Our larger group gathered today after 2 months of smaller groups due to summer vacations, camping trips, family events. It was good to sit together again, as Brothers and Sisters. Check-ins brought us up to date with each other. Some shared and reviewed the learnings from the smaller group that met last month. Then we proceeded to study the final 2 blessings of Jacob to his sons.
Genesis 49:22: “Joseph is a prolific vine … “ OR “Joseph is a wild ass” OR “Joseph is a charming son . . . .”
These are 3 English translations of the same Hebrew words, telling us we are immediately deep in the world of Torah poetry and metaphor. The overall point of the blessing is to give a picture of this remarkable man, Joseph, who is to carry the torch from father to son in the line of our ancestral forefathers. His beauty came from the beauty of his father’s favorite wife, Rachel, and his blessings from his father were even more than those earlier give to Jacob himself from his father.
“The daughters climbed the heights of walls” to see him. But the word for high wall, Shur, could also be read as “Shor”, meaning ox – Joseph’s totem – implying the sexual attraction Joseph had, as most clearly illustrated by the attempts of Potiphar’s wife’s to seduce him. He grew strong in Egypt (“his bow dwelt in his arms”), a position from which he could “shepherd the stone of Israel”. The word “Even” is used here for stone – that stone which carries the memories and teachings from father (“av”) to son (“ven”), teaching that Joseph was the current alpha male of the nation that would lead the tribes into the next phase of Jewish history.
His blessings came from many aspects of the Infinite One – from El, the God of his fathers; from Shaddai, the Sufficient One. His blessings came from Heavens above, and from the deepest depths below. His blessings came from womb and breast – from Rachel his mother, from the Feminine. And his blessings came through his father in an amped-up version of those blessings that his father had received from his parents before him. These were the blessings Jacob acknowledged were on Joseph’s head.
Genesis 49:27: “Benyamin is a predatory wolf . . . “
Somehow we don’t immediately think of Ben as a viscious wolf, maybe because he’s the baby of the family. But here we learn of his character: one who is ravenous and fierce when he needs to be (“in the morning he will devour prey”), but also then cares for the others around him (“divides the spoils in the evening”). This is the character of his animal totem, the wolf, who is known to be devoted to family, a teacher of its young, and fierce in its protection of the pack. In this verse, we clearly see the connection of our ancients to nature, animals, Earth – the calling forth of the archetypal totem that inhabits the tribe of Benjamin. The verse also alludes to 2 ancestors from the tribe of Benjamin: Saul, the first king to arise (in the “morning”) in Israel; and Esther, the queen who shared the spoils of Persia in the “evening” of the Hebrew people in Persia.
Are we different human beings, morally, ethically, than we were back then?
The question bubbled up from the depths of the discussion, and led to much interesting opinion. Yes, the same. No, not really. Perhaps our brains are not different, but as the culture changes around us, the demands of each era challenge us, call forth new aspects of our humanity to take prominence. This is characterized by the transition during the time of Torah from an agricultural economic base to a pastoral (shepherding, etc) economic base. This leads to different frames of reference: the farmer for whom the earth is a permanent presence and source of sustenance, work, and draw to community; vs the isolated shepherd, who guides his sheep but must always also be on the lookout for those who would steal them or threaten them. This is seen in our story, as the pastoral, nomadic, small group of Hebrews will now go to the major leagues, Egypt, the “show” of civilization, with the blessings of Jacob to guide the tribes.
Tribe: Shevet vs Mateh
2 words used for the concept of tribe, 2 different words indicating the concept of a staff, but 2 different types of staff. The Shevet is the shepherds crook, used to guide his flock to areas of rich pastures. So this word is used in connection to the tribes as “guides” for the individuals within them. Mateh, is the staff of action, as in Moses’ staff, the Staff of Elohim, that staff which can make miracles, alter physical reality, connect heaven and earth to change the status quo. Mateh is the stick used to walk with, the energy of the mateh is earthward, the personal stick that connects heaven to earth, grounding spirit in physical existence, weaving the energies of spirit and earth within you. As we continue our readings and studies on the Tribes, we will take note of which word is used when in describing the tribes.
We note that Dinah is the only daughter of Jacob who is mentioned by name in Torah. Who was her mother: Leah. What does her name mean: judgment. Same name as Dan’s, but in the feminine – so, the Feminine qualities inherent in judgment? What was her tribe? Probably whichever tribe she married into. While previous cultures in the Middle East were matriarchal in nature, around this time the patriarchal came to the fore amongst the Hebrews, in terms of political entities, land holdings, identity. What was her totem? What other characteristics does Dina hold? How do we hold her in our minds in the context of these children of Jacob, these tribes of Israel?
Genesis 49:28: “These are the tribes of Israel – twelve . . . and blessed each according to his appropriate blessing “
Twelve tribes, sh’vatim, shepherd’s crooks, guideposts for the people. Three times in the sentence the word “blessing” is used, and we recall our discussion at the beginning of Jacob’s blessings regarding the question: were these really “blessings”? But clearly they are, at least in the concept of blessing as it is meant in the Hebrew tradition. From this text we gather that it means a “marking” of what is, an acknowledgment of what is and what is to be. So each son/tribe gets its mark from Yaakov, the blessing that is appropriate only for it, that it will carry from this time forward through the ages.
Genesis 49:29: “ . . . bury me with my fathers, in the cave in the field of Ephron the Hittite”
The chapter ends with the death of Jacob. Having completed the deathbed blessings of his sons and drawn his feet up into his bed, Yaakov/Israel is gathered to his people. It brings to mind the consideration of one’s own death: have we considered where we would like to be “gathered”, what our burial ritual will be, how our brief presence on this Earth will be marked? Jacob would be carried by his 12 sons in formation through the Sinai, back to Canaan, to be buried in the cave of Machpelah, near Hebron. The Bedouin of the Negev and Sinai tend to be buried in fields of softer earth and mark the spots with a large boulder. Jacob left his sons with a blessing, acknowledging them for who they are, how he saw them during his life, what they are carrying forward to leave as legacy to their own children. This is the way of the Elder at this life transition. May we all hold our Eldership in the way Yaakov has modeled for us, and leave behind our own tribes to carry things forward.
PS: Some final thoughts from Avram
It occurred to me that part of the significance of tribes to us has to include the fact that we are now incomplete -- because of the destruction of the Northern Kingdom. If all twelve were necessary for creation of a unitary people, what happens when most of those people are cut off? Then it occurred to me that I had read something about the Samaritans being descended from the tribes of the Northern Kingdom. I did a quick google search, and Wikipedia says that the Samaritans claim to be descended from people who did not go into Babylonian exile and to possess the true, uncorrupted Torah -- uncorrupted by the foreign influence encountered in Babylonia or by Talmudic thinking, I suppose. The claim is that they are descended from Ephraim and Manasseh, with some Levites mixed in. Yet Samaritans were outcasts n the time of Jesus and as I understand it not accepted as Jews now. What does this say about us as a people? What can we learn from this as a Passover Village community which includes non-Jews and converts? What tribal values sustain us today, and which do we need to jettison for the sake of our own communal identity? What is the value of pluralism -- multiple tribes and characteristics within our community -- and what is the value of unitary culture, and how do we balance the two?
Next Gathering: Saturday, October 6
Location: TBD, Sukkot