This Shabbat in shul we declare CHAZAK!, CHAZAK! as we complete the book of Breishit. However, much more than leaving a tome, we bid farewell to characters with whom we have bonded over the ages. None of these characters looms larger than Ya’akov Avinu. We still call him Yisrael Saba, our ZEIDIE, and our Sages declare that he never died, even though he expired, was embalmed and buried. We just can’t bear to part with him. Oh, and he couldn’t bear to part with us, his children.
There are few scenes in the world’s literature as touching as the death bed scene in Chapter 49 of this week’s Torah reading. Ya’akov gathers his beloved sons around his death bed, and imparts wisdom to them all. What is the nature of this profound bequest? Well, that depends upon whom you ask.
Rashi quotes the famous Midrash that Ya’akov really wanted to reveal the final scene of Jewish destiny, and announce the time of Mashiach’s arrival. But the Divine Spirit (SHECHINA) departed from him and he lost that prophetic power. So, he, instead, gave these pithy declarations about each Tribe.
How did the Midrash conclude that there was a change in plans? Like many Midrashim, this exegesis is based upon an anomaly in the text. Initially, we’re told that Ya’akov told his sons ‘come together’ (HA’ASIFU) to ‘inform’ (AGIDA) them of the news of the ‘latter days’ (ACHARIT HAYOMIM). But the next verse seems to change the plans. Ya’akov says ‘assemble’ (HIKABTZU) and ‘listen’ (SHIMA’U). The change of language signals a change of plans.
The most accepted explanation for the next statements of Ya’akov is that these messages were Yisrael Saba blessing his sons, soon to be the tribes of Israel. By blessing, we mean the message each needed to hear. In our tradition, a blessing should be perfectly calibrated to the needs of the recipient. So, if it doesn’t seem like a ‘blessing’ to tell Shimon and Levi that ‘Cursed be their anger,,,for it is cruel’ (Breishit 49:6); it’s only because they have to hear that crucial message to move in the right direction. Levi did; Shimon didn’t. Blessings are what one must hear, not what you want to hear.
But the Ibn Ezra, who was a stickler for literalness, claims:
The way to understand this passage is as follows: and this (v. 3-27) is what their father spoke unto them by way of prophecy after which he blessed them. Scripture omits the blessings.
So, we’re talking predictions here, according to Reb Avraham Ibn Ezra. Ya’akov is telling them what is going to happen to their Tribes in the future. There does seem to be some correlation with what they are told and what happens to the Tribes later in Eretz Yisrael. Again, the odd man out is Levi, because his prediction has nothing about the Cohanim and Divine service in the Beit Hamikdash. That’s a gaping hole in the picture.
The Ma’or V’Shemesh tries to reconcile the prediction picture with the blessing scenario, by asking the following question: If the Shechina was removed from Ya’akov to prevent him from relating the final redemption details, what did Ya’akov not understand, that he wanted to reveal the information on eschatology but God disagreed? We’d like Yisrael Saba to be cognizant of these issues, and be on the same page as God.
So, the Rebbe explains that when Ya’akov saw all the future Tribes gathered before him, he thought, ‘This is the TIKUN (repair for all defincencies)! It’s time for Redemption, now!’ The brothers had been moving in different directions for decades, but now we’re all together and in loving synch with each other. They must have done TESHUVA GEMURA (complete spiritual makeover)! This must be the moment! But the Shechina departed from him, because the GE’ULA required the full Egyptian experience. The SHEVATIM were not yet ready for the TIKUN SHLEIMA, so, instead he taught each Tribe what it needed to know to bring about their particular role in the complete Redemption.
We’re really being taught the most important lesson of all: Jewish History and Destiny isn’t engraved in stone. The Jewish People will decide when the time is right or it will take place in some distant time.
This idea is actually a famous Talmudic passage: Rebbe Yehoshua ben Levi saw the MASHIACH in the marketplace, and asked him when he was coming. MASHIACH responded: Today! Then Rebbe Yehoshua asked Eliyahu HaNAVI, ‘But he didn’t come?!?’ Eliyahu answered, ‘He will come ‘Today’ if we all hearken to His voice’ (Tehillim 95:7). Then the Gemara brings a conflicting verse, ‘In its time I will do it swiftly’ (Yeshayahu 60:5). So, is it dependent on us or will it happen in its appointed time? The Gemara answers: if we deserve it, it comes immediately; if not, in its appointed time. (Sanhedrin 88a)
This is a very powerful idea: It is dependent on us!! The ‘us’, of course, is Klal Yisrael, the Jewish people. Rav Sacks Z”L spoke about this critically important idea:
We are free. We can choose…Some believe freedom is an illusion. But it isn’t. It’s what makes us human…Do not believe that the future is written. There is no fate we cannot change, no prediction we cannot defy…The Jewish people has been written off many times, but it remains, after almost four millennia, still young and strong. That is why, when Jacob wanted to tell his children what would happen to them in the future, the Divine spirit was taken away from him. Sustained by the blessings of God, we can become greater than anyone, even ourselves, could foresee.
This explanation helps us to understand the change of language back in the first two verses of chapter 49. Initially, Ya’akov believed that the boys were ready for Redemption. So, he was going to inform them of the GEULA. However, by the next verse he had changed his mind or the SHECHINA changed it for him. Then he directs them to more actively join together (HIKABTZU), and he declares that he is giving them instructions to be acted upon, not good news. The verb SHIMA’U demands action on the part of the listener. He moved from giving them news to giving them directives, because there was still a lot of work that had to be done before the GEULA.
It wasn’t what they wanted to hear; it was what they had to hear. We’re in the midst of a difficult struggle for the future of our beloved Medina. There is a lot of work and effort that must be done before we emerge from this dark place. But the good news, as told to us by our beloved Saba, Ya’akov, is that our destiny is in our hands.
God, give those hands the strength and guide our efforts! Amen! And thank You!