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This is what their father spoke to them and he blessed them, he blessed each according to his appropriate blessing (49:28).
The above words conclude the central part of the Parasha, which is popularly thought to be relating the content of the blessings that Jacob gave each one of his sons just before his death. However, a more careful look at the content of the twenty-eight verses in this section would break down into the following:
1. Jacob’s assembling his sons before his death to tell what would happen in ‘the end of days’ (ibid. 1). However he did not actually reveal his prophesy – at the time he wished to do so, the Midrash relates that ‘the Divine Presence was removed from him’ and therefore he spoke of other things, as related in the next verses (Gen. Rabba 98:2).
2. Jacob’s series of messages, each one directed at a different son. Although they are commonly referred to as blessings, their actual content varies. The words spoken to each one of the first three sons sound like rebukes. Those said to the other sons apart from Joseph appear to be designations (e.g. Judah for the monarchy, Zebulun for trade) – assigning a different role to each one (49:3-27).
3. Only the final verse – the one quoted above – states that Jacob actually blessed all his sons. The Midrash (Pesikta Rabati 7:28) implies that these blessings were independent of the messages mentioned in the previous verses. All the sons were blessed then, whether he had previously criticized them, designated them, or actually blessed them.
Giving the above structure to the verses under study raises the following questions:
1. Why did Jacob wish to reveal events of the future to his sons? And why should that prophecy leave Jacob’s mind at the moment he wished to do so?
2. Jacob appears to be rebuking some of his sons, designating roles to others, and only explicitly blessing Joseph. However the future of Jacob’s children does not seem to fit into what he said to them. Joseph – blessed – was a father of two tribes that ultimately suffered ignominious exile under the Assyrian Empire around 720 BCE, together with the rest of the Northern Kingdom. In contrast, Levi, severely rebuked because of his role in the massacre of the people of Shechem, fathered children whose descendants thrived within Judea, up to and including the present day.
As an answer, look at the following extracts from the seventh grade homeroom teacher’s end of semester reports:
‘Levi’s attention span is poor – in evidence from his frequent, vociferous, but largely counterproductive oral contributions to class discussions. Although he is a well-meaning young man, he unthinkingly precipitated an incident on a school trip that brought disgrace on himself, his class, and his school.’
‘Z’vulun’s written work demonstrates that he has great potential for handling practical and organizational tasks.’
‘Yosef worked to full capacity this semester, and he applied himself with great success to the new tasks and challenges presented to the more advanced sector of the group. His original and adept handling of difficult scenarios shows that he has every prospect of a brilliant and influential career. I wish him great success!’
Now look at those characters twenty years later. Z’vulun makes his living in a safe, but undistinguished pen-pushing job in a city office. His ‘great potential for handling practical and organizational tasks’ that he could have used to create jobs for thousands of people and raised money for great and worthy causes had simply not been developed. Yosef had his heyday in the seventh grade, but the compliments he received went to his head, and he rested on his laurels. Even when he desperately needed more cash he would not learn a new skill (c.f. Josh. 17:14-18) to add to his own satisfactory, but very average income as a bookkeeper. Levi however, had taken his lesson to heart. He still had an impetuous and active nature, but he had learnt to discipline it – being instrumental in bringing certain highly dangerous personalities who had menaced the nation to justice (c.f. Ex. 32:25-29). The rest of his activities promoted his role as being a successful Torah scholar, doctor, father, and pillar of his community.
The above helps us answer the issues raised about this section of the Torah. Jacob knew what the future would be ‘be-acharit hayamim’ – at the end of days. Unlike Moses he was not given the capacity to reveal the unpleasant details, of the nature graphically described by Moses before his death in Parashat Haazinu (Deut. 32:15-43) - which two verses earlier (ibid. 31:29) are also referred to as ‘be-acharit hayamim’ – at the end of days). For, unlike the twelve sons of Jacob, the Israelites had actively demonstrated their propensity to sin. As G-d told Moses after the Sin of the Spies: “the… (Israelites) tested Me ten times and did not obey My Voice” (Num. 14:22). Unlike the sons of Jacob, they had experienced the displeasure of G-d, and it was essential to warn them through Moses that they could expect far worse if they transgressed the Torah.
However, even if Jacob could no longer ‘access’ the details of ‘be-acharit hayamim’, he knew that they would be highly unpleasant. He therefore sought to avert that Divine decree by doing his uttermost to persuade them to reach their potential for good. His final messages therefore aimed to leave a message to each and every one to bring out the best of their personal characteristics, so that they would inculcate them in future generations. With one type of personality the key would be a sharp rebuke. With another he could give advice as how to make the best of his gifts for His service. With a third type, words of praise and encouragement for what had already been achieved in his own lifetime, with the implied message that these great qualities must continue in future generations. Like the teacher, his ‘reports’ were written in terms of advice, tailored to the situation and the personality of each individual son. And after that, he blessed them all – together (49:28), showing that he valued them each for who they were, even though they were very different from one another.
As King Solomon put it: ‘Educate a son according to his way’ (Proverbs 21:22) – and that includes treating him as an individual, recognizing his situation, potential, and qualities – and guiding him in that spirit.
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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