The One Commandment of the Torah

The Revelation at Sinai

This week’s Torah reading is Yitro, famous for its account of the Divine Revelation at Mt. Sinai. For the first time, the Jewish people heard the Ten Commandments, directly from God. Commenting on these verses, Rabbeinu Behaye (1255-1340) describes how God actually revealed the Torah gradually, starting with Adam.

To Adam, God revealed the very first six commandments: (1) not to deny God’s existence, (2) not to blaspheme God, (3) not to murder, (4) not to engage in immoral sexual relations, (5) not to steal, and (6) to establish just legal systems and courts. These may sound familiar, as they are part of the Seven Noahide Laws. Yet, Rabbeinu Behaye writes that Adam and Eve were given these commandments before Noah. These six are the basic laws of humanity so, naturally, they must have been given to the first humans.

To Noah, God added a seventh commandment. Originally, God instructed man to consume only fruits and vegetables (Genesis 1:29-30). In God’s original perfect world, nothing at all had to die. (Thus, the third commandment of “not to murder” likely applied to all living things at the time!) Yet, ten generations after Adam, we read that God permitted the consumption of meat, albeit in a limited way. There are deeply profound reasons for this, which we have addressed in the past.

From the time of Noah onwards, man was permitted to consume meat, so God added a seventh commandment: “do not eat the limb of a live animal”. The basic meaning of this law is that an animal should be carefully slaughtered (and as painlessly as possible) before its meat is consumed. However, the commandment takes on much broader implications, and is regarded as a general prohibition of not being cruel to animals.

From 8 to 613

Another ten generations after Noah came the eighth commandment, given to Abraham. It was Abraham who was first instructed to circumcise himself and the males of his household. God declared that henceforth, every newborn male should be circumcised on the eighth day of life. Appropriately, this was the eighth commandment.

“Jacob wrestling with the angel” by Eugène Delacroix (1861)

Jacob received the ninth commandment: not to consume the gid hanashe, the sciatic nerve. This stems from Jacob’s famous wrestling match with the angel, where he was struck in the thigh, and “Therefore, the children of Israel do not eat the sinew of the thigh until this day…” (Genesis 32:33).

Finally, it was Moses’ generation – the twenty-sixth generation from Adam – that received the entire set of Ten Commandments. Of course, these Ten are quite different than the previous nine. However, the Ten Commandments are only the first of the entire set of 613 mitzvot in the Torah, which do encapsulate the previous nine as well. Jewish tradition holds that these Ten, in fact, allude to all 613. It is often pointed out that the text of the Ten Commandments in the Torah contains exactly 620 letters, corresponding to the 613 Torah mitzvot, plus the additional 7 mitzvot instituted by the Sages.

Going in Reverse

Rabbeinu Behaye teaches us that the Torah was revealed step-by-step, progressing from six in Adam’s time, to seven in Noah’s, eight in Abraham’s, nine in Jacob’s, ten in Moses’, followed by all 613. Interestingly, there is a passage in the Talmud (Makkot 23b-24a) that appears to neatly continue the Torah’s evolution, but this time in reverse!

The passage begins by reminding us that “…six hundred and thirteen precepts were given to Moses” before stating that “David came and reduced them to eleven.” King David was able to condense the entire Torah to eleven central principles, which he recorded in Psalm 15:

A Psalm of David. Hashem, who shall sojourn in Your tabernacle? Who shall dwell upon Your holy mountain? One who (1) walks uprightly, and (2) acts righteously, (3) speaks truth in his heart; (4) Has no slander upon his tongue, (5) nor does evil to his fellow, (6) nor takes up a reproach against his neighbour; (7) In whose eyes a vile person is despised, and (8) one who honours those that fear Hashem; (9) one who swears to his own detriment, but does not renege; (10) One that does not lend his money on interest, (11) nor takes a bribe against the innocent. The doer of these will never falter for eternity.

“Isaiah” by Gustav Doré

David saw that all of the Torah boils down to these 11 principles. But the Talmud doesn’t stop there. The prophet Isaiah “came and reduced them to six.” He taught that it all came down to:

One that (1) walks righteously, and (2) speaks uprightly; one that (3) despises the gain of oppressions, that (4) shakes his hands from holding of bribes, that (5) stops his ears from hearing of blood, and (6) shuts his eyes from looking upon evil. He shall dwell on high… (Isaiah 33:15-16)

From 6 to 1

Along came Isaiah’s contemporary, the prophet Micah, and further reduced the commandments to three! “What does Hashem require of you? Only to act justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God…” Apparently, upon hearing this, “Isaiah came again and reduced them to two, as it is written: ‘Thus said Hashem: preserve justice, and do righteousness’” (Isaiah 56:1).

“Amos” by Gustav Doré

Sometime later, the prophet Amos came and was able to reduce the entire Torah to one single principle: “Seek Me and live” (Amos 5:4). The Talmud questions the meaning of this, suggesting that perhaps “seeking God” simply means fulfilling the 613 precepts of His Torah – in which case, we are back to where we started!

The Talmud concludes by telling us that the prophet Habakkuk came along and solved the problem, teaching that the one principle that the entire Torah boils down to is this: tzaddik b’emunato yichyeh, “The righteous shall live by his faith”. It all comes down to knowing without a doubt that there is a God in this universe, and having faith in Him every step of the way. When we fully understand God’s constant, absolute presence in our lives, we will surely live righteously – for how can one ever act unrighteously when they are gripped by God’s perpetual presence?

The Sages teach us that no person sins unless a spirit of folly – a temporary lapse in faith – rests upon him. Of course, if one constantly lacks faith, they will forever succumb to sin. Those who do not know God are doomed to fail. And knowing God is not so simple. The Kotzker Rebbe once beautifully taught that “One who does not see God everywhere, does not see Him anywhere.”

The righteous person is the one who does indeed see God everywhere, who “lives by his faith”, or to translate more accurately, “who lives in his faith”. And what is the purpose of the Torah but to cultivate a deeper understanding of God, and a closer connection to Him? The 613 mitzvot are there to guide us through this journey; to bring us closer to God. And so, the entire Torah can be reduced to this one principle. May we all merit to actualize it.

Tu b’Shevat: The Prime Ministers of Israel and the Coming of Mashiach

This Shabbat we celebrate the little-known though highly significant holiday of Tu b’Shevat. This special day is commonly referred to as Rosh Hashanah l’Ilanot, “the New Year for Trees”. The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 2a) tells us that there are four “new years” on the Hebrew Calendar:

The first of Nisan is the New Year for kings and festivals; the first of Elul is the New Year for tithing of cattle… The first of Tishrei is the New Year for years, for sabbaticals, Jubilees, plantation, and tithing of vegetables; on the first of Shevat is the New Year for trees according to Beit Shammai, however, Beit Hillel places it on the fifteenth of that month.

The general rule is that we always follow Hillel’s opinion over Shammai’s, and so the New Year for Trees is commemorated on the 15th of Shevat. The Talmud doesn’t explain why Hillel and Shammai disagreed about the date. Perhaps because of this confusion, we are told that Rabbi Akiva would tithe his fruits on both the first and fifteenth of Shevat.

Nonetheless, by the 16th century, Tu b’Shevat had developed into an important mystical holiday, and the Arizal (Rabbi Itzchak Luria) introduced a Tu b’Shevat seder that mirrors the Passover seder. In addition to eating a variety of different fruits that are kabbalistically symbolic, the Tu b’Shevat seder includes drinking four cups of wine like on Passover. The connection is made very clear: Passover celebrates our First Redemption, and Tu b’Shevat celebrates our future redemption with the coming of Mashiach.

Indeed, Mashiach is often likened to a tree or sprouting plant. For example, Zechariah 6:2 tells us that Mashiach’s name is Tzemach, literally “plant”, while Psalms 92:13, in describing the End of Days, says “the righteous one will flourish like a palm tree.” Jewish tradition holds that a potential messiah lives in each generation, so that he may come immediately if the world is ready. Moses was the first redeemer, so his successor Joshua was the first possible mashiach.

Joshua was the first of the so-called “Judges”, the Shoftim that led Israel over the period of nearly five centuries before Israel had a king. It wasn’t just Joshua who was a potential messiah, but each and every one of the Judges. Each was a saviour in their generation, fighting off Israel’s enemies and bringing peace to the Holy Land. Each had the opportunity to reclaim Jerusalem and build the Holy Temple upon it, but failed. We read in Joshua 13:1 how God reprimands Joshua for growing old without completing his task, while the commentaries on Genesis 49:18 tell us how downtrodden Jacob was to prophetically foresee Samson fail to bring about the redemption.

The period of Judges would come to an end, and soon David would ascend the throne. It was he who acquired the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and brought the Ark of the Covenant there. David besought God to allow him to build the Temple, but God denied the request. However, he promised David that his dynasty would be everlasting, and that he would be the progenitor of the Messiah, who would complete David’s divine task.

It took a long and difficult, lawless period of Judges (where each person falsely did “what was right in their own eyes”, as we are told in Judges 17:6 and 21:25), full of warfare and oppression before the first footsteps of the Final Redemption were laid. This strongly resembles our present situation. “There is nothing new under the sun,” said King Solomon, and it appears we are reliving the past in our modern day.

Israel’s Prime Ministers

In 1948, a fully independent Jewish state in the Holy Land was finally re-established, under miraculous circumstances. Jews were returning en masse to their ancestral home, on a scale unseen since the time of Joshua. There was a chance to reclaim all of the ancient borders and even (though it would be astronomically difficult) rebuild the Temple. An even better opportunity presented itself in 1967, after the phenomenal Six-Day War. Yet time and again Israel failed to fulfil its Biblical mission. Alas, we must wait for Mashiach, the scion of David’s dynasty, to get the job done. The feeling among many Jews today is probably similar to that of the Jews in the period of Judges. And the similarities don’t end there.

The Israelite leaders in the period of Judges did some great things, but ultimately failed to realize their main task. A careful reading of the Book of Judges reveals that not all of the Judges were divinely appointed, and some weren’t even righteous! For the most part, the Judges were military leaders selected by the people. The Judge Avimelech was a powerful warrior, but such a wicked man that he was severely punished by God. Nonetheless, he is counted among the Judges because he was elected by the people. Sound familiar?

The situation in Israel today is much the same, with the people electing their leader – the prime minister – who is often a military hero and sometimes not so righteous. The parallels between the ancient Judges and the modern prime ministers of Israel are striking:

The fifth Judge was Deborah, the only female; the fifth prime minister was Golda Meir, also the only female. Prior to Deborah was Shamgar, who had such a brief stint that he is not included in the chronological record. Likewise, before Golda Meir was Yigal Allon, who served for just 19 days and is often excluded from the list of official prime ministers. Unfortunately, we don’t know very much about the Judges to make more detailed comparisons. Many are described in only one or two verses, and some just by name. (Did Prime Minister Ehud Barak appreciate the significance of his name, considering both Ehud and Barak were two central figures in the Book of Judges?)

What we do know is that there were a total of fifteen Judges, who reigned from the time the Jews returned to Israel after their calamity in Egypt. Three thousand years later, the Jews once again return to Israel after the Holocaust, and thus far there have been thirteen prime ministers. The era of Judges concluded with the start of the monarchy and the subsequent construction of the Temple. It took fifteen judges to get there. Will it take fifteen prime ministers to do it again?

The Secret of Tu b’Shevat

Although the School of Shammai taught that the “New Year for Trees” is the first of Shevat, the School of Hillel insisted that it was on the fifteenth. This is where the holiday gets its name: Tu b’Shevat literally means “fifteenth of Shevat”, where Tu is the traditional Hebrew designation for the number fifteen. (In Hebrew, Tu [ט”ו] is composed of the letters ט and ו, where the former has a value of 9 and the latter 6, totalling 15. It might seem more logical to use the letters yud [10] and hei [5] to represent 15, but that would inadvertently spell a name of God in vain!)

Perhaps the School of Hillel insisted on the fifteenth to remind us of the deeper meaning of the holiday: the Final Redemption that it symbolizes, the foundation of which was laid by the first fifteen Judges and which, perhaps, will be fulfilled by another set of fifteen modern “judges”.

The Kabbalists teach that the letters beit and pei are linked, and are sometimes interchangeable. In fact, within the shape of the letter pei is a hidden beit. With this in mind, the word Shevat (שבט) can be read Shofet (שפט), “Judge”. Thus, Tu b’Shevat may very well hint to the fifteen Judges.

When it comes to the modern-day “judges”, the Prime Minster of Israel is officially the leading member of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. And it is the Knesset that gives the necessary “vote of confidence” to elect a prime minister. Incredibly, Israel’s very first Knesset convened on February 14, 1949, which just happened to be Tu b’Shevat!

Prophecies and Miracles

The Tu b’Shevat seder instituted by the Kabbalists cites the Talmud (Sanhedrin 98a) that “there is no greater sign of the Redemption than the fulfilment of the verse, ‘And you, mountains of Israel, you shall give forth your branches and you shall bear your fruit for my people Israel, for they shall soon come’ (Ezekiel 36:8).” The Sages state then when we see the land of Israel flourishing once more, and yielding great quantities of fruit, we should know that the Redemption is imminent. Indeed, the modern State of Israel has flourished, growing a whopping 95% of its own produce, and exporting over $1.3 billion in agricultural goods – despite having a land mass that is officially 50% desert!

Back in 1890, Rabbi Ze’ev Yavetz started a tradition by taking his students to plants trees on Tu b’Shevat. Soon after, the custom was adopted by the Jewish National Fund, which has since planted an astonishing 260 million trees in Israel, and played a central role in the nascent state’s success. Today, it is estimated that over a million Jews still participate yearly in JNF’s Tu b’Shevat tree-planting. As such, Tu b’Shevat has grown from an obscure, mystical holiday – a footnote on the Hebrew calendar – to an important holiday marked even by secular Jews, bringing the entire nation together, very much in the spirit of the coming Redemption.

‘The Mulberry Tree’ (1889) by Vincent Van Gogh

Donald Trump and the Year of the Rooster

This week’s Torah portion is Bo, which describes the last of the plagues on Egypt, the first Passover night, and the long-awaited end to the Israelite captivity. While the parasha recounts the First Redemption, the world is now eagerly awaiting the Final Redemption. This sentiment has become particularly intense since the inauguration of Donald Trump, which seems to have everyone anticipating the End of Days. While some see the new president as a messianic figure, others believe he is another tyrannical pharaoh. It is truly too early to tell which of these Trump will turn out to be. In any case, the world is a very different place now than it was just a few weeks ago.

Chinese Zodiac (Credit: powerofpositivity.com)

Interestingly, all of this coincides with the start of the new, 4715th Chinese year. According to the Chinese Zodiac, we have now entered the “Year of the Rooster”. At first glance, this may appear unrelated to anything that has to do with either geopolitics or Torah. However, there are actually a great number of parallels between the Hebrew Calendar and the Chinese Calendar, and between the ancient teachings of both cultures. [Might there be a deeper connection between Sinai (סיני) and Sin (סין), the Hebrew for “China”?] And the confluence of Trump’s presidency with the Year of the Rooster may in fact be very significant.

The Rooster’s Call

Jewish mystical teachings suggest that all things in the universe – both living and non-living – are constantly singing to their Creator. A popular text called Perek Shirah, “Chapter of Song”, describes what it is that everything in nature is singing to God. Each creation is chanting a unique verse. The first two chapters of Perek Shirah tells us what the stars and skies sing, the seas and rivers, fields and deserts, day and night, Heaven and Earth, wind and rain, and so on. The third chapter speaks of trees and plants; the fourth, fifth, and sixth of different animals. Pretty much all of the species mentioned sing a single verse. However, one organism is given a whopping eight lines: the rooster.

The rooster’s lines are all concerned with God’s final revelation and the World to Come. They are presented in sequence, with the rooster giving a total of seven calls, one after the other. A careful reading shows that these seven calls of the rooster parallel the seven-year narrative of the End of Days given by the Talmud (Sanhedrin 97a):

Our Rabbis taught: in the seven year cycle at the end of which the Son of David will come, in the first year, this verse will be fulfilled: “And I will cause it to rain upon one city and cause it not to rain upon another city” (Amos 9:7); in the second, the arrows of hunger will be sent forth; in the third, a great famine, in the course of which men, women, and children, pious men and saints will die, and the Torah will be forgotten by its students; in the fourth, partial plenty; in the fifth, great plenty, when men will eat, drink and rejoice, and the Torah will return to its disciples; in the sixth, [Heavenly] sounds; in the seventh, wars; and at the conclusion of the septennate the Son of David will come.

Just as the Rabbis prophesy that in the third year “Torah will be forgotten”, the rooster’s third call is to “busy yourselves with Torah, so that your reward in the World to Come shall be doubled.” Just as the Rabbis prophesy that in the seventh year there will be wars, the rooster’s seventh call is to stand up and “act for God”, to battle those that are trying to destroy the Torah. After the wars, the Rabbis say Mashiach ben David will come, and after the rooster’s seventh call, the chicken proclaims God’s everlasting kindness.

A New Star

In the run-up to the presidential election, it was often pointed out that the gematria of Donald Trump (דונלד טראמפ) is 424, the same as Mashiach ben David (משיח בן דוד). I don’t think too many actually believe Trump himself is Mashiach ben David, but many do feel that his presidency will usher in the coming of the messiah. As we saw above, our Sages taught millennia ago that the coming of Mashiach will be preceded by a specific seven year sequence of events, and that the rooster will proclaim its beginnings. It is therefore quite intriguing to point out the convergence of Trump’s presidency with the Year of the Rooster.

The position of the new star, to appear in the “swan” constellation Cygnus

More fascinating still, the Talmud prophesies that in the sixth year there will be signs from Heaven. If 2017 really is the start of the seven year cycle, that makes the sixth year 2022. Recently, astronomers discovered that a “new star” will appear in the night sky in 2022, the result of a massive celestial collision that happened some 1800 years ago. The star will be visible with the naked eye, and will be among the brightest objects in the sky for about six months. Some rabbis have already stated they believe this to be the prophesied star of Mashiach.

Of course, this is all highly speculative, and may indeed be nothing more than coincidence. In the meantime, it is best to heed the rooster’s third call: “Arise, righteous ones, and busy yourselves with Torah, so that your reward in the World to Come shall be doubled.”

Did the Jews Build the Pyramids?

This week we begin reading the second book of the Torah, Shemot, which recounts the Israelite bondage in Egypt, and the Exodus that followed. Last year, we attempted to answer the big question of how long the Israelites were actually in Egypt, since different sources suggest 210, 400, and 430 years. This year’s question is: when did all of this happen, anyway? The Torah itself never gives any years or specific dates for its events. The accepted Jewish tradition is that the Exodus took place in the Hebrew year 2448, which corresponds to roughly 1312 BCE. What might archaeology and the historical record reveal?

City of Ramses

The Torah tells us that one of the major cities that the Israelites built was Ramses (Exodus 1:11). The historical record shows that this city was, not surprisingly, built by the pharaoh Ramses II (the Great). However, his reigned spanned 1279-1213 BCE, too late for the Jewish dating of the Exodus. Perhaps it was Ramses’ grandfather, Ramses I – the founder of Egypt’s famous 19th dynasty – that began building a new capital city to be named after him. Ramses I reigned 1292-1290 BCE; still too late to coincide with Jewish tradition.

The Torah never identifies the names of any pharaohs it mentions. It describes at least three different ones: the pharaoh that dealt with Abraham, and the one that appointed Joseph many decades later, as well as the “new pharaoh” that forgot about Joseph’s contributions (Exodus 1:8). The pharaoh at the time of the Exodus was likely a different pharaoh altogether, too. The description we have of Ramses II actually parallels the Torah’s Exodus pharaoh quite well.

Ramses II was Egypt’s longest-reigning monarch (66 years!) and had over 100 children. He vastly expanded Egypt’s wealth, and stretched its territory and influence as far as the lands of Canaan and Syria. We see that he was a prolific builder, commissioning – among many other projects – a massive temple complex known as the Ramesseum, which still stood over 1000 years later when it marvelled the Greek historian Diodorus. His city of Ramses (or Pi-Ramses) was located in northeastern Egypt, in the land of Goshen, precisely where the Torah says the Israelites dwelled.

The Hyksos

Images of Semites in Egypt, discovered in a Twelvth Dynasty tomb, dated to c. 1900 BCE

The historical record shows that a few centuries before Ramses, a mysterious Semitic tribe migrated to Egypt en masse and ended up taking over the kingdom. They were called heqa khaseshet, “foreign rulers”, which gave rise to the term “Hyksos”. Eventually, the Egyptians fought back and regained control from the foreigners. Most were expelled, many were killed, and it is likely that some were enslaved.

The ancient Jewish historian Josephus wrote that “Hyksos” comes from hekw shasu, “shepherd kings”. Of course, the Torah describes in detail how the Hebrews came down to Egypt and made sure everyone knew they were shepherds, a trade frowned upon in Egypt. Josephus cites historical sources suggesting that 480,000 Hyksos were ultimately expelled, and he concludes that these were the ancient Israelites!

The city of Ramses was discovered 30 kilometres south of Tanis, which is right by Avaris!

It is interesting to point out that the Hyksos’s capital city was also in the northeastern region of Goshen. The city was named Avaris, or Hawara. These sound quite similar to the way the Egyptians refer to the Hebrews in the Torah: ivri.

Historians date the Hyksos period from 1638 to 1530 BCE, totally just about 110 years. Amazingly, the Zohar (I, 212a-b) states that the Israelites ruled over Egypt for 110 years, then spent the remaining 290 years of their time in Egypt as slaves. This would mean that the Exodus happened 290 years after the end of the Hyksos period. Doing the math, 290 years after 1530 BCE takes us to 1240 BCE – right in the heart of the reign of Ramses II!

Solar Eclipse

‘Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still upon Gibeon’ by John Martin

All of the above suggests that the Exodus happened closer to the middle of the 13th century BCE. Earlier this week, Israeli scientists discovered what may have been Joshua’s famous “stopping of the Sun” at the Battle of Gibeon (as described in the Book of Joshua, chapter 10). Interpreting this event as a solar eclipse, scientists at Ben Gurion University used NASA data to find any solar eclipses that may have been seen in the area between 1500 and 1000 BCE. They found exactly one, which took place on October 30, 1207 BCE.

This is incredible because the Battle of Gibeon would have happened roughly 40 years after the Exodus (since the Israelites spent 40 years in the Wilderness before Joshua led them to the Promised Land). If the Exodus took place around 1240 BCE, as we suggested above, then the dating of Joshua’s battle and the solar eclipse is right on target!

Reconciliation

The major issue now is that 1240 BCE seems to contradict the traditional Jewish dating of 1312 BCE. The truth is that Ancient Egyptian chronology is notoriously inaccurate. Scholars admit that discrepancies do exist, and are off by anywhere from 30 to 300 years. The discrepancy in our case is only about 70 years, well within the margins of errors.

Compared to the many foggy lists that scholars use to put together Egyptian chronology, the Torah’s chronology is fairly consistent and straight-forward. The years are added up based on peoples’ lifespans and the ages at which they had children, which are explicitly recorded. Historians might therefore want to take another look at Jewish chronology (as brought down in Seder Olam) if they wish to resolve some of their own conflicts.

And did the Jews build the pyramids? They may have built some pyramids (although by that time, pyramids had gone out of style). However, the famous Great Pyramid of Giza was completed by the middle of the third millennium BCE, long before any Israelites were on the scene.

Sphinx and the Great Pyramid

How Jacob Prophesied All of Jewish History

This week’s parasha, the last of the Book of Genesis, is Vayechi, which focuses on the last years and days of Jacob’s life. A large section of the parasha recounts Jacob’s final words to his sons. We read that “Jacob called for his sons and said, ‘Gather and I will tell you what will happen to you at the End of Days.’” (Genesis 49:1) And yet, as we read on, we seemingly see little about the End of Days. Instead, we are presented with a challenging passage that mixes blessings and prophecies, and is full of code words and puzzling metaphors. Rashi comments that Jacob “attempted to reveal the End, but the Shekhinah withdrew from him. So he began to say other things.” More mystical commentaries suggest that he did indeed say what will happen at the End of Days, but in cryptic fashion.

jacob-blessing-his-twelve-sons-dalzielOver the centuries, much meaning has been drawn from Jacob’s enigmatic words, and they have been interpreted in a wide variety of ways. A careful reading will reveal a great deal of insight from each “blessing” that Jacob gave to each child. While each blessing seems to stand on its own and have no relation to the next, a closer look suggests that the blessings are actually all part of one logical and chronological sequence. In fact, in one relatively brief passage, the Torah secretly embeds all of Jewish history!

Reuben and the Exodus

The first blessing was given to Jacob’s firstborn, Reuben:

Reuben, you are my firstborn, my strength and the first-fruits of my might. Superior in rank and superior in power, [but] restless like water; [therefore] you shall not have superiority, for you ascended upon your father’s couch; then you profaned Him Who ascended upon my bed.

Jacob calls Reuben his reshit and bekhori. In his commentary on the first words of Genesis, Rashi proves that the word reshit always refers to the Jewish people. Similarly, God often calls Israel his “firstborn” nation. In fact, we first see this in the narrative of the Exodus (4:22), where God instructs Moses to relate to Pharaoh: “Thus says Hashem: Israel is My son, My firstborn [bekhori].” The first verse of Jacob’s blessing suggests that his words will describe the future of the Jewish people.

The next verse states that “you ascended upon your father’s couch” and profaned Hashem. While the simple meaning refers to Reuben’s sin in “mounting his father’s bed” (Genesis 35:22), the deeper reference is to the Israelites at Mt. Sinai, who profaned Hashem by worshipping the Golden Calf. Following the Exodus and the Revelation at Sinai, God had given Israel complete superiority and the highest rank among the nations, all of which they lost (at least temporarily) when they sinned with the Calf – as Jacob quite clearly alludes.

Shimon, Levi, and the Era of Judges

Following Sinai, the Israelites travelled to the borders of the Holy Land. Instead of eagerly conquering and settling it, the nation sent a group of spies who returned with a negative report, convincing the nation to stay put. Because of this, God decreed forty years of wandering in the wilderness, after which the people were ready to enter the land of Israel.

The Borders of the Twelve Tribes and Locations of Some Major Judges

The Borders of the Twelve Tribes and Locations of Some Major Judges

When they did, they were unsuccessful in settling the land as God had directed, and failed to rid the Holy Land of idolatry and immorality. This brought about perhaps the most difficult period of Jewish history – the era of Shoftim, Judges – where Israel was constantly under the tyrannical rule of some warlord, and where the Israelites tribes often fought bitterly amongst themselves. As the Tanakh often repeats in describing this time period (see for example, Judges 17:6 and 21:25): “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did that which was right in his own eyes.”

All of the above is prophesized by Jacob’s next blessing, to Shimon and Levi:

Shimon and Levi are brothers; weapons of violence is their kinship. Let my soul not come into their council; unto their assembly let my glory not be united; for in their anger they slew men, and in their will they hamstrung oxen. Cursed be their anger, for it was fierce, and their wrath, for it was cruel; I will divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel.

Jacob clearly references this period when the nation will divide up the Holy Land and settle across it. He reprimands them for the anger and brotherly hatred they will show one another, and rebukes them for their violence and civil war. Not surprisingly, Jacob wants nothing to do with this difficult period of Jewish history.

Judah’s Dynasty

The cruel period of Judges finally ended with the establishment of the monarchy. After a very brief period of rule by King Saul, David took over and established a new, everlasting dynasty. God promised to David – who is from the tribe of Judah – that his descendants will forever be the rightful kings of Israel, until the time of Mashiach, who himself will be a descendent of David. This is precisely what Jacob prophesies in his next blessing:

Judah: you, your brothers will acknowledge. Your hand will be at the nape of your enemies; your father’s sons will prostrate themselves to you… The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the scholar from between his feet, until Shiloh comes, and to him will be a gathering of peoples…

Jacob makes clear that Judah is destined for royalty, and to him the other tribes will prostrate. This will be an eternal dynasty – from whom the scepter shall not depart. “Shiloh” is one of the titles of Mashiach. Rashi explains the term comes from shelo, “his”, since the renewed kingdom will belong to him, following the “gathering of peoples”, ie. kibbutz galuyot, the end of the exile and return of all Jews to Israel.

The Kingdom of Israel

Map of Israel in the 9th Century BCE, showing the Kingdoms of Judah and Israel

Map of Israel in the 9th Century BCE, showing the Kingdoms of Judah and Israel

Unfortunately, David’s dynasty didn’t hold onto its rule as planned. After King Solomon, the nation divided once again, this time into two kingdoms. In the south was the Kingdom of Judah, ruled by the Davidic dynasty, while in the north was the Kingdom of Israel, ruled by leaders from the tribe of Ephraim. This is described by Jacob in the next blessing:

Zebulun will dwell on the coast of the seas; he [will be] at the harbor of the ships, and his boundary will be at Zidon.

Looking at a map of ancient Israel, one sees how the northern Kingdom of Israel was situated right along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, all around the coasts of the Sea of Galilee, and by the shores of the Jordan. Its territories stretched as far north as Zidon (or Sidon) in Phoenicia. This is precisely the description given by Jacob.

Assyria and Babylon

Ultimately, both kingdoms would collapse: the northern at the hands of the Assyrians, and the southern at the hands of the Babylonians shortly after. The nation was dispersed all across Assyrian and Babylonian lands. In the latter case, they were taken in chains, as indentured servants. Again, Jacob prophesies this in perfect detail in his next blessing:

Issachar is a large-boned donkey, lying between the boundaries. He saw a resting place, that it was good, and the land, that it was pleasant, and he bent his shoulder to bear [burdens], and he became an indentured labourer.

Jacob says how Issachar is “between the boundaries” – no longer in his own land, and exiled from place to place. He has become a mas oved, an “indentured labourer”. Unfortunately, most of the exiled Israelites eventually grew accustomed to their new lands, which they saw as “good” and “pleasant”. For this reason, when the door to return to the Holy Land was reopened, most chose to stay abroad, and only small numbers returned to rebuild Israel.

Returning to Israel & the Second Temple

Cyrus the Great

Cyrus the Great

It was the Persian King Cyrus that brought down the Babylonian Empire and allowed the Jews to return to Israel and rebuild the Temple. For his role in the salvation of the nation, the Tanakh (Isaiah 45:1) calls him “Mashiach”! This salvation is what Jacob hopes for in his next blessing:

Dan will avenge his people; like one, the tribes of Israel. Dan will be a serpent on the road, a viper on the path, which bites the horse’s heels, so its rider falls backwards. For Your salvation, I hope, O Lord!

Jacob states how Dan will be k’echad shivtei Israel. This literally means that the tribes of Israel will become one. This is precisely what happened in the Second Temple era, when tribal affiliation was lost and forgotten, and all Israel simply became “Jewish” (because of the dominant tribe – Judah). In this era, the Jews no longer enjoyed independence, and were subject to a sequence of powerful empires: the Persian, then the Greek, and finally the Roman. To avoid destruction at the hands of these empires, the underdog Israel had to become like a “serpent”, deceptively “biting the horse’s heel” to make its rider fall back.

Purim & Chanukah

Two monumental events happened during this time period, each of which we commemorate with its own holiday. Purim recalls how Haman prepared a genocide against the Jews, yet in miraculous fashion, lost all of his power and prestige. His forces fell into disarray, and the Jews were able to fight them off quickly. Jacob’s next blessing says the same:

Gad: a troop shall troop upon him; but he shall troop upon their heel.

A troop marches against Gad, but he is ultimately able to overpower them, making them retreat on their heels. Interestingly, the word gad means “luck” or “fortune”. This is related to Purim, which means “lotteries” and deals with the theme of luck, since Haman picked the date of the genocide by casting lots, and the Jews were seemingly “lucky” in their salvation. God is never explicitly mentioned in the Purim story; everything seems to happen by chance. Yet, each part of the story screams out God’s miraculous presence.

A few centuries later, it is the Syrian-Greeks who are trying to extinguish Judaism, but the Jews miraculously fight off their oppressors yet again. The Maccabees recapture the Holy Temple, and relight the Menorah with just one cruse of oil that ends up lasting eight days. The Maccabees go on to re-establish a semi-independent Jewish kingdom, controversially appointing themselves the new kings under the banner of the Hasmonean dynasty. This is described by Jacob precisely:

As for Asher, his bread shall be fat, and he shall yield royal delicacies.

Jacob says shmenah lachmo, which literally means “his bread will be oily”, but can also mean “his warriors will be oily”! (The word for bread – lechem – and the word for warrior – lochem – share a root and are nearly identical.) This is a clear reference to the Maccabee warriors and their miracle of oil. The second part of the blessing says that Asher will give ma’adanei melekh, “royal delicacies”, a reference to Hasmonean royalty.

Exile and Mashiach

The Hasmonean period came to a close with the arrival of the Romans. At first living in relative harmony, the Romans would eventually destroy the Second Temple, and exile the Jews from the Holy Land. This would usher in the last and longest exile of Israel.

sanhedrinHowever, it also led to the necessity of the Sages to record the Oral Tradition, thus producing the Mishnah. This Mishnah was then discussed, analyzed, and debated by the following generations, which brought the Talmud. Of course, it is the Talmud that makes up the major corpus of Judaism, and preserves the authentic interpretation of the Torah. It was also in this period that the texts of Jewish prayers and blessings were finalized, and in this period that the Tanakh was formally sealed. In lieu of a Temple, synagogues and study halls began popping up in all Jewish communities. It was therefore in this time period – following the Temple’s destruction by Rome – that Judaism as we know it was born. Jacob says:

Naphtali is a hind let loose, who gives beautiful words.

Naphtali is described as an ayalah sheluchah, which literally means a hind (or gazelle, or deer) that has been sent forth, like the Jews who were sent out of their land by the Romans. The second part says Naphtali speaks imrei shafer, “beautiful” or “improved sayings”. This may well be a reference to the beautiful sayings and teachings of the Mishnah and Gemara, which resulted directly from exile.

The bitter Roman exile is one in which we still find ourselves in. Over the past two thousand years, Jews have been despised, expelled, slaughtered, and suffered every kind of atrocity. Nonetheless, we have survived and prospered, and continued to make a huge impact on the world. This is what Jacob says to Joseph:

Joseph is a fruitful vine, a fruitful vine by a fountain; its branches run over the wall. The archers have dealt bitterly with him, and shot at him, and hated him. But his bow remained firm, and the arms of his hands were made supple, by the hands of the Mighty One of Jacob, from there, from the Shepherd, the Rock of Israel. The God of your father will help you, and the Almighty shall bless you, with blessings of Heaven above…

While ben porat Yosef, ben porat alei ayin is often translated as “Joseph is a charming son; a charming son to the eye,” it has also been translated in the above way, as Joseph being a fruitful vine (which makes more sense when the whole verse is taken together). We see Jacob describing the bitter exile, with all of the hate and suffering heaped upon Israel. But the nation survives with God’s help and blessing.

It is interesting to note how Jacob mentions a wall in the first verse. The Romans left but one relic of the Holy Temple – its western retaining wall. This is the Wall that Jews still flock to, and through which they direct their prayers.

The exile will finally end with the coming of Mashiach, who will defeat Israel’s enemies once and for all, put an end to evil, and restore the Jews to their original borders. This is Jacob’s final blessing:

Benjamin is a ravenous wolf; in the morning he will devour, and in the evening he will divide the spoils.

Ben-yamin is literally the “righteous son”, Mashiach, who will cause evil “to be devoured”, and will divide Israel back along its original tribal borders. Here, Rashi quotes Onkelos as saying “the spoils” refer to the Temple and its sacred vessels. The Temple will finally be rebuilt for the Jews, who all return to their Promised Land. With this closing chapter of history, Jacob concludes his blessings.

The Zohar comments on the first word of the parasha, Vayechi, that this final prophecy of Jacob was on the very highest level, equal to the unique prophetic ability of Moses. Indeed, Jacob saw thousands of years into the future, and beheld the entirety of Jewish history, which he then poetically summarized to his children in one short, incredible monologue.

Courtesy: Temple Institute

Courtesy: Temple Institute