events of today, what can we expect tomorrow?
There is no question that Year 2000 was a watershed year. Only by G-d's
mercy (and 64 billion dollars of repairs) did Y2K not deliver the worldwide
chaos many feared it would.However, it did show us something very
important, and that is how vulnerable our society is because of its
dependence on computer controlled mechanical systems. It showed us our
Achilles Heel, or rather gid hanasheh, while we still able to walk.
But rather than be humbled and learn from the experience, we simply
celebrated our ability to stave off doom. Until, that was, 19 Arab
terrorists declared war on the United States of America, and took down 3000
people and two mighty symbols of American prowess and self-confidence. It
took days to recover from that worldwide chaos, and the truth is, we never
There is a pattern to all of this, one that stretches far back in time than
the most recent events. Predictions for the arrival of Moshiach are
difficult, if not impossible to make. But patterns, past and present are
far easier to pick up and recognize, if one chooses to be a conscious
partner with G-d in bringing Jewish history to its pre-destined finale, and
it will be a beauty. All we have are the patterns to help us sort out our
priorities at this late and confusing stage of history.
They laughed at Moshe Rabbeinu right before the Plague of Darkness
eliminated twelve million blind-sided disbelievers. And, the lack of clouds
in the sky moments before the Flood left Noach's generation unrepentant
until the last moment. And, as we have quoted several times before, the
Talmud and Kabbalah are concerned about the generation in advance of
Moshiach's arrival as well.
Chanukah is over now, at least for this year, but its message is for the
entire year. As we learn from many sources, and particularly the Rambam, it
is a holiday of hoda'ah, a word that means both praise of G-d and admission
of truth. And, if we learn anything from the story of Yosef and his
brothers at all, it is the importance of admitting to the truth of the
events of our time, even if doing so means admitting to past mistakes and
the need to change the course of our lives. It is the only way to go from
being a pawn of history to a knight in G-d's army.