Dvar Torah delivered by Mike Garmise on Shabbat, 14th Tevet 5776, 26th December 2015
Yaacov has had a rough life, and, as he told Pharaoh last week, my years are fewer and worse than those of my fathers. (That observation must have taken Pharaoh by surprise: all he asked was how old Yaacov was and here the old man goes and gives him a concise and depressing synopsis of a life of strife and loss.) Today, all of Yaacov’s children are gathered around his bedside as the patriarch – father and grandfather and great-grandfather – utters his final blessing before passing into what he expects will be a much quieter world.
Will he reveal their future? That seemed to be his intention, as he says, come listen and I will tell you what will happen to you in the end of the days. Yet the next sentence, which begins as a poetic repetition, ends lamely: gather and listen to your father. No mention of the future.
Rashi, citing the rabbis and the midrash, says that at the moment that Yaacov wanted to reveal the future, his prophetic powers failed him and he had to resort to comments about what they had done and what they were like. Rabbi Jonathan Sachs says that this is an indication that prophesy in Judaism is not about telling the future but rather indicating what bad things will happen if steps are not taken to change, because the future is not preordained as the Greeks believed.
A look at what Yaacov says about the character of his children reveals the patriarch’s feelings both about his children and about how to harness their combined powers for a future nation.
If we glance back at the stories of Bereshit, we see that the choice of which child/children to favor became more difficult in each generation. Avraham didn’t have much choice: it was Yitzhak or it was the son of his concubine, who had been banished. Yitzhak also had only two, twins, but the choice between them was more difficult because each parent favored a different child. In the end, Rivka’s choice of Yaacov prevailed, in part, we learn from the midrash, because Yaacov donned the garb of his brother Esau. In other words, he adopted some of the traits that were necessary for his survival as the progenitor of the faith. In Yaacov’s case, the choice is much more complex. He doesn’t live in Mea Shearim but he has a dozen boys and the question of who will be the leader of the pack is difficult.
A look at Yaacov’s words quickly reveals that the blessings he bestows are not always blessings. Reuven, the first-born, is stripped of his prestigious position and reprimanded for his unstable, hasty behavior. Shimon and Levi receive a tongue-lashing – they were the ones who went and slaughtered a whole town because the son of the prince of that city had raped Dina, their sister. Let me not be counted in their coterie. Their ire is cursed (note: their actions are cursed – not the brothers). Just to show that this was not prophesy but rather a rehashing of the past, remember which tribe came to Moshe’s side at Mt. Sinai and later received the honor of being the caretakers of the tabernacle – Levi.
As for the leader, Yaacov obviously favors Yosef. Yosef is not only the firstborn of the woman for whom he toiled 14 years. Yosef also shares one of Yaacov’s outstanding qualities: he’s a dreamer. Of course, Yaacov dreamt about seeing and meeting angels while Yosef dreamt of domination over others. But a dreamer recognizes the kindred spirit of another dreamer, and combined with the emotional ties, Yosef should have been the odds-on favorite. Yosef was blessed from birth with grace and charm and attractiveness, as well as the ability to rule others, and the blessings he receives from his father will be greater than those his father (Yaacov) received. Yes, he is favored. He will succeed. He will have dominion. But he will not be the leader. He never was and could not be a uniting force. (When Yosef tells his brothers to inform Yaacov that he, Yosef is still alive, twice he says, “Tell him about my high position, about my honor here.” He’s still a narcissist.)
The leader will be Yehuda. As we saw two weeks ago, the fourth child of Leah is practical. He is a man of his word. He takes action when action is needed. Specifically, I believe that Yaacov was convinced of Yehuda’s leadership qualities when Yehuda took responsibility for Binyamin on the trip to Egypt.
But in this litany of blessings and settling old scores there’s another message, one that may pass under the radar here but that we celebrate on Succoth. On Succoth we have the four species: lulav, etrog, hadas and aravot, and we are told that they represent the four types of Jews: those who have aroma but no taste (learning but no good deeds), those who have taste but no aroma (good deeds but no learning), those who have both aroma and taste, and those who have neither. And all four have to be held together to fulfill the mitzvah – we need all types of Jews in our extended community to make up the whole.
And here too, we have twelve brothers, each with his own character and proclivities. Only when they work together do they create one large and unified family, one extended and cohesive community. We all have our strong points and, goodness knows, we all have our weak points. Now, as then, when we know how to harness the qualities that each one can contribute so that they outweigh the shortcomings in the individual; in the others, when we allow those who can – to lead in their areas of expertise and strength, then we create a sturdy, resilient community that can deal with the forces that are aligned against us from within and from without. It is then that we will have the strength to prevail against sometimes overwhelming odds.