Parshat VaYechei has always struck me as a strange type of hybrid. On the one hand, the Parsha (and with it Sefer Bereshit) ends with what might be best described as a “to be continued…” Yosef instructs his brothers (but not his sons) to make sure that he is buried in Eretz Yisrael. The Torah then tells us that Yosef dies and is embalmed and placed in a coffin in Egypt. The story is only completed in Sefer Shmot. The Ramban, of course, alludes to this in his introduction to Sefer Shmot. On the other hand, when it comes to Yaakov’s family, Parshat VaYechei is nothing if not a Parsha of closure. We read, for example, of the death of Yaakov. The Midrash is replete with details of how even, or perhaps only in death, does Yaakov achieve closure with Esav, as Yaacov’s sons defend Yaakov’s claim to Maarat HaMachpela. We read of the final two encounters between Yosef and his brothers, with Yosef first rejecting any right to revenge for his suffering at the hands of his brothers, and then binding them to ensure his ultimate burial in Eretz Yisrael. And central to the Parsha, we learn of Yaakov’s final accounting with his sons.
It is difficult to describe Yaakov’s parting message to his children as brachot, blessings. As is well known, his words to his first three sons, Reuven, Shimon and Levi, are quite harsh. Nonetheless, the Torah itself describes the entire message as being a bracha (49:28). How can we reconcile this?
It is worthwhile looking at the passuk we referred to above in its entirety. “Kol ele shivtei Yisrael shnaim assar, vzot asher diber lahem avihem vayivarech otam ish asher k’virchato berach otam.” These are the twelve tribes of Israel, and this is what their father said to them, and he blessed them, each individual according to his blessing, he blessed them.” There are two distinct parts to this passuk, the number of tribes and how their father blessed them. We can not fail to be struck by the parallel between the first part of the passuk and the Torah’s similarly declaratory statement after Reuven defiled his father’s bed (35:22) “And Yaakov’s sons were twelve.” In both cases, apparently, something has happened which threatened the family’s unity and stability, but they emerge from the crisis united, even strengthened. In the case of Reuven, the crisis is clear. A son has questioned and actively challenged his father’s choice of conjugal partners. What is to become of him, and how does it affect the family? The torah’s answer is unequivocal. “VaYihiyu Bnai Yaakov shnaim assar”, Yaakov’s sons are twelve. But what similar crisis has Bnei Yisrael faced in our Parsha, and what does it mean that they emerged as twelve?
As we have already noted, Yaakov does not refrain from criticizing his sons, even harshly, before he dies. It would be reasonable to conclude that those sons who are criticized have somehow failed to meet the expected standard and will find themselves outside of the family. Yet our passuk decisively rejects such a reading. As the Abarbanel points out, all the sons are the progenitors of tribes, each one is himself the descendant of a family tracing its origins back to Avraham Avinu and each is above reproach in his personal behavior. Just as the health of a tree that grows branches and bears fruit is determined by the health of its roots, so too is Bnai Yisrael a healthy, thriving entity, independent of any criticism Yaakov might level at his sons.
We would be mistaken however, to divorce the emergence of the family, and ultimately the nation, from the message that Yaakov imparts to his sons while on his deathbed. We began by asking how the Torah can describe Yaakov’s words as a blessing, given the criticism that is inherent in his message to his three eldest sons. The Netziv, in what seems to be a forced answer, suggests that while Yaakov did in fact bless his sons, the Torah does not relate this blessing to us here. What is clear from the Netziv is that what Yaakov has to say here is not necessarily a bracha.
We can, however, suggest a different approach, one that is adopted by the Ralbag. Blessings are not like possessions, which have an objective value independent of their bearers. Rather, a blessing is defined by what a person makes of it. We are all familiar with the idea of “a blessing in disguise”. It may be as dramatic as the story of a person who missed a plane that later crashed, or as mundane as being forced to yield to a slow moving vehicle and to see a police car in a speed trap immediately thereafter. Yaakov gives each of his sons an honest appraisal of his strengths and weaknesses. In doing so, he also gives each the ability to fully exploit those strengths, while compensating for the weaknesses. How each son receives the message, and how he applies it to his life and behavior, will determine if it is a blessing.
Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch (and to a great degree, the Malbim), takes this idea a few steps further. Yaakov hasn’t set out to criticize or bless his sons, but rather to point out what special characteristics define each of them. Even those sons who are criticized are not necessarily being rebuked. Rather, Yaakov is demonstrating why his first three sons are not cut out to lead the family, bestowing that role on Yehuda instead. Nevertheless, each of them has qualities that are crucial to Am Yisrael. Too often, however, these special qualities which have been bestowed upon us are not translated into blessings. As we already saw in the Ralbag, a blessing is defined by the one who possesses it. Too often we squander our opportunities to be blessed because we don’t appreciate who we are, what we have or what we can be. Less often, but as importantly, we can be like a Reuven, Shimon or Levi and take our weaknesses and turn them into strengths, into blessings.
We can now see the connection between the two parts of our passuk. Bnai Yisrael is twelve tribes that combine to make a whole when each of them brings the special qualities that he possesses to bear on the community. When the Shvatim go it alone, as is demonstrated so decisively in Sefer Shoftim, the nation as a whole suffers. When the qualities that define each individual tribe are combined into a whole, then Am Yisrael becomes complete.
As we once again complete Sefer Bereshit and proclaim Chazak, Chazak V’Nitchazeik we would be well advised to recall the dictum of Maase Avot Siman L’Banim, which defines Sefer Bereshit. Yaakov Avinu foresaw that his sons could only become a nation by first appreciating who they were, then appreciating who their siblings were and then understanding that their nationhood depended on combining the two. We dare not strive for anything less.