Jacob's Tellings

Jacob’s Tellings

This week’s Parashat of Balak gave us the perfect entry into the study of the “blessings” Jacob gives his 12 sons.  Responding to the request of the king of Moav, Balak, the Canaanite prophet Balaam seeks to curse the Israelites. But the words from his mouth can only bless them.  Looking out over their encampment from the top of a hill in Moav, he says the words that have become part of the Hebrew liturgy every morning and Erev Shabbat: “Ma tovu ohalecha Yaakov, mishk’notecha Yisrael”  (How goodly are your tents, Jacob, your sacred dwellings, Israel).   Taking from this core Hebrew understanding that both the earthly and spiritual are in constant coexistence in everything, we began our study of the spiritual vision our patriarch, Jacob, told to each of his sons, the spiritual legacy of the 12 Tribes.  We begin with the blessings to Ephraim and Menashe, the sons of Joseph, as their blessing comes before the actual sons of Jacob.  

Genesis 48:14:  “Israel extended his right hand and laid it on Ephraim’s head.”
The text reads like a ritual being played out, like a formal induction ceremony.  “Who are these boys?” – surely Jacob knows his 2 grandsons, Menashe the first born of Joseph, and his younger brother Ephraim.  It is as if he is formally requesting their presentation, which Joseph then does.  Or an alternate teaching: the boys appeared to their grandfather in this scene dressed in their clothing of Egyptian princes, while he knew them to be Hebrews who had studied with him as they grew.  The conflict between the Egyptian and the Hebrew in them plays out in the subsequent order of their blessing.  Joseph presents them with the first-born Menashe positioned to receive the blessing of the first-born from his father’s right hand.  This reflects the tradition in Egypt, and other cultures of the area, that the first-born gets the goodies.  This was generally true in Hebrew culture as well.  But Jacob shows that there is more to it than that within the Hebrews, who will place God’s will and prophetic recognition of the inherent spiritual mission a person carries over and above birth order when it comes to handing down the blessings from father, or in this case grandfather, to son.  Thus, in direct contradiction to Joseph’s intent, Jacob crosses his arms to place his right hand on the younger brother Ephraim’s head, thus bestowing him with the greater blessing.  Ephraim thereby joins other younger brothers who were given the task of carrying the Hebrew spiritual traditions forward in place of their older, first born brothers.  This list includes Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph himself, the father of this boy Ephraim.  So, it is as if Jacob has to reteach this tradition to his son Joseph, who in his years of assimilation into Egyptian culture, seems to have forgotten his roots.  Finally, in crossing his arms to bless the boys, Jacob makes the sign of Raphael, the angel of healing, perhaps finally healing the rift that was caused by the heinous treatment of Joseph by his brothers, and elevating both Ephraim and Menashe to an equal share of blessing as their eleven uncles.

Genesis 49:1:  “Assemble yourselves and I will tell you what will befall you in the End of Days.”
These are generally referred to as Jacob’s blessings, but as we will next see, some read more like curses.  It is telling that the Hebrew word Jacob himself uses is not “blessing” (Ah’varech – I will bless), but “telling” (Ah’gidah – I will tell).  Thus what follows is not so much a blessing, but a prophetic telling, a transfer from Jacob of what he sees in store for the generations that will flow from each son.  This is perhaps comparable to the concept of a darshon in the Hindu tradition, in which the holy teacher transmits prophetic knowledge to the disciple.  These “tellings” from Jacob, born from his deep understanding of the character of each of his sons, will thus resonate for generations as qualities of the tribe that will flow from each son.

Genesis 49:4: “Reuven . . . impetuous, like water, you cannot be foremost . . . “
Reuven, as the first born, was in line to receive the major portion of his father’s blessing.  But he messed it up when he displayed a character trait unbecoming of a leader of peoples.  This is identified as his impetuosity, displayed in the episode where he slept with his father’s wife Bilhah (some commentators offer a less than R-rated account of this affair, suggesting only that he otherwise disrespected his father’s marriage to Bilhah, the handmaiden of Rachel, and fourth wife of Jacob).   So despite his strength, vigor, and rank, Reuben is demoted, and we learn that a Hebrew leader must always be balanced and consider the consequences of his/her actions, rather than rush forward like fast-flowing water that causes great destruction in its wake.  Of note, Reuven is also noted in other teachings as demonstrating the ability to show true repentence and integrity, most notably in his attempts to save Joseph from death at the hands of his brothers.  So he maintains a notable place of pride and respect in the tribal lineage, despite having lost the birthright of leadership.

Genesis 49:7 “Shimon & Levi . . . I will separate them within Jacob, disperse them in Israel.”
These 2 brothers are described together as strong, but angry, and capable of doing great wrong and great harm.  This refers to the destruction of Shechem in revenge for their sister Dinah’s rape by the prince of that town.   We can be imagine them as being 2 angry and dangerous brothers, one (Levi) following the other into all kinds of trouble.  For this, they need to be separated, as if being told by their scolding parent to go to their rooms for a time out.

Jacob says "I will separate them ("A'chalkaym") within Jacob, and disperse them (A'phitzaym) within Yisrael. There must be a nuanced difference between the 2 Hebrew verbs used here.  It seems that one refers to Jacob, thus more physical reality, meaning their portion (chalak refers to portioning), their territory will be scattered out amongst the other tribes, that neither tribe will be given intact territory to settle.   We suspect that the other verb, (Patzah) refers to the dispersement of their spiritual missions (Yisrael referring more to the spiritual realm).  Thus, the Levites were dispersed territorially, with cities of refuge within the territories of the other tribes, and their spiritual mission was to serve as the spiritual caretakers of the tabernacle and temple for the sake of all the tribes.  The tribe of Shimon was similarly dispersed within the tribal territory of Judah, without an intact territory of its own, though his spiritual mission and its reason for dispersal seems less clear.  What was Levi’s saving grace, that despite his participation in the slaughter at Shechem, his descendants are given such a critical spiritual role amongst the Nation?

Genesis 49:9: “A lion is Judah . . . the scepter shall not depart . . . he will launder his robe in the blood of grapes . . .  red eyed from wine and white toothed from milk” 
After the first 3 “negative” tellings, the commentators tell us the other brothers were trembling with fear over what Jacob would say of them.  Judah was next, and clearly received blessing.  Judah would be a warrior tribe, a leader of his people.  The tribe would give us kings, and ultimately the Moshiach would come from his tribe.  The qualities of a Hebrew king are noted in metaphor -  drenched in spiritual insight (“red-eyed from wine”) but solid, fully connected, and nourished by the earthly (“white toothed from milk”).  We as a people take our name from him.  In the book of Esther, Mordechai is referred to as a Yehudi (a Judah-ite) though he was of the tribe of Benjamin, and to this day we call ourselves Yehudim (Jews).   There are verses in Jacob’s blessing of Judah that that seem Rumi-like in their imagery, describing the flowing of abundant wine, the spiritual nectar.  We can imagine David twirling at the gates of Jerusalem like a whirling Dervish, drunk on the “wine” of connection to the Divine flow.

Why did Judah warrant such blessing?  It is said that, though imperfect, Judah was a man of great integrity who fully owned his faults and admitted his errors.  This is most clearly demonstrated in the stories describing his interaction with his daughter-in-law Tamar, and his integrity in protecting his father in his dealings with the Viceroy of Egypt, not knowing he was his long-lost brother Joseph.

We will continue next time with the remaining “tellings” related to Jacob’s other sons.

Next Gathering: Saturday, August 4
Location: TBD