This week’s Torah portion is “Vayechi”—“And he lived”. As we come to the end of the book of Genesis, the beginning, Jacob is blessing his sons before he dies. He also adopts Joseph’s sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, as his sons as well.
It is interesting that the Torah invests if not a whole portion at least a couple of chapters to talk about sons whose tribes have been lost to antiquity. Since presumably the Torah was put together by sages many years after the ten tribes of the northern Kingdom of Joseph were conquered and dispersed throughout the rest of the known world, does it make sense to mention those blessings? Or does the fact that the Messianic era promises the return of the ten tribes to the family of K’lal Yisroel demand acknowledgement?
Parenthetically, by the way, there was some attention recently given to the return of alleged members of the tribe of Ephraim to Israel. Their validity could still be a work in progress. Some, however, accept their claims as fact and see this as the beginning of that Messianic Era.
Could it be that besides the obvious proclamation of the blessings for the sons, there is yet another message here for us spiritually? After all, the name of the parashat is “And he lived”, so perhaps besides being blessings for the sons who became the progenitors of the tribes with similar characteristics, this is advice for us today as well.
Just as Esau and Jacob came from the same parents and exhibited completely different personality traits, so too did the twelve sons and two grandsons come from half of the same gene pool. While there were four mothers (or five when you include Asenath, Joseph’s wife) at least half of their essence came from Jacob. And just as Esau and Jacob represented two parts of our life force (bad and good forces, respectively), perhaps these sons represented 14 different aspects of who we are as a people and even as individuals. As the ten tribes (nine-and-a-half, really) did not maintain the principles of Judaism and were thus lost, perhaps mention of these traits should serve as a warning to us today, a list of how to behave.
Let’s look at some of these characteristics, then, and see how they may relate to who we are as a people. Let’s start with the tribes that survived: Judah, Levi, and Benjamin. Part of Benjamin’s tribal area was in the south and adjacent to Judah’s territory. Consider the Megillah of Esther. This took place in Babylonia during the period between the two Temples, after the destruction of the first and before King Cyrus allowed the Jews to build the second. One of the main characters of the story was Mordechai, who was from the tribe of Benjamin. Some of us may actually be Benjaminites, then.
“Judah is the lion’s whelp…the scepter shall not depart from Judah”. Judah is the main tribe that survived and hence that our religion is called “Judaism” and we are known as Jews. Many sages have stated that our mission in life is “Tikkun Olam”, repair of the world. Our culture is based on helping the poor and weak of society, even caring for the dead who can not do anything for themselves nor return our kindness. We thus take the lead is showing the world mercy and justice, just as a king governs his people to serve them in the highest manner (at least theoretically).
“Simeon and Levi…cursed be their anger”. We have been called a stiff-necked people. After G-d showed us Himself and care for us out in the desert, we still resorted to idolatry and challenged our leaders. Even today, some of the infighting that goes on within us about how we feel about the State of Israel and other political matters shows us that not much has changed. Maybe even now more than ever we need to heed these words and while we can agree to disagree, we need to get along.
“Benjamin is a wolf that raveneth”. Some will call it miraculous that Israel has been able to fend off many attacks and invasions into the country. Similarly, we have survived 1800 years of persecution that culminated in the wholesale slaughter of the Holocaust. And as antisemitism has increased in recent years, we are now called to action to take steps to defend ourselves from lobbying governments to learning self-defense.
Consider the characteristics of some of the other tribes.
“Reuben, the excellency of power…unstable as water”. Think before you act.
“Dan shall judge his people…[and] be a serpent on the path”. Defend yourself, yes, but don’t attack without provocation.
“Gad, a troop shall troop upon him but he shall troop upon their heel.” As above like Dan. Be prepared.
“Asher, his bread (“food”) shall be fat and he shall yield royal dainties”. Be productive.
(English translation from the Soncino ed. of the Chumash).
As a perhaps quick summary, control your passions and focus on the good things in life; strive for excellence and defend yourselves, but don’t go to extremes. And act appropriately to the situation.
Consider also that these blessings, this advice, comes as a prelude to the written Torah being formally given to Moshe Rabbeinu on Mt. Sinai. Perhaps these blessings were the precursor of what was yet to come.