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Parashat Vayechi

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Vayechi 5760/1999

Jacob's Address to His Sons (Gen. 47:28- 49:32)

Amos Hakham


Before departing this world, the patriarch Jacob gave his children last words of blessing and testament, delivered in four stages. First, he commanded Joseph not to bury him in Egypt, but in the burial of his fathers (Gen. 47:29-31). Second, he blessed Joseph's sons, Manasseh and Ephraim (Gen. 48). Third, he blessed all twelve of his sons, each with a special blessing (Gen. 49:1-25), and fourth, he commanded all his sons to bury him in the cave of Machpelah (Gen. 49:29-32).

These four stages, it turns out, fall into two pairs, forming a chiastic (diagonally arranged) parallel and deliberate structure:

Testament to Joseph----------------> Testament to Jacob's sons

Blessing to Joseph's sons-----------> Blessing to Jacobs' sons

Commentators disagree whether what we have called "Jacob's blessing to his sons" indeed deserves this name. Ibn Ezra comments on Gen. 49:1 as follows: "Those who say these are blessings, on the grounds that the passage concludes with the words "and he blessed them," are mistaken; where are the blessings to Reuben, Simeon and Levi? And so far as the conclusion "and this is what their father said to them" (49:28) 'and afterwards he blessed them', [this is true] but Scripture does not mention what the blessing was."[In other words, what came before are not blessings.]

Ibn Ezra's commentary relates to Genesis 49:28: "And this is what their father said to them as he bade them farewell [as he bade them farewell = lit. "and he blessed them"], addressing to each a parting word appropriate to him." This verse ostensibly sum up the contents of the preceding section, explaining that these were the words of Jacob to his sons, including blessings to each son according to his deserts. Ibn Ezra, however, interprets this verse as relating to two distinct things:

1) "This is what their father said to them" = the text of the preceding section.

2) "He bade them farewell [lit. blessed them], addressing to each a word [lit. blessing] appropriate to him" = the blessings that Jacob gave each of his sons, each his own special blessing, but the actual content of the blessings is not spelled out in Scriptures.

The German-Jewish commentator Benno Jacob accepted Ibn Ezra's interpretation.[1] However, this interpretation appears farfetched and is not supported by the masoretic understanding of the text, insofar as the Masoretes set the cantillation [a zakef on the first otam, "them"] in such a way as to indicate that "what their father said" and "he blessed them" both relate to the same thing. If the Masoretes understood the words "he blessed them" as relating to something different from "what [he] said to them," they would have put the zakef on the word avihem, "their father."

From the plain sense of the text it indeed appears that the words "and he blessed them" relate to the preceding section. Ibn Ezra's contention, that what Jacob said to Reuben, Simeon and Levi was no blessing (rather, a curse), is answered by commentators in two ways: 1) Samuel David Luzzatto (Shadal, Italy, born 1800) comments: "While there may be among them some whom he did not bless, the text speaks about the majority of them." 2) Or Ha-Hayyim comments: "Even though we see that he did not bless Reuben, Simeon, or Levi, Scripture would say that his harsh words to them was their blessing." This idea can be developed to say that even if a father's reproach contains harsh words and indications of punishment, nevertheless it is said out of the "hidden love" that a father feels for his wayward son, and its intention is actually for the son's good. Therefore, it is also considered a blessing.

According to Cassuto,[2] the harsh words that Jacob had for Reuben, Simeon and Levi appear to be curses, but one can find elements of blessing and praise in their meaning.

The source of this idea goes back to homilies of the Sages: "'Reuben, you are my first-born,' Rabbi [Judah the Prince] used to say something in [Reuben's] praise."[3] Another Midrash reads: "'alah-- [my couch he] mounted,' (49:4) -- He [the Almighty] rose up [the simple meaning of alah] above your sin ... until Moses came, of whom it is written 'and Moses went up [alah] to G-d' (Ex. 19:3) ... When Moses came, he began to draw Reuben near, 'May Reuben live' (Deut. 33:6)."[4] A further homily: "'Cursed be their anger,' (49:7) Jacob cursed only their anger [not them]."[5]

Yet the approach which says this unit of text deserves to be called "Jacob's blessing to his sons" meets with another problem: Jacob begins his address with the words: "Come together that I may tell you what is to befall you in days to come." In other words, what he intended to say are words about what the future holds. But after Jacob's words, Scripture says: "and this is what their father said to them, and he blessed them..." That would imply that these were words of blessing, not prophecy. Indeed, the Sages explained that from the outset Jacob wished to say to them something quite different from the words he actually uttered. As Rashi quotes the midrash of the Sages: "He wished to reveal to them the end of Israel's exile but the Shechinah departed from him and he began to speak of other things" (Rashi on Gen. 49:1).

This interpretation stems from a change in the understanding of the phrase aharit ha-yamim, rendered in the JPS translation of Gen. 49:1 as "days to come." This phrase generally refers to the future in relationship to the time at which the person is speaking. In the time of the Sages, however, it was taken to mean the "end of days" or the Messianic era, or even the world to come. Thus this homily cited by Rashi was directed against all sorts of eschatologists (or millenarians!) as a warning that a person should not concern himself with predicting what will be at the end of time, for the patriarch Jacob himself tried to do so and it did not turn out well for him. If Jacob failed, who could be so presumptuous as to think he might succeed? Nevertheless, it should be noted that although Rashi (citing the midrash) said that the Divine Presence departed from him, nevertheless he interpreted several of Jacob's words as a prophecy of future events (in relationship to Jacob's time). For example, verse 16: "'Dan shall govern his people' -- he prophesied this about Samson." And verse 21: "'Naphtali' -- this foretold the battle against Sisera." One could say that these homilies contradict one another, that the homily according to which the Divine Presence departed from Jacob contradicts the ones that find a forecast of the future in Jacob's words. But one could also say that the words, "the Divine Presence departed," do not necessarily mean that Jacob absolutely lost the power to foretell the future, but only that he could not foretell wonderful and sublime things such as the days of the Messiah, although he retained the prophetic power to see what would happen in the future, when this world would still be in existence.

Thus we see that according to the legends of the Sages as well as the plain sense of Scripture we must investigate how blessings and predictions of the future became incorporated into Jacob's address. To be precise, we note that nowhere in Genesis is Jacob referred to as a prophet. According to the Bible's approach, not everyone who foretells the future is a prophet. Hence, we should phrase our question thus: what is the relationship between Jacob's blessings and his predictions of the future that were fulfilled?

In his questions on this week's reading Abarbanel found four types of statements in Jacob's address to his sons: reproach (e.g., what he said to Reuben, Simeon and Levi), blessing (his words to Joseph), prayer (in the case of Dan: "I wait for Your deliverance, O Lord!"), and foretelling the future, be it regarding tribal inheritance (Zebulun), or exploits in war (e.g., Benjamin). Abarbanel worked these four types of statements into his commentary according to his own approach. We find that these four types of statements can fall under a single definition: prophetic blessing.[6]

The reproach directed at Reuben, Simeon and Levi contains a blessing (as we made clear above), in the wake of which follow descriptions of the future condition of these tribes. This condition is described as the retribution that Jacob wished on these tribes for the deeds of their ancestors. The words about Zebulun, "Zebulun shall dwell by the seashore," can be viewed either as a blessing or as foretelling the future.[7] The question still remains as to the precise intention of these words. Was Jacob blessing Zebulun that he would dwell by the seashore, and this blessing was fulfilled; or, did Jacob foresee that Zebulun would dwell by the seashore, and was thus informing his sons of what he foresaw? The answer is both. The double nature of a prophetic blessing can be found in Isaac's blessing to Jacob and Esau (Gen. 27), in Balaam's orations (Num. 23-24), and in Moses' blessing (Deut. 33). These three speeches have certain turns of phrase in common with Jacob's address:

In Isaac's blessing: "Be master over your brothers, and let your mother's sons bow to you" (Gen. 27:29);

in Jacob's blessing: "You, your brothers shall praise, ... your father's sons shall bow low to you" (Gen. 49:8),

in Jacobs's blessing: "He crouches, lies down like a lion, like the king of beasts -- who dare rouse him?" (Gen. 49:9);

and in Balaam's orations: "They crouch, they lie down like a lion, like the king of beasts; who dare rouse them?" (Num. 24:9).

In Jacobs blessing: "With blessings of heaven above, blessings of the deep that couches below, ... The blessings of your father ... to the utmost bounds of the eternal hills. May they rest on the head of Joseph, on the brow of the elect of his brothers" (Gen. 25-26);

and in Moses' blessing: "With the bounty of dew from heaven, and of the deep that couches below; ... with the best from the ancient mountains, and the bounty of hills immemorial; ... May these rest on the head of Joseph, on the crown of the elect of his brothers" (Deut. 33:13, 15-17).

Balaam's orations are explicitly said to be blessings (Num. 23:20 and many other places), even though they are predictions of the future ("What I see for them is not yet," Num. 24:17). As in Jacob's words, so too in Balaam's oration, both say that they are revealing what will be "in days to come" (Num. 24:14).

It is clear that one should not look in Scripture for precise formulations, systematically set forth, showing the connection between blessing and foretelling the future. However, from all the passages we have presented here (and from others which we have not cited), we see that prophets, patriarchs, and miracle-workers are gifted with the ability to see into the future and to give blessings that are supposed to come to pass. The future that they see is not an absolutely predetermined fact, but only a general setting from which things can develop in a number of possible ways. Through his blessing, or his prayer, the special person can cause the situation necessary for its fulfillment to come to pass.

This sort of notion about the future seen in a vision and about the ability to change it by blessing or prayer is found in all generations. We shall give three examples from different places and different eras.

1) King Jehoshaphat of Judah recommended to the king of Israel that he inquire of the Lord through the prophet Micaiah son of Imlah. At first the king of Israel refused, saying, "but I hate him, because he never prophesies anything good for me, but only misfortune" (I Kings 28:8). The king of Israel did not accuse Micaiah of false prophecy, nevertheless he complained that he prophesied misfortune for him. It follows that the king of Israel believed Micaiah could see various possibilities in the future, some good and some bad, and since he was against the king he chose the bad options and spelled them out, thereby causing them to come to pass.

2) Rashi comments on Deuteronomy 33:1, on the words "smite the loins of his foe," on the basis of legends of the Sages, as follows: "He saw that the Hasmoneans and their sons would fight against the Greeks, and he prayed for them because they were few." According to this interpretation, Moses foresaw the Hasmonean battle of few against many, but he did not see the outcome of the battle, so he prayed that it would be favorable (and his prayers were well-received).

3) In prayer books current today in the Sephardic and Eastern Jewish communities, in the blessing "who builds Jerusalem" in the amidah prayer, after the words, "and speedily restore the throne of Your servant David," is a parenthetical remark: "he should turn his thoughts in prayer to the Messiah son of Joseph, that he live and not die at the hand of Armilos Rashia."[8]

The midrashim and kabbalistic sources from which the above remark stems are not to the point here. What is important to us is how it illustrates the view that one can know the future and change it by prayer: it is already known and has been decreed that in the future the Messiah son of Joseph and Armilos Rashia will come and fight one another; but the outcome of this battle is not yet decreed, so we pray that the Messiah son of Joseph be victorious.

In like manner one should understand Jacob's blessings to his sons and the prayer which is incorporated within his blessings: "I wait for Your deliverance, O Lord!" (Gen. 49:18).

[1] His commentary in German on the book of Genesis was published in Berlin by the Schocken Press at the beginning of the Nazi's rise to power, sixty-five years ago: Das Erste Buch Der Tora - Genesis - Ubersetzt und Erklart Von B. Jacob, 1934. See his remarks on the beginning of chapter 49, p. 890, and his commentary on p. 936.

[2] In the section Birkat Ya'akov of the article on Bereshit in the Encyclopedia Mikrait, Vol. 2, pp. 332-334.

[3] Cf. Genesis Rabbah, Theodor-Albeck ed., p. 1252.

[4] Ibid., p. 1255.

[5] Ibid., p. 1279.

[6] We use the term "prophetic" as it is understood in our day, although according to the biblical approach this term is not appropriate here, as we noted above.

[7] Especially since in biblical Hebrew the verb forms indicating a wish for the future or foretelling the future are indistinguishable. The same follows for everything that is said about all the tribes.

[8] Cf., for example, Siddur Tefillat Yesharim le-fi Minhagei ha-Sephardim, edited and published by Salah b. R. Jacob Mansur, Jerusalem, undated, p. 13.

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