Yaakov was about to die and he called his sons to gather around him and he would tell them: אֵת אֲשֶׁר־יִקְרָא אֶתְכֶם בְּאַחֲרִית הַיָּמִים, “…what will befall you in the end of days.” (Gen. 49,1) Rashi, based on the Midrash, explains that he was going to reveal to them when the Galut would end but the Divine Presence deserted him. Many commentaries discuss why Hashem did not want Yaakov to reveal the end.
The Malbim offers a very interesting parable to understand the reason. In his days travel was very difficult. A business man travelled with his son from Poland to Vienna to do business there. The usual way of travel then was by horse and wagon. Soon after starting the journey the son asked his father if the distance to Vienna is far. His father looked at him with a smile and an expression that the question was not reasonable.
After a few weeks the son heard his father asked the driver of the wagon if they were still far from their destination. The son looked at his father and inquired why when he asked the same question his father made him feel foolish. His father replied that it is true that they both asked the same question but the difference was in time. The son asked when they were still thousands of miles away. The father asked when they were coming close.
When Yaakov wanted to reveal the end of the Galut it was far away. Had he revealed the time he would have discouraged his family for they were yet to endure bondage and other deprivations.
We are fortunate in our time that we are living in a time nearing the end of our present Galut. We still don’t know how long it will take but we can start acting like it is coming close. The sooner all Jews make Aliya and return to the ways of Hashem, the sooner the end of Galut will be upon us.
After Yaakov died and was brought back to the Promised Land for burial, the family returned to Egypt. The Torah then says: וַיִּרְאוּ אֲחֵי יוֹסֵף כִּי מֵת אֲבִיהֶם, “Yosef’s brothers saw that their father had died…”. (Gen. 50,15) Were Yosef’s brothers the only ones who realized that their father had died? Did not Yosef also know?
If we recall the difference in the lives of Yosef and his brothers we may understand this verse. The brothers had always lived in the presence of their father. There was never a time when they were separated. Now that their father was gone it was difficult for them to keep his memory alive.
Yosef, on the other hand had only been in the presence of his father thirty four years. He was sold into slavery when he was seventeen and Yaakov lived in Egypt seventeen years. All the years that Yosef was separated from his father he kept his father alive in his memory and never forgot his upbringing and his father’s teachings.
Now that his father was gone, Yosef was able to live up to the saying of Chazal: יעקב אבינו לא מת, “our father Yaakov did not die”. (Tan. 5b) As long as the memory of Yaakov was still important for his children, it is as if he was still alive. Most of his life, Yosef had to keep the memory of his father with him.
In today’s Portion Yaakov blesses his sons before his demise. When he concludes the Beracha, the Torah states that: “…he blessed them, every man according to his blessing” בֵּרַךְ אֹתָם, “he blessed them.” (Gen. 49,28) Rashi questions the wording “he blessed them”. It would be more appropriate to say, “every man according to his blessing he blessed ‘him’.”
Rashi answers his question by saying that all the blessings he gave to individuals also applied to the other brothers. He blessed them personally and all of them collectively.
There is a highly significant meaning in these words. Each of the brothers had individual traits and were blessed accordingly. However, as a family, they shared their characteristics and qualities with each other.
This feature is true about the Jewish people as a whole. Jews have diverse thoughts and distinctiveness. They act differently, they dress differently, but they constitute one people. Each one has to recognize that his fellow Jew, while possessing distinct qualities, is still part of the total Jewish people.
Of Yosef’s two sons, Menashe was the eldest and Ephraim the youngest. Yet when Yaakov blessed them he gave the blessing of the Bechor to Ephraim and not to Menashe. Re’uven was Yaakov’s Bechor and when Yaakov blessed his own children he should have given the priesthood and kingship of the Jewish people to him. Yet he does not. He gave it to Levi and Yehudah instead.
Yaakov, who was the youngest son of Yitzchak, took the blessings of the Bechor from his father instead of Esav who was the real Bechor. At a much later date we find Hashem gives the leadership of the Jewish people to Moshe and not to the Bechor Aharon. Centuries later, David is proclaimed king of Israel and he was the youngest of Yishai’s children.
We see this pattern throughout the Tanach. The Bechor plays an important role in Judaism. When children inherit their father, the Torah prescribes that the Bechor gets a double portion. The Bechor is also given preference over his brothers in Jewish law when it comes to inherit the position of the role his father held in the community.
Yet we see from Yaakov’s actions, and from the other examples mentioned above, that this privilege is not automatic. It must be earned and the Bechor must be capable of properly fulfilling the functions this position requires. Not every Bechor is worthy of this privilege. Not every Bechor has the talent and the capacity to fulfill the responsibilities and obligations of this position.
Yaakov is blessing Yosef’s sons and we see a striking similarity with the blessing his father gave him. We find an elderly father and an elderly grandfather giving a blessing to their offspring. Both have difficulty seeing. (Gen. 27,1; 48,10) In both cases the blessings are preceded with a kiss. (Gen. 27,27; 48,10)
In both narratives there is a person who attempts to change the blessing from the intended one to his brother. Rivka succeeds in getting the blessing intended for Esav to go to Yaakov. Yosef, on the other hand, tries to have his father give the blessing to Menashe the elder brother but fails and Yaakov insists on giving it to the younger one. In both occasions the blessing goes to the younger brother.
What is evident from these two episodes is that the eldest child does not necessarily gain privileges automatically. Yes, he has some benefits because of age, but the real blessings are not his without earning them. Every individual has a mission in life. Everyone’s function is different. Everyone has his own abilities and his own talent. He must strive to attain his mission and earn his privileges. His blessings will come to him when he succeeds.
Yaakov is blessing his children and when he comes to Yehudah he says: LO YASOOR SHEVET MIHUDA, “The scepter shall not depart from Yehudah…” (Gen. 49,10) The Hebrew word for “scepter” is SHEVET. This word has another meaning. It is also used to refer to a tribe. Similarly, the Hebrew word MATEH means staff and also means tribe. (See Num. 18,2 where both words are used in the same verse to refer to tribe.)
A Rabbi once gave a fascinating interpretation to this blessing of Yehudah by Yaakov. He said that since the Jewish people were exiled from their land the distinction between tribes was lost. No longer do we recognize to what tribe we belong. The only exceptions are the Kohanim and Levites who know they stem from the tribe of Levy.
For centuries we have been called Jews which is a derivative of the name Judah. All of us are identified with the tribe of Judah. This, in effect, is the blessing the Yaakov gave his son Yehudah. He blessed him that the name of the tribe of Yehudah will never disappear. To this day the tribe of Yehudah still exists.
After Yosef and his brothers buried Yaakov in Me’arat Hamachpelah they all returned to Egypt. Suddenly Yosef’s brothers feared that now that Yaakov was no longer alive, Yosef will take revenge upon them for selling him as a slave. They, therefore, approached him and told him that their father had instructed them to go to Yosef and tell him that he was to forgive them for what they had done to him.
According to the Midrash Tanchuma (at the very end of Bereishit) what brought on this fear was the fact that when returning from the burial Yosef took a detour and went to visit the pit into which his brothers had cast him. He had gone to make the Berachah one recites at a place where a miracle happened to him. The brothers thought he went there to rekindle his anger against them.
The difference in approach that Yosef and his brothers had to the same place is very striking. Normally a person would fear to return to a site where he suffered a great calamity. Yosef’s approach was not of fear but of thankfulness to Hashem. What could have been a great disaster ended up a great advantage. Yosef thus went to thank Hashem at that spot.
For the brothers this pit represented an evil act on their part. They were afraid to revisit the site. They could not understand Yosef’s willingness and eagerness to return there. They came to the conclusion that he was gathering strength to punish them for their deed.
In blessing Yosef’s sons Yaakov adds the words VEYIKAREH BAHEM SHEMI VESHEM AVOTAI AVRAHAM VEYITZCHAK, “…and let my name be declared upon them and the names of my fathers Avraham and Yitzchak…”. (Gen. 48,16) He was blessing Yosef’s sons. Why was it necessary to mention the name of his grandfather and the name of his father?
We must remember who Josef’s sons were. They were men who grew up in Egypt and specifically in a royal household. Their acquaintances were certainly Egyptian dignitaries. Much of their thinking must have been influenced by Egyptian culture although Josef certainly raised them with Jewish ideals and practices.
This is what concerned Yaakov. He wanted to make sure that these two grandchildren who grew up in Galut and studied Egyptian mores and traditions would not be swayed away from Jewish conviction and faith. To assure this he emphasized the importance of having Jewish names. This he did by invoking the names of his predecessors, Avraham and Yitzchak.
Yaakov realized that when Jews retain their Jewish names they will also retain their Jewish way of life. The name is a shield against the outside influences that have a powerful attraction to draw one away from his Jewish roots.
We all know the story of how Yosef’s brothers sold him into slavery. Yet in the Torah we never are given any hint as to whether Yaakov ever found out what really happened to him. Did he always believe that Yosef was lost in the Wilderness?
We are told that when Yaakov became ill VAYOMER LEYOSEF HINEH AVICHA CHOLEH, “… someone told Yosef. ‘Behold your father is ill’…”. (Gen. 48,1) Isn’t strange that someone had to come tell Yosef about his father’s health? Did he not visit him often enough to be able to notice his health? This is a question about which the Midrash ponders and tells us that, indeed, Yosef did not visit his father often. He did not want to be alone with him so that he would not have to tell him what his brothers did to him.
Yosef was afraid that if he told his father the truth, Yaakov would have cursed his brothers and that would have disrupted the entire family. He was so intent on keeping the family together that he never told his father what happened and he himself never took revenge on his brothers for what they did to him. Peace within the family is very important and we should be ready to overlook any injustice we feel has been done us and even if we have been truly wronged. Family is the greatest possession we have.
Yaakov is about to depart this world and he blesses his children and grandchildren. To Ephraim and Menasha he says: “…by you shall Israel bless saying, ‘may Hashem make you like Ephraim and like Menasha’”, YESIMCHA ELOKIM KE’EFRAIM VECHIMENASHE.(Gen. 48,20)
It is strange that of all the people Yaakov could have picked as models for future generations he picked these two. Why did he not pick Avraham or Yitzchak? Why did he not pick Yosef or Yehuda or one of the other tribes? Why specifically these two?
He purposely picked Ephraim and Menasha because they both grew up in a non-Jewish environment. They lived in Egypt surrounded by the Egyptian culture and having no other Jewish individuals with whom to associate. Surely Yosef created a Jewish home for them, but once they went out of the home they were surrounded by Galut and a hostile environment.
Yaakov knew that Jews would not always be in a Jewish context. He knew that they would have to confront the greater world with its hostility and hatred to Jews. He knew that these two grandchildren faced these very same problems and were able to overcome them and maintain their Jewish beliefs. This, he prayed, would be true for his descendants. Every father blesses his children Friday night with the same hope and prayer that they should be as successful as Yaakov’s grandchildren were in facing the outside world.
Yosef’s brothers hated him for no real reason and as a result Yosef ended up in Egypt and later his entire family came down to live there. This was the first Galut that our Jewish people had to endure. It all resulted from SIN’AT CHINAM, “ unnecessary hatred”.
Chazal tell us that the Bet Hamikdash was destroyed because of SIN’AT CHINAM, because the Jewish people living at the time could not get along with each other. The result was that again the Jewish people ended up in Galut. When Jews cannot get along with each other, the result is devastating.
Yaakov, in Egypt, already foresaw this. Before his death he called all his children together and one of the things he said to them was: HE’ASFU VE’AGIDA LACHEM, “gather together and I will tell you what will happen in the days to come.” (Gen. 49:1) This is what Yaakov was explaining to his sons. Gather together; do not act like strangers to each other. Do not show hatred. That can only lead to hardships, to Galut, to disaster for the Jewish people.
In our times today, this message is very important. Israel is faced by deadly enemies bent on destroying the country. The world has united against Israel and can’t find to see anything right in what Israel does. If it does one thing it is criticized and if it does the opposite it is again criticized. At least the Jews themselves have to be united. Without internal unity we cannot expect the world to act any better.
Yakov blesses his sons before he dies. The Torah says after he concludes with the Berachot, “…he blessed each according to his appropriate blessing.” (Gen. 49:28) What is the meaning of this phrase? Naturally each son got his own blessing.
What value would a blessing be to a big Talmid Chacham if you said to him, “be successful in your business”? What value would a blessing to a businessman be who never studied Torah if you said, “you should succeed in your learning”? Every individual has his own interests and if you want to wish him well you have to bless him according to what has meaning to him.
Yakov recognized that his sons were all different. Everyone had his own personality and each one of them had his own skills and abilities. This is what the Torah means. He blessed them each according to his own needs and his own unique talents. Together they all made up the Bnei Yisrael.
For us too this has meaning. Each and every one of us has different capabilities and each has different aspirations. We should not be discouraged if we cannot do what someone else can. We should develop our own skills. Together, all of us, each with his own contribution, make up our family, our people and the world in general.