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.
Over 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
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.
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
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
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.
However, 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