Highlights of Ya’akov’s Final Charge to His Sons

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Akeydat Yitzhak, Sha’ar Thirty-Three, Part Two

Back to Ya’akov and His Sons

Both of the ideas we saw last time, the personal and national aspects of life, were on Ya’akov’s mind when he gathered his sons. He planned and was allowed to tell each son what would happen to him over time, the course of his overall destiny, the characteristics of the tribe he would found. The national messages, of trials and eventual redemption, had to be hidden, for the reasons of freewill we saw last time.

Rather than suspect them of some lack, R. Arama thinks Ya’akov understood what had happened and sought to convince his sons to hew assiduously to Gd’s service, as his father and grandfather had, because Gd had promised them—such as when Gd said to Avraham, walk before me and be whole, Bereshit 17;1—they could avoid the worst of their troubles with determined focus on Gd’s service. Now aware knowledge of the future was unnecessary and even damaging, Ya’akov understood ignorance can sometimes be better than supposed wisdom [I think a knock on philosophy and/or excessive concern with intellectualism, as we see Ya’akov was taught certain kinds of knowledge are damaging rather than helpful.]

The sons—stuck in the “all knowledge is always good” paradigm—thought Ya’akov was changing the subject because he saw some failing in them [as Rambam thought Ya’akov assumed]. They said Shema to tell him they were whole in their faith, were worthy of what he had wanted to tell them; he responded barukh Shem, blessing the honored Name, to make clear it wasn’t about worthiness, that as long as they could stay true to their faith, it would all work out well, even without access to the ideas he originally thought to share.

That’s the end of his thematic comments. Before we turn to those of his verse by verse comments I found most stimulating, I emphasize the message I think he was sending his listeners: redemption will come at an unknown time, but we have the freewill to hasten it, and do not need some great intellectual awakening for that, only a steady and stubborn adherence to Gd’s Will.

Reuven—First in the Wrong Things

R. Arama thinks Ya’akov refers to Reuven askokhi ve-reshit oni, my might and the beginning of my strength, because as first-born Reuven would reasonably have had the best of Ya’akov’s traits, doubled strength to stand against the appetites of humanity (R. Arama just let slip his picture of the story of human history, people of noble character know we all need to resist our baser instincts, seek ways to bring more and more people to live as Gd wants).

Sadly for Reuven, he instead rushed into intemperate activities, sullying Ya’akov’s marital bed. Although tradition denied he literally had an affair with Bilhah, it was clearly a hillul Hashem, an embarrassment to the Name of Gd, R. Arama thinks, and could not be forgiven without significant punishment, Reuven losing his status as firstborn. The same impetuosity showed itself when the Jewish people came to take the Land of Israel, the tribe of Reuven among those to insist on taking their share early, on the east side of the Jordan, not realizing those tribes would eventually go into exile early as well.

His priority in the birth order could have fostered higher character for Reuven, instead meant an impatient jumping at opportunities, rushing instead of elevating.

Shimon and Levi in More Moderation

Shimon and Levi displayed similar impatience in jumping to sell Yosef, but other times made plans for their wrong pursuits, showing patience rather than haste, such as by killing Shekhem, the person and the town. Haste is a problem, but so is evil planning.

Both sides are needed, a bit of the kind of anger that can lead to overhasty decisions—R. Arama points out students learn better when they a bit fear their teacher, as Ketubbot 103b says (a message I fear is lost today, the need for both sides of the educational equation, the love of the teacher that brings the students to desire to learn, as well as the fear that extracts the needed effort.)

To have Shimon and Levi’s excesses benefit the entire people, Ya’akov calls for them to be spread among the nation, to bring the valuable aspects of their qualities to all, diluted by their being spread out, safer than if they had lived all in one spot.

Yehuda’s Judiciousness and Leadership

The next blessing goes to Yehuda, whom Ya’akov identifies as the leader. R. Arama tbinks Yehuda got there through his wisdom and serenity, his readiness to let events proceed as needed rather than rush them. He infers the idea from Ya’akov’s speaking of Yehuda as a gur, a cub, and then an aryeh, a mature adult lion, thinks it shows Yehuda allowed his growth process to take its time, did not have the pahazut, wasteful haste, of his brothers.

It was Yehuda who questioned the original plan to throw Yosef in a pit and kill him, convinced them to sell him instead. Yehuda also has the necessary qualities for the long exile in the Jewish people’s future, the reason Ya’akov says he will kara, ravatz, crouches and lies down, waiting until the tide of history again provides the opportunity for leadership and prominence.

Bil’am also speaks of the Jews as kara, shakhav, crouching and lying, and adds mevarekhekha barukh, those who bless you will be blessed (the reverse for those who curse you). R. Arama thinks Bil’am was saying Gd’s Providence never fully left the Jews, including Yehuda’s kingship, and argues that at all times, there were remnants of Yehuda in positions of power.

He does not mention the Exilarch as an example, a descendant of the House of David to whom the Persians gave rulership rights over the Jews. He does say Benjamin of Tudela (who wrote records of his travels) saw a large Jewish community in Baghdad, where the leader, a scion of the House of David, was treated as secondary royalty to the non-Jews’ ruler.

He suggests it might always be true, whoever acquires leadership in the Jewish people will turn out to be of the Davidic lineage, especially since most of the Jews in the world today are from the tribe of Yehuda. Remarkably, he adds that even if it’s occasionally untrue, the burden of proof is on those who would deny the Davidic lineage of our leaders, where he chooses to rely on Ya’akov Avinu, who said our leaders would always be from Yehuda (meaning: he has taken this as a guarantee, rather than a prescription).

I won’t get into how he derives it from the verses, but the last little piece of his presentation of Yehuda thinks Ya’akov referred to the Mashiah, who would ride on a donkey, as a poor man (as Zekharyah 9;9 portrays him), because humility would earn him his position. While he will have overriding love for fellow Jews, he will also take full (and bloody) vengeance from the non-Jews who have oppressed the Jewish people.

Yissakhar, Choosing Torah Study Over Prestige

Ya’akov describes Yissakhar as a hamor garem, a strong (or bony) donkey, adjectives R. Arama finds particular apt for someone who studies Torah for its own sake. Such a person accepts the obligation of study without resistance, has no arrogance, no concern for personal honor, cares for the honor of the Master.

Bereshit 49;14 also says he is rovetz bein ha-mishpetayim, lies down between the borders (or the sheepfolds or saddlepacks), an idea R. Arama takes as a reference to Avot 6;4, the path of Torah includes sleeping on the ground and living a life of pain. Such a person knows creature comforts have no overall significance, foregoes them for the greater rest and serenity of a life of Torah.

While he said it in the context of Yissakhar, it seems clear to me R. Arama wanted his listeners to think about the values and commitments necessary for true Torah study, the balance between the usual enjoyments and the more ultimately fulfilling ones.

The Meaning of Twelve

In the course of his discussion of Yosef, R. Arama makes a point not original to him I find worth considering every time it comes up. He reads Ya’akov to have given Yosef the double portion taken from Reuven). Nonetheless, the two tribes from Yosef, Menasheh and Efraimwere grouped as one in the current blessings because Levi was mentioned, too, and there can only and always be twelve tribes. (In Moshe’s blessings in Ve-Zot Ha-Berakhah, Shim’on is not mentioned, a reason Ramban thinks Menashe and Efrayim are in fact both mentioned, to count as two).

Details aside, I find the focus on number important. These commentators were sure the Torah saw the Jewish people as made up of twelve component parts; when Levi is included in the group, there could only be one tribe of Yosef. Why it should be twelve is not well defined by the Torah(in an earlier sha’ar, R. Arama thought it was because the Jewish people reflect the twelve-constellation cycle of the stars, parallel to the months of the year), but that it is twelve does.

For rationalists, it’s a challenging idea, perhaps the reason it always catches my eye. A twelve-part structure seems to be essential to the Jewish people.

Then Ya’akov arranges his feet and passes away. R. Arama notes the righteous have the right to choose the moment their time on earth is done.

At that point, the brothers were ready to go back to Israel, R. Arama thinks, and the Egyptians insisted they leave their children and cattle behind, a way of guaranteeing the Jews would be back. They were already leery of the Jews leaving, already saw them as helpful to their economy, the beginning of a path that ended in slavery (another comment to the people of his time about how governments become attached to their Jews, force them to stay or leave their possessions behind).

It is why Yosef already knows the Jews will be there a long time, will “one day” be remembered by Gd and taken out of Egypt, at which time he asks them to take his remains with them.

That ends Bereshit for R. Arama. Next time, I hope to summarize what I have found in the parts of R. Arama’s massive work we have sampled, as we bid him farewell and move to other projects.

About Gidon Rothstein

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