The understated alteration – entitled gratitude, learning vs. earning, and Parshat Vayechi

This week’s parsha, which mainly focuses on our forefather Yaakov’s final request and blessings to his children before he passes away, contains several confusing stories. First, Yaakov makes two independent requests of Yosef to buried in Canaan, and then asks his other sons the same. Then, he does something even more peculiar when Yosef presents Menashe and Efraim for a blessing- he switches his hands, putting his stronger (right) hand on the younger son, and his weaker one on the older son. With all of the excitement surrounding this big switch, very little attention is paid to another switch that happens a little bit further on in Yaakov’s final blessings.

Yaakov, giving an itemized blessing to each of his sons in age order, says:

זְבוּלֻן לְחוֹף יַמִּים יִשְׁכֹּן וְהוּא לְחוֹף אֳנִיּוֹת וְיַרְכָתוֹ עַל צִידֹן.
יִשָּׂשכָר חֲמֹר גָּרֶם רֹבֵץ בֵּין הַמִּשְׁפְּתָיִם. וַיַּרְא מְנֻחָה כִּי טוֹב וְאֶת הָאָרֶץ כִּי נָעֵמָה וַיֵּט שִׁכְמוֹ לִסְבֹּל וַיְהִי לְמַס עֹבֵד

Zevulun will dwell by the sea shores, and he shall be a shore for ships, and his border will be at Zidon.
Yissachar is a strong-boned donkey, resting between the boundaries. For he saw that rest was good, and the land that it was pleasant; yet he bowed his shoulder to bear, and became an indentured worker. (בראשית מט:יג-טו)

Pretty straightforward; Yaakov blesses Zevulun for success in his overseas business ventures, and Yissachar in his less worldly endeavors. But, for those of us paying attention, something seems oddly wrong; Yissachar, the fifth son of our Leah, should naturally go before his younger brother Zevulun. Why does the Torah switch them around, putting the younger before the elder?

Furthermore, if we look much further in the Torah, at Moshe’s final blessings to the Jewish people before his death, we see that the same “mix up” has been made, a second time:

וְלִזְבוּלֻן אָמַר, שְׂמַח זְבוּלֻן בְּצֵאתֶךָ; וְיִשָּׂשכָר, בְּאֹהָלֶיךָ.
And to Zevulun he said: Rejoice, Zevulun, in your going out, and Yissachar in your tents. (דברים לג:יח)

How could both Yaakov and Moshe, two of the greatest visionaries of Judaism, make this same mistake? There must be a deeper meaning to this change.

Before answering this question, I would like to remind everyone of a well-known Midrashic teaching on the section. The Midrash learns from the juxtaposition of Yissachar and Zevulun, that Zevulun’s ship-faring and Yissachar’s settling are actually a partnership- Yissachar and his descendants, following the example of Yaakov, settled and dedicated their time to learning Torah. Zevulun and his descendants would engage in business and trade, and would support their older brother and family in exchange for a portion of the merit from the Torah learned. This deep Midrash had become very popularly adopted as of late, and in the Torah-observant world, it is very common to find such a “Yissachar-Zevulun” partnership, where a wealthy man will support a young kollel family in exchange for a part in the Torah learning.

With this in mind, our question has taken on a new strength. In a world of “learners” and “workers,” one would expect the “learner” to be listed before the “earner,” especially since the blessings were going in age order- How can we possibly explain the switching of Yissachar and Zevulun?

Rav Yitzchak Karo, author of the Toldot Yitzchak commentary and rebbe and uncle of Rav Yosef Karo (author of the authoritative  Shulchan Aruch and Bet Yosef works), presents a unique approach. He writes:

זבולון לחוף ימים. ראוי היה שיקדים ליששכר שנולד ראשונה, והקדים לזבולון לומר שהמחזיק יד לומדי תורה יש לו שכר יותר מהלומד.
Zevulun at the sea shore. It is fitting that [Zevulun] was placed before Yissachar who was born first, and should, theoretically be listed first, because the one who supports those who learn Torah has a greater merit than those who learn themselves. (תולדות יצחק שם)

Whoa! According to Rav Karo, the Midrash had it all wrong. We would think that the “Yissachar” of the partnership, the one who is constantly toiling in Torah, would have the greater merit in the relationship. But, no, it’s the “Zevulun” of the partnership who is greater, for he enables the “Yissachar” to learn. If we think about it, this does kind of make sense; the earners of the world, who put a lot of hard work into earning a living and being involved in Torah on the side, are put into a difficult situation when they make a deal with a learner- they need to give up something tangible, something that they worked very hard for, in exchange for something something quite intangible, all the time supporting a family that seemingly doesn’t even try to support itself. In the merit of this great faith, the earner ends up earning more merit than his partner, who absolves himself of all worldly matters to pursue the study of Torah.

My Rav at Machon Lev, Rav Menachem Akerman, is fond of reminding us in shiur of a well-known teaching; that almost every aspect of the world can be expressed in the form of a relationship. In any relationship, there is naturally one who gives more (“the giver”) and one who receives more (“the receiver”).  The challenge is to recognize who’s the giver and who’s the receiver, for a relationship cannot work if both parties consider themselves givers or takers. Only through this recognition can a healthy relationship exist, whether between spouses, friends, enemies, workers, or any other kind of connection.

This idea is especially apt when applied to the religious relationship described by the Midrash, between the “learner” and “earner” brothers.No relationship has the potential to be closer than the Yissachar-Zevulun one, but it can only succeed if we remember who is the giver and who is the receiver. In the world to come, the Yissachar will be the giver and the Zevulun the taker, but for now, Zevulun seems to be doing all of the giving and very little taking, so it behooves Yissachar to remember this and act accordingly. This is the message of Zevulun and Yissachar’s switch of order in the passuk, according to the Todlot Yitzchak, and it’s an important lesson to us as well.

While I do not wish to discuss whether the Yissachar or Zevulun lifestyle is more appropriate (though, we can’t forget that 99% of the creators of the Talmud both earned a living and also managed to be the greatest Rabbis of their generation), I would like to discuss an important issue of kavod habri’ot (self-respect) which is very connected to this issue. John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the thirty fifth President of the United States of America, is famously quoted as saying “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.” President Kennedy’s words, a good lesson for all of us, are especially fitting given a recent trend in the Hareidi world of protesting anything and everything done by the Israeli government that slights them. Last year, there was a seriously disproportionate response to the “sharing the [military] burden” initiative by MK Yair Lapid, and more recently, there have been widespread protests by the Hareidi world on the imprisonment of a draft dodger. In the process, hurtful things, like “Torah haters” and “medina shel goyim (State of gentiles),” were used. What those protesters seem to have forgotten, however, is that not only is the State of Israel none of the above, but for over 50% of the Hareidi world, they are actually the Zevulun to their Yissachar. The Israeli government, the “medina shel goyim,” funds Hareidi schools and yeshivot who refuse to comply with its most basic curiculum requirements. The Israeli government pays stipends to the Hareidi population for each of their numerous children, and also pays for their medical insurance, bituach le’umi (social security), even while very few of these families pay anything back in taxes. Yet, many of these people have the chutzpah to get up and protest the very government that supports them, when said government has to enforce its own laws of imprisoning draft-dodgers, and has to cut back funding on Hareidi institutes as it does the same to non-Hareidi ones. What is left is a pattern of self-entitlement and grudges- “We are supporting the world with our Torah studies,” they say, “We are defending Israel with our war on the ‘spiritual front.'” To this, I remind everyone of our idea above; in the world to come, things will be different, but for now, it is clear that the Zevulun’s of Israel, the Israeli government, are “the givers,” and the Yissachar’s, the Hareidi world, are “the takers.” The best course of action for them is to remember who both Yaakov and Moshe put first in their blessings, take the advice of the deceased American president, and say the two hardest expressions in the English language for anyone to say: “I’m sorry” and “Thank you.” Only through this can we ever hope to make peace amongst ourselves.

About the Author
Born and raised in Teaneck NJ, Tzvi Silver moved to Israel in 2012 after catching aliyah fever while learning abroad. Tzvi is now pursuing a degree in Engineering from the Jerusalem College of Technology, and works on the side as a contributor for local newspapers in the New York Area. Tzvi's interests include learning Torah, rabble-rousing, and finding creative ways of mixing the two.
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