Vayechi – Diversity To Survive
Jacob’s assessment of his sons is piercing and painful. On his deathbed Jacob speaks to his sons, revealing their character and strengths, exposing their trials and weaknesses as well as a little of their destiny. It is typical of a leader to remain silent about many things. A member of parliament doesn’t want to lose his voters, a public servant does not want to lose his job. But at the end, when there is nothing to lose, these filters are often removed. My grandmother would often justify what she said (in jest) by noting that she is leaving town and therefore can get away with saying such things. Moses himself, in the last weeks of his life, offered subtle admonishment to the people, sentiments which he had withheld from expressing during his forty years of leadership. At the end of his years of service he felt the time was ripe and his counsel would be heeded more so than earlier. After all, there was nothing anyone could do to him. No one could fire him anymore.
Jacob has some very critical words to say to Reuben, his eldest. Acknowledging that Reuben is his first, in whom he poured greater effort and greater strength, Jacob then dismisses him as a candidate for leadership due to Reuben’s display of rash behavior, of acting impulsively. Jacob’s choice of words is strong, both for Reuben and then for Simeon and Levi, who are lumped together. “Simeon and Levi are brethren, but instruments of violence are their means of acquisition…” Jacob then goes on to curse their wrath: “Cursed be their anger for it is fierce, and their fury for it is hard. I will divide them in Jacob and scatter them in Israel.” (Genesis 49:5-7)
The remaining brothers are spoken to more benignly, some receive very terse messages while others, notably Judah and Joseph, have longer and more descriptive messages. Zebulun is noted for his future in trading while Issachar’s talent lay in scholarship. Jewish lawyers would come from the tribe of Dan, with his knack for insight and cunning in law, while Naftali had the gifte of oration, a possible prelude of politics.
“All these are the tribes of Israel, twelve, and this is what their father proclaimed about them, then he blessed them, each in accordance with what was his special blessing, did he bless them.” (Genesis 49:28)
Jacob clearly recognized the vast differences in the strengths and personalities of his sons. It was important to him that his sons also recognize these differences and that they use these strength to help develop a nation together. A civilization requires all sorts. To run a society we need everybody. We need arborists and scientists, engineers and academics, builders and teachers. If everyone wants to be a doctor who would build the hospitals? If everyone is a lawyer who will sell groceries?
Jacob bid them to gather round and to hear him. R’ Hirsch explains that he instructed them to gather for one purpose and put themselves into one mindset. As the sons of Jacob they would always be a minority, a few among the many. But if they heed their father Israel, if they devote themselves to the mission of Israel they can overcome that weakness. But that requires harnessing all of their strengths to the common purpose, of being a society.
Jewish societies have never lacked for a cause of friction. There is always a reason to argue and a multitude of matters to disagree about. The State of Israel is emblematic of the Jewish people as a whole. It reflects the state of Jewry everywhere to some degree. It is a small country with a few million people. Yet, its politics are so difficult to understand. There are so many political parties, so much involvement with government policies.
A man was once driving on a highway when he received a frantic call from his wife. “Be careful Harry, I just heard on the news that there is a car driving the wrong way on the highway!” Harry responded, “It’s not one car, my dear, there are hundreds of them.”
A story is told of a group of kids who decided to play ball. They agreed that each kid would bring something, and together they would supply everything necessary to play. One kid brought the flags, another brought the goal posts. A third brought a referee’s whistle and another brought the ball. When the game was set to start they needed to choose the teams. They decided that the one who brought the most important article for the game would be the team captain. But they could not decide which was the most important item. They began to play, discarding those items which were least necessary. First they dropped the whistle. The ref could just as well shout. They then discarded the flags, finding that they could play equally well without the flags. One by one they got rid of the various things brought, eventually replacing even the ball with a tin can they found nearby.
A man, passing by with his son, was impressed at the resourcefulness of the kids. He remarked to his son that they were playing very well, except it was a shame that they would never advance their skills without proper instruments. The kids overheard this and they realized how foolish they were being. They sheepishly retrieved all the items they had originally brought and resumed playing.
All instruments of the game are necessary for the game to be played at its best. Nothing was unimportant, or even less important than the others. A society needs everyone, and the entertainer is just as critical as the mechanic to round out civilization. Jacob’s sons would each contribute to the nation/family, each bringing something to the table which would enhance national life for everybody. They could far exceed the limits of what each could do alone if they would only work together.