Rabbi Weinreb’s Torah Column, Parshas Vayechi

I live on the eastern seaboard of the United States, which was hit by a severe snowstorm last week. Most people find snowfall a nuisance. But for me, a snowfall is a chance to reflect on one of the Almighty’s greatest wonders, the little snowflake.

The snowflake, held under a magnifying glass, is an exquisitely intricate and beautiful creation. Furthermore, every snowflake is unique. No two snowflakes are alike.

The uniqueness of each snowflake is but one example of an amazing fact, which is true of the entire natural world. No two blades of grass are identical, no two leaves are exactly the same, and every individual member of every animal species is unique in some way.

This is true of human beings as well. None of us has the same fingerprint, and no matter how closely one of us might resemble another, we are different from the other in some respect.

The Talmud recognizes this when it comments that “just as no two faces are alike, so too, no two personalities are alike”. We are different from each other physically, psychologically, intellectually, spiritually, and in every other way.

Any person who has parented several children knows that each child is different from the get-go. Mothers tell me that even while still pregnant with their children, they were aware of the potential differences that unfolded later in life.

Woe to the teacher who treats all of his students alike. The so-called cookie cutter method of education is doomed to failure. Each of us has different learning styles and differing intellectual strengths and weaknesses. The secret of successful pedagogy lies in the recognition of individual differences, and in the ability of the teacher to be flexible enough to adapt his or her lessons to each individual and his or her learning needs.

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayechi, we find that our patriarch Jacob was well aware of this secret.

Jacob blesses the two sons of Joseph, and later proceeds to bless each one of his sons, the twelve tribes. Reading these blessings, we cannot help but notice how each one is fundamentally different and seems tailor-made to the character traits and emotional makeup of each tribe.

Jacob blesses one son with power and dominion; another with agricultural wealth. One is compared to a lion, one to a wolf, and yet another to a serpent.

Jacob knows his children and knows how diverse and heterogeneous his family is. He knows how to bless them with the particular resources that they will need as they march forward, with varying talents and dispositions, into their historical roles.

The Bible underscores this when it summarizes the entire episode of the blessings with the following words:

“All these were the tribes of Israel, twelve in number, and this is what their father said to them as he bade them farewell, addressing to each a blessing appropriate to him.” (Genesis 49:28) To each a different blessing, to each his own parting word.

The fact that each of us is uniquely gifted is a basic component of the thought of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the Chief Rabbi of the Land of Israel, who passed away more than 70 years ago, but whose written legacy keeps him very much alive.

Rav Kook insists that the very purpose of education is to help each person discover his or her own individuality, to learn what he or she can do best. Self-discovery, for Rav Kook, is the essence of the educational endeavor.

Rav Kook, besides being an educator, was also a mystic. From his mystical perspective, he views the world as being a unified whole, to which every individual is necessary, because each individual contributes something utterly unique to the cosmos.

Each snowflake is different from the other because the beauty of each snowflake is equally essential to nature’s beauty.

Each human being is unique because the contribution of every one of us is absolutely necessary for the accomplishment of humanity’s ultimate mission.

Like Jacob’s children, we all are uniquely blessed. Appreciating our uniqueness as that of every one of our fellow men is an essential component of Jewish spirituality.