Two Wrongs Making a Right

And Yaakov called to his sons and he said: Gather yourselves and I will tell you that which will occur to you in the end of days. (Sefer Beresheit 49:1)

All of these are the tribes of Israel. They are twelve.  This is that which their father told them.  And he blessed them.  Each, according to his blessing, he blessed them.  (Sefer Beresheit 49:28)

Yaakov presents final messages to his sons

In the previous portions, the Torah’s narrative focused on Yosef and his brothers.  Yaakov receded into the background.  In Parshat VaYeche, the focus returns to Yaakov.  The parasha deals with Yaakov’s last days and his death.  Included in this material is a description of Yaakov’s final words to his children.  What was the message, meaning, and purpose of this final communication?

The commentators present a number of perspectives on this issue.  These different views are centered on an obvious difficulty in the material.  Yaakov describes to his children their various destinies.  In some instances, he describes a beautiful – even covetable – future.  Yehudah is told that the leaders of the nation will descend from him.  Asher’s descendants will receive a very fertile and luxuriant portion in the Land of Israel.  His descendants will provision the table of the king with the exquisite produce of their fields.  However, his messages to some of his children are neutral.  They describe a destiny that is not at all remarkable.  Other children receive messages of condemnation.

Let us consider three examples.  Yissachar is compared to a thick-boned donkey, who bears a heavy load.   Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra explains that Yaakov is telling Yissachar that his descendants will receive a portion of the land that they will cherish.  They will be deeply attached to their portion and like a stubborn donkey resist any forces that threaten to detach them from their portion. They will be willing to endure heavy burdens – akin to the load placed upon the back of a donkey – in order to remain upon their beloved land.  They will willingly pay exorbitant tributes to other nations to save themselves from exile and not be separated from their legacy.[1]  This is a vision of the future.  It is neither a blessing or a rebuke.

Reuven, Shimon, and Leyve are rebuked.  Reuven is criticized for his impulsiveness.[2]  He is told that he is not fit to be the leader.  He and his descendants will not be the rulers of the nation.  Shimon and Leyve are criticized for their rashness and anger.  Rashi explains that Yaakov is rebuking them for their behaviors on two occasions.  They executed the people of Shechem in response to the abduction of their sister Dinah.  They were the leaders among the brothers in their belligerent treatment of Yosef.[3]  Yaakov curses their anger and tells them that they will be dispersed among the tribes of Israel.[4]

Some of Yaakov’s messages are not blessings

The problem with this material is that the Torah concludes this portion of its narrative with the second of the above passages.   It describes Yaakov as blessing each of his children.  How can that description be reconciled with the diverse character of the material communicated to his various sons?  Some of these messages can appropriately be described as blessings.  However, this description does not seem to apply to others.  Some of the messages seem to be more appropriately described as curses!  The following discussion focuses on this question.

Ibn Ezra and Rashi:  All or some of the blessings are not recorded

Let us consider some of the responses.  The response that is perhaps the simplest is provided by Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra.  He explains that the messages the Torah records are not the blessings that Yaakov conferred upon his children.  These blessing are not recorded. The material that is transmitted by the Torah is a prophecy of the future.  Yaakov is relating to each of his sons a vision of the destiny of his descendants.  In some instances, this vision is positive.  In some instances, the vision is neutral.  In the cases of Reuven, Shimon, and Leyve, Yaakov shares a vision that is unpleasant.[5],[6]

Rashi suggests a similar solution.  He explains that each son received a blessing from Yaakov.  In some instances, the Torah tells us that blessing.  In other instances, the Torah does not share with us the blessing.  In the cases of Reuven, Shimon, and Leyve, the blessings that each received is not described.  The Torah reveals only Yaakov’s rebuke.[7]

Gershonides:  Yaakov’s messages were his blessings

Gershonides offers a fascinating response to the problem.  He asserts that the blessing received by each son is the message imparted by Yaakov.  Even the messages communicated to Reuven, Shimon, and Leyve are blessings.  He explains that there are two elements of blessing in these negative messages.  First, one who knows the future can prepare and adapt to it.  For example, Reuven benefits from being foretold that his descendants will not be the future leaders of the nation.  His descendants can now reconcile themselves, in advance, to this destiny.  Second, knowing one’s failings or limitations is a blessing.  By being aware of strengths and weaknesses, we have the opportunity to best adapt our lives to these traits.[8]  For example, Shimon and Leyve are told that they are quick to anger.  This knowledge encourages them to think carefully before acting upon their impulses.  When tempted to respond passionately to a challenge, they recognize that their tendency toward anger may be influencing their judgement rather than proper ethics and objective assessment.[9],[10]

Malbim: Yaakov blessings were directed toward the nation of Israel

A very insightful response is suggested by a comment of Malbim.  Malbim is concerned with another issue.  He notes that the Torah uses strange phrasing to tell us that Yaakov bestowed a blessing upon each of his sons.  In the second passage above, the Torah says, “And he blessed them. Each, according to his blessing, he blessed them.”  Malbim notes that the word each is singular.  Therefore, the object of the blessing should be described with the singular him rather that the plural them.  In other words, it would be more proper to say that “Each, according to his blessing, he blessed him.”[11]  He responds that each son received his own unique blessing; however, each blessing contributed to the overall welfare and excellence of the nation.  He describes Bnai Yisrael as a tree and the various tribes as its branches.  Each branch differs from the others and each contributes to the beauty and perfection of the entirety of the tree.  The message of the Torah is that these blessings were bestowed upon their particular recipients as blessings upon all of them – the entire nation.  Each blessing was bestowed upon a specific son as a member of and contributor to the entirety of the Bnai Yisrael.[12]

Malbim’s insight provides a solution to our problem.  This solution has two aspects.  First, his insight suggests that in evaluating Yaakov’s messages to his sons, we must consider these messages in the context of the nation.  In other words, each was a blessing when considered from the perspective of the interests of the nation.  For example, Reuven is stripped of leadership.  From Reuven’s personal perspective, this might seem a severe punishment.  However, in the context of Reuven as a member of the nation it is a blessing.  Reuven will be a poor leader.  His impulsiveness will undermine his leadership abilities.  However, as a member of the nation he will contribute his talents, insight and wisdom.

Second, according to Malbim, the object of each blessing is not the son upon whom it is bestowed.  Its object is the entire nation.  Therefore, traits that are condemned in the individual, are assets within the mixture of talents and traits that combined to create the nation.  Malbim illustrates this in his discussion of Leyve.  He explains that Yaakov condemns Leyve’s anger as a personal character trait.  However, the dispersion of the tribe of Leyve throughout the nation is a blessing for Bnai Yisrael.  Leyve’s tendency toward anger can be positive. [13]  When others might be passive of overly forbearing, Leyve will urge action and aggression.  These conflicting perspectives will balance one another and encourage the most reasonable and effective response.  In other words, anger is similar to a spice.  It is not pleasant when eaten alone.  However, when properly added to a dish, it enhances it.  A little of the tribe of Leyve within each of the other tribes strengthens the nation.[14]

Creating community from diversity

In summary, according to Malbim, the objective of the blessings is to create a nation out of disparate components and personalities.  The weakness of an individual can be a strength to the nation.  In the individual the weakness is not moderated by other elements of the person’s personality.  Instead, the weakness dominates and undermines the person.  In the nation, this individual’s shortcoming combines with the traits and attitudes contributed by other members of the nation to create a wholesome entirety.[15]

Malbim presents his insight in regards to the nation of Bnai Yisrael.  But it is equally applicable to a community.  Generally, a community’s strength is not derived from pervasive perfection among its members.  Few communities can be described as collectives of the purely righteous, sacred, and just.  Communities are composed of many individuals.  Each brings to the community strengths and failings.  However, Malbim’s point is that even those characteristics that are failings in the individual may be assets within the community.  His comments encourage us to respect the diversity within our peers and to recognize that each of us has the capacity to contribute to the overall welfare of our communities.

[1] Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 49:14.

[2] The incident in which this impulsiveness manifested itself is very briefly described by the Chumash in Parshat VaYishlach (Sefer Beresheit 35:22).  It explains that Reuven slept with Bilhah, one of Yaakov’s wives.  The Talmud explains that the statement should not be understood literally.  It is an allusion to a complicated incident.

After the death of Rachel, Yaakov moved his bed into the tent of Bilhah.  Bilhah had been Rachel’s maidservant.  Rachel had given her to Yaakov as a wife.  Reuven felt that this preference for Bilhah degraded his mother, Leyah.  He decided to unilaterally correct the situation.  He moved Yaakov’s bed into Leyah’s tent (Mesechet Shabbat 55b).  Other commentators propose alternative motivations for Reuven’s action.  Some provide completely different explanations of the incident.

[3] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 49:6.

[4] The tribe of Leyve did not receive a portion in the Land of Israel.  Instead, it received cities within the portions of the other tribes. This dispersed the members of the tribe throughout the nation.  The tribe of Shimon also did not receive a portion on par with those of the other tribes.  Its portion was composed of cities within the portion of the tribe of Yehudah.  This arrangement dispersed the members of the tribe of Shimon among the members of the tribe of Yehudah.

[5] The consensus among the commentaries is that Yaakov is describing a vision of the future of the nation.  However, they differ regarding the point in time that is captured in this vision.  Nachmanides asserts that Yaakov is describing his prophetic vision of the Messianic era.  RaDaK suggests that Yaakov’s visions would be fulfilled at various times.  Some will be fulfilled in the near future, others in the more distant future, and some only in the Messianic era.  Ibn Ezra, seems to maintain that these visions would be fulfilled at different times but assumes that generally, they had been fulfilled before his lifetime (See Ibn Ezra 49:19).

[6] The difficulty with Ibn Ezra’s position is that the Torah notes that Yaakov blessed each son but does not provide descriptions of these blessings. It seems odd that the Torah shares the content of the visions but not of these blessings.

[7] Rashi’s position is not fully developed in his comments.  The above is Siftai Chachamim’s interpretation of these comments.  Gevurat Aryeh suggests that according to Rashi, the blessing given to each individual tribe also extends to all of the other tribes.  The tribe upon whom the blessing is bestowed differs from the others only in the extent to which the characteristic will be expressed within it (See Rashi 29:28).  In other words, all tribes receive the blessing of leadership.  However, the characteristic of strong leadership will be most pronounced within the tribe of Yehudah.  The interpretation of Siftai Chachamim exposes Rashi’s response to the same criticism to which Ibn Ezra’s is subject.

[8] Rabbaynu Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag / Gershonides), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 49:28.

[9] See Rashbam 49:28. This may explain his comments.  He may be adopting the position of Gershonides.

[10] The difficulty with Gershonides’ explanation is that it interprets the term “blessing” very loosely.  Blessings are generally associated with abundance.  Bestowing a blessing is to foretell/promise/pray for some expression of abundance – for example, fertile lands, great wealth, or unusual wisdom. The “blessings” given to some of the sons do not have this characteristic.  (See Ibn Ezra Beresheit 2:8)

[11] Rashi describes this problem and offers his own response.  Ibn Ezra seems dismissive of the problem.

[12] Rav Meir Leibush ben Yechiel Michel (Malbim), HaTorah VeHaMitzvah – Commentary on Sefer Bereshiet, 49:28.

[13] Rav Meir Leibush ben Yechiel Michel (Malbim), HaTorah VeHaMitzvah – Commentary on Sefer Bereshiet, 49:7.

[14] Malbim does not discuss the benefit of dispersing the tribe of Shimon within the tribe of Yehudah.  However, it is interesting that Shimon is dispersed within the tribe that will provide leadership.  A leader bears enormous responsibility. The temptation to make the conservative and “safe” choice can lead to eventual disastrous outcomes.  Shimon’s aggression provides a much needed alternative perspective to the overly-cautious leader.

[15] This understanding of the blessings is also developed by Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik.  See Chumash Mesorat HaRav, Sefer Berseheit, 49:28.