“Yosef recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him.” (BEREISHIT 42:8)
On this verse, the Gaon Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna explains:
“This is one of Yosef’s attributes. Not just in his generation but in every generation, Mashiaḥ ben Yosef recognizes his brothers and they do not recognize him. It is an act of Satan, which conceals Mashiaḥ ben Yosef’s attributes such that the Jews unfortunately do not recognize his footsteps and in fact even scoff at them… If not for this, our troubles would already be over. If Israel recognized Yosef, Mashiaḥ ben Yosef’s footsteps comprising the ingathering of the exiles, etc., we would already be completely redeemed.” (Kol HaTor 2:39)
Kol HaTor, the Vilna Gaon’s teachings on Israel’s redemption process, was compiled by his student Rabbi Hillel Rivlin of Shklov. In it are found deep insights pertaining to some of the most critical questions of recent generations. Foremost among these is the rarely discussed yet essential concept of Mashiaḥ ben Yosef – a teaching the Gaon reveals to be deliberately withheld from us as it possesses within it the secret of our salvation.
“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 Shkhina 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, Mashiaḥ ben Yosef. Mashiaḥ 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. Mashiaḥ ben David, however, will come from heaven as revealed by the different aspects of Raḥel and Leah, and as known regarding the footsteps of the Mashiaḥ and the revealed end. Mashiaḥ ben Yosef himself is a composite of two aspects: on the one hand, he is Yosef the son of Raḥel 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 Mashiaḥ 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 Mashiaḥ ben Yosef both as the physical rebuilding of the Hebrew Nation in our homeland and as the Divine assistance accompanying that process, beginning with an awakened national consciousness within the Jewish people. The first Messiah, Mashiaḥ ben Yosef, is the physical rebuilding of Am Yisrael in Eretz Yisraelthrough practical natural human endeavors. Mashiaḥ ben David will then be the spiritual force that comes to rest on that already constructed physical vessel. Like Yosef, who spoke seventy languages and served as the viceroy of Egypt, the force of Mashiaḥ ben Yosefrepresents that which Israel has in common with other nations (political structure, economic system, military, etc.). It is the building of a giant body meant to eventually house the colossal spirit of Mashiaḥ ben David, which will ultimately come to direct and properly guide this ostensibly secular Israeli nation. While the Torah remains the source from which we understand our collective mission, both the physical and the spiritual strengthening of Israel are crucial to the Divine plan for the redemption of mankind.
As with an individual human body that houses and expresses its soul, the colossal spiritual organism that is Knesset Yisrael requires a giant national body in order to fully reveal itself in the physical world. The stronger a body, the greater the soul it contains can be expressed. The Torah ideal is for a body to be strong and developed to its maximum potential with a healthy spirit to refine, guide and direct it in serving HaShem. Neither man’s physical or spiritual forces can ultimately negate the other because the stronger the body, the more it enables the spirit driving it to be fully expressed. Israel aims to give material expression to the Torah’s deepest mystical concepts by infusing this world with spiritual content that will elevate humanity to greater awareness of our innate connection to our Divine Source.Knesset Yisrael, the collective soul of the Jewish people, can only fully manifest itself through the vehicle of an earthly people living a national life of twenty-four-hour-a-day kedusha that reveals the Divine Ideal in all spheres of human existence. The force within Israel that wishes to enhance the nation’s material status is therefore the basis for HaShem’s Ideal in this world as humanity subconsciously measures the G-D of Israel based on the international standing of His chosen people. Mashiaḥ ben Yosef is actually the initial foundation for what will ultimately manifest all of the Torah’s loftiest values 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 a holy nation” (SHEMOT 19:6) in the physical world. This is the significance ofMashiaḥ ben Yosef. The physical rebuilding of the Hebrew Nation in our land – even if ostensibly disconnected from the Torah and devoid of mitzvot – is the first stage of redemption and the revelation of HaShem’s Oneness.
The Vilna Gaon warns that the source of Israel’s troubles at the end of days stems from our not recognizing Mashiaḥ ben Yosef. The Torah world must struggle to overcome the confusion caused by the modern State of Israel’s outwardly secular character. Rather than detach themselves from the Jewish people’s national rebirth, scholars should work to facilitate and guide our state’s institutions on the proper path leading to universal redemption. We must realize and be confident that once the body is securely built, the soul will certainly come to infuse it with purpose. Mashiaḥ ben David will come to properly direct the vehicle of Medinat Yisrael to its true historic function as HaShem’s earthly throne that will lead all Creation to see and experience His Divine Oneness.