Parshat Vayechi תשעט

This week’s portion is the portion of blessings. In it, our forefather Yaakov bestows blessings on Yosef’s two sons, Ephriam and Menashe, and on all of his own sons, the 12 Tribes of Israel. As we look closely at each blessing given to its specific recipient, we are struck by how clearly Yaakov understood the nature and essence of each of his sons and grandchildren and how each person received a blessing that was tailor made exclusively for him.

Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetzky צז”ל  asks the following question: Since each son was going to receive an individualized blessing, why did Yaakov  assemble them and make each one hear the blessing and, sometimes, the criticism of the others? Why didn’t Yaakov just call them into a room one at a time, and bless him?

Rabbi Kamenetzky answers that Yaakov Avinu wanted to teach us an important lesson. Even though each of the tribes has his unique mission and purpose in life, for example, Yehuda has kingdom and Levi has priesthood, they should not forget that, together, they comprise the singular Jewish nation and that their talents and strengths are to be used in concert with their other brothers. The Jewish nation comprises a צבור (tzibur) – a congregation. The concept of aצבור  is that each member is essential to every other, and that without any one of them the group is incomplete. Praying with a מנין  minyanquorum for prayer, is called  תפילה בצבור – prayer with a tzibur, because it requires ten men, and each person is essential for the minyan. The group creates something greater than the sum of its parts.

This idea is expressed in the Midrash Vayikra Rabbah 4:6:

(Genesis 36:6)       ו) וַיִּקַּח עֵשָׂו אֶת נָשָׁיו וְאֶת בָּנָיו וְאֶת בְּנֹתָיו וְאֶת כָּל נַפְשׁוֹת בֵּיתוֹ

6) And Esav took his wives, his sons and daughters, and all the souls of his household …

Esav had only six people in his family, and the Torah calls them נפשות  “souls” in the plural. Yet the verse about Yaakov says, (Genesis 46:27):


כָּל הַנֶּפֶשׁ לְבֵית יַעֲקֹב הַבָּאָה מִצְרַיְמָה שִׁבְעִים:

All the souls(נפש)  of Yaakov’s house that came to Egypt were 70.

The word that means “souls” is written in the singular to indicate that the 70 individuals comprise one soul, a single unit. Whereas Esav, and all other nations, because they do not combine to form a singular unit, they constitute rather a collection of individual pieces and are called “נפשות” in the plural.

The Ben Ish Chai (1835-1909) brings a beautiful story to illustrate this point.

A king had two advisors, one a fine, G-d fearing Jew, and the other a gentile. They both sinned against the king, but were too valuable to the king for him to punish them with death, so he needed to figure out a different way to punish them. As it turned out, they both had had baby boys at the same time, and the king decided to punish them by taking away their children from them for six years.

The Jewish father protested and said to the king, “What about kosher, my son needs to eat kosher!” The king said, “No problem, both children will get kosher food.” “What about his Jewish education?” asked the father again. “We are very careful to educate our children from when they are very young!” Once again, the king agreed to give both boys a Jewish education.

When the six-year sentence was over, the king called the fathers to come and get their children. The gentile father was prepared to take either of the two boys, since he no longer recognized his child, and to him it made no difference which boy he got. But the Jewish father wanted only his own son.

“How would you be able to tell which child is yours?” asked the king.

“Bring me two bowls of grapes,” said the father, “one with the grapes in a cluster, and one with the grapes loose in the bowl.”

When the grapes were brought, he offered both bowls to each child. One child took the loose grapes while the other took the grapes in the cluster.

“That’s my child!” said the father of the boy who took the cluster. “You are correct!” exclaimed the king, “but how could you tell from the grapes?”

He answered, “The Jewish people are considered like one soul. The verse says, ‘As 70נפש  (as one soul) our forefathers went down to Egypt.’ Therefore, we are compared to a cluster of grapes, which even though each grape is separate and different from the others, it is still connected through the cluster to which they are all attached. All Jews have the same roots and come from the same source, and are all connected to each other. My son, as a Jew, intuitively knew this, and that is why he took the bunch of grapes.”

This is one of the lessons that Yaakov wanted to teach his children. We are all part of the same family, and though we may each have a different role to play, we are one unit and need to work together with each other for the sake of the Jewish people.

There is another very important lesson inherent in the way that Yaakov blessed his sons.

Have you ever heard someone extol the virtues of a common friend and find yourself shrinking and feeling inadequate? For some reason, when we hear the virtues of others, we somehow interpret it to mean, “but I am not that good.” This is really not true. Another’s greatness does not diminish yours! You are also great, in your own way with your own talents and strengths. Yaakov wanted to teach his children, and us, that you can be present and hear the virtues of others and it should not affect your self-perception.

The Torah calls what Yaakov told his sons “blessings” (Genesis 49:28):

כח) כָּל אֵלֶּה שִׁבְטֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל שְׁנֵים עָשָׂר וְזֹאת אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר לָהֶם אֲבִיהֶם וַיְבָרֶךְ אוֹתָם אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר כְּבִרְכָתוֹ בֵּרַךְ אֹתָם

28) These are the 12 tribes of Israel- and this is what their father told to them and he blessed them; he blessed each according to his appropriate blessing.

This seems perplexing. Indeed, some of the brothers were criticized very severely. How could this be called a blessing?

We generally understand the word blessing to mean “a prayer or wish for something desired or needing to happen to the blessing’s recipient.” For example, someone who is sick and wants to feel better, may go to a Tzaddik (a perfectly righteous person) to receive a blessing for a speedy recovery. Similarly, a couple who is having difficulty conceiving a child will seek the blessing of a Tzaddik to have a child. Very often, if the recipient is worthy, the blessing of the Tzaddik will bear fruit, and the wish/prayer will become a reality.

The nature of the blessing that Yaakov gave to his sons was a blessing of a different sort. Each person is put on this world to accomplish a different mission. Hashem endows each person with the talents, skills, and tools necessary to fulfill his particular mission. Hashem also provides him enough time on this world to complete the task he was sent here to accomplish. No two people are the same, and no two people have the same mission in life. Yaakov, through prophesy, knew the blessings – the unique endowment of talents and skills that each of his sons had received- and how he was to use them to accomplish his mission in life. Yaakov’s blessing to his sons was to identify to each them their tool-bag of talents and endowments and how to use them in the service of Hashem.

Included in this was that Yaakov identified the particular challenges and obstacles that some of his sons had that could stand in the way of accomplishing their mission in life.

This is why, even though it doesn’t seem like Reuven or Shimon or Levi received blessings, in reality, by pointing out their shortcomings to them, Yaakov paved the way for them to succeed in the pursuit of their goals. Once they knew the obstacles that they needed to overcome to succeed at their life’s mission, they could begin their task.

Yet, what Yaakov really did goes much deeper than that. He took the negative trait and channeled it to where it would be a benefit instead of a deficit. We see this from Yaakov’s “blessing” to Shimon and Levi.

Shimon and Levi were a dynamic duo. They complemented each other so perfectly that together they could accomplish anything. Their skill and cunning were seen when the two of them killed the entire city of Shchem. They were also the ones who were behind the sale of Yosef. This is why Yosef imprisoned Shimon. He didn’t want him and Levi to have the opportunity to plot against him.

Separating them from one another, Yaakov decreed that tribe of Shimon would provide the Jewish nation with scribes and Torah teachers, requiring them to spread out to find jobs. Levi, whose employment would be in the holy temple, could not own real estate in the land of Israel and would need to receive their sustenance from the land owners’ tithes. So the Levites would live in the 42 cities specially designated for them and would also be spread out. This would prevent the two of them from ever getting together again.

Rabbi Kamenetzkyזצ”ל  asks a further question: How could Yaakov Avinu entrust the education of the Jewish children to Shimon who lacked in self-control? Shouldn’t this job be given to the holiest of the brothers! The future of the Jewish people lies in the children. The same applies to the tribe of Levi: How could they be the ones to work in the holy Temple? Together they were partners in crime!

The answer is that Yaakov Avinu recognized a sterling characteristic in these two men specifically essential to these two professions. Although Yaakov did not approve of killing the men in the city of Shchem, their motivation for having done it was commendable. When Yaakov reprimanded them for what they did, they responded, “Could we sit by idly when our sister was violated so?” In other words, they were unable to tolerate the travesty that was done to their sister. They felt compelled to act and could not allow it to go unavenged. That was their motivation. The other brothers were less bothered by what had happened and did not feel a need to react. This characteristic of tenaciously upholding justice and rejecting injustice is the precise quality needed for the person who is going to make his way to far flung places to teach Torah or write Sifrei Torah. To prevent illiteracy and a lack of holy writings in the Jewish nation, he will have to have a strong sense of justice and deep feelings of doing what is right for Hashem. Even in the face of difficulty, he will remain true to his mission.

Similarly, the tribe of Levi would be the guardians of the Holy Temple and its service. Their strong feelings for upholding what is right would be necessary to maintain the laws of holiness and purity in the holy temple.

So, while Yaakov Avinu reprimanded Shimon and Levi, simultaneously he took their weakness and channeled it to where it would be the essential source of their success in their holy service to Hashem in the form of Torah teachers, scribes, and servants in the Holy Temple.

Understanding the blessings this way, we see that Yaakov Avinu really gave his children the greatest possible blessing. He revealed to them their purpose in the world and how they were to use their unique characteristics to accomplish it. What greater blessing could one receive than to know his special traits and how he is to use them to accomplish his mission in the world.

There was yet another benefit from each of the brothers hearing each other’s’ blessings. In addition to seeing his own mission in life – crystal clear, he was also able to see the mission of the others clearly. This would keep him from encroaching on someone else’s mission. Each of the brothers would avoid crossing into the other’s territory, whose boundaries Yaakov had clearly set.

The Talmud (Pesachim 51a) relates what took place behind the scenes when Yaakov Avinu assembled his sons to bless them.

דאמר רבי שמעון בן לקיש: ויקרא יעקב אל בניו ויאמר האספו ואגידה לכם. ביקש יעקב לגלות לבניו קץ הימין ונסתלקה ממנו שכינה אמר שמא חס ושלום יש במטתי פסול כאברהם שיצא ממנו ישמעאל ואבי יצחק שיצא ממנו עשו. אמרו לו בניו: שמע ישראל ה’ אלהינו ה’ אחד. אמרו כשם שאין בלבך אלא אחד כך אין בלבנו אלא אחד באותה שעה פתח יעקב אבינו ואמר ברוך שם כבוד מלכותו לעולם ועד

Rabbi Shimon Ben Lakish said. Yaakov Avinu gathered his sons around him to reveal to them the events that would transpire at the “end of days”, and the Hashem’s prophecy left Yaakov. Yaakov Avinu became concerned. He suspected that perhaps the reason it left him was because one of his sons surrounding his bed was not worthy of hearing it. Avraham had Yishmael, and Yitzchak had Esav, so, maybe one of my sons is not completely righteous. At that moment his sons said: “Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad” They were speaking to their father Yisrael and they said, “Hear our father Yisrael, just like Hashem is One in your heart, so too, Hashem is One in our hearts.” Yaakov Avinu responded by saying, “Baruch Shem Kevod malchuto leolam vaed.” “Blessed is Hashem’s holy kingdom for all eternity.”

Yaakov assembled his sons around his bed in a specific order.  There were three on each side, and they were arranged in the order of their greatness, starting with Yehuda, Yissachar and Zevulun on the eastern side. Reuven, Shimon, and Gad were on the south, Ephraim, Menashe, and Binyamin on the west, and Dan, Asher, and Naftaly on the north. This was the configuration in which the brothers stood surrounding their father’s coffin as they escorted it to Chevron, for burial in the Mearat Hamachpela with Leah. This was also the configuration in which the tribes camped around the Tabernacle in the wilderness.

At this time, each son understood his place as an individual and his role as a part of the Jewish nation. Each was comfortable with his placement, and together with his brothers exclaimed, “Hashem is One in my heart, just like you, father!” There was no jealousy, no friction, just the entire Jewish nation pledging to work together for the common goal of serving Hashem and representing Hashem on this earth.

This is the moment to which aspire once again, when every Jewish person will understand his mission in life and, together with all his Jewish brothers, once again proclaim, “Yisrael, just as Hashem is One in your heart, so too Hashem is One in my heart.”

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