Thursday, December 16, 2010

Of Lions and Donkeys (Derashah, Vayyichi 5771)

I've been asked to speak this Shabbos at an area shul. The following is the derashah I intend to give; it's really more dvar torah than derashah, I suppose.

This solemn moment, decades in the making, was the transition from the centuries-old patriarch-led clan of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, to the decentralized tribes who would constitute the Jewish nation for most of the next six hundred years. Yaakov, the aging leader who had fought wars and pursued peace, who had endured great pain and navigated great crises, who had shepherded his family from riches to rags to riches to rags to riches, who had lost children and then gained them back, now gathered his descendants for a final message that would prepare them for their future national identity.

• Reuven. Shimon. Levi. Rebuke after rebuke, with all of their brethren present to bear public witness to their dressing-down. Thanks a lot, Dad.

• Yehudah, likened to a regal lion clothed in eternal ermine robes of majesty – and Yissachar, compared to a donkey squatting in the road. Thanks a lot, Dad.

• Yosef, long-favored Yosef, is singled out not for expertly administering the region’s leading economy, not for supporting his family through a famine, not for forgiving his brothers for their attempt to end his life - but for the fact that girls climb walls to get a better look at his pretty face. Thanks a lot, Dad.

And so on. The scene is reminiscent of a family seder at which Uncle Ernie decides to remind everyone present of their most embarrassing childhood habits, or Aunt Eileen singles out every other dish for praise, while ridiculing the one you brought. Had I not read Bereishis Rabbah, I might have accused Yaakov of using his fade-to-black moment to stir the pot, turning brother against brother!

Fortunately, I did read the midrash.

Yaakov introduces the berachos by demanding of his children, “הקבצו ושמעו, Gather and listen,” and the midrash elaborates, “צוה אותן על המחלוקת, אמר להון תהיו כלכון אסיפה אחת,” “He instructed them regarding strife. He told them: Gather together, be a single unit.” Yaakov was not squandering the last potent breath remaining in his lungs. Rather, Yaakov was trying to unify his children in preparation for their national transition.

It’s a good idea, no? After all, we first met these children when their mothers were competing to see who could birth the majority of them. Then we learned that there was a rift between the children of Leah and the others. The lot of them sold Yosef. The Torah describes Yehudah’s strange solo adventure, and alludes to Reuven’s own strange escapade. And now they are about to enter a period when there will be no מלך, no one who will possess the authority to direct them. Unity would be a good thing at this point.

But this is a strange way to develop unity! Blessing some with plenty and others not at all, comparing three of them to the lion, the serpent and the deer, and the other to a donkey? Singling out some of them in front of the entire group for their errors and the dangers inherent in their talents? Where is Yaakov’s wisdom?

The answer may be that at this moment, when the Jewish people were going to cease obeying a single leader and instead identify themselves by thirteen different sub-family loyalties, Yaakov sought to train them to recognize the value in their division, the strength in their separate paths. You won’t have a central leader to direct you, so you had better learn to work together.

To accomplish this goal, Yaakov demonstrated that he thought of each child as an individual, to be honored for his own abilities and, yes, to be marked by his mistakes and his challenges, and he demanded that all of his children do the same.

As Rav Chaim ibn Attar wrote in his Or haChaim, “הנפשות כל אחת יש לה בחינת המעלה, יש שמעלתה כהונה, ויש מלכות, ויש כתר תורה, ויש גבורה, ויש עושר, ויש הצלחה,” “Each soul has a special attribute – kehunah, royalty, Torah knowledge, strength, wealth, success,” and so on. All through the years Yaakov had seen each child as an individual blessed with traits great and small, and kochos that could be turned for good or otherwise, and now he encapsulated a lifetime of these observations for the entire group’s benefit in three or four pesukim for some, and just one pasuk for others, highlighting that which made each one unique.

The result of valuing each individual, with his foibles as well as his successes, would be a greater whole.

The Torah concludes Yaakov’s berachos by saying, “איש אשר כברכתו ברך אותם, Each one according to his blessing, Yaakov blessed them.” Grammatically, the pasuk should have ended, “ברך אותו – Each one according to his blessing, Yaakov blessed him.” Why switch to the plural?

One midrash suggests that Yaakov turned to the plural in order to apply the blessings of each to the rest of the group – all of them should be lions, all of them should be regal, and so on. But the Or haChaim sees it differently, explaining, “כי ברכת כל אחד ואחד תועיל לעצמו ולכל אחיו,” that the blessing of each one benefits the collective.”

You will be separate tribes, but your unique talents and struggles will benefit the whole, building the team. Were all of you identical – all lions or all donkeys – then the result would be a weaker unit. The valuable union is blessed with a variety of skills, a variety of strengths, a variety of challenges, a variety of personal aspirations, a variety of כברכתו, united in service of אותם.

I think we naturally look at our families, our children, as Yaakov looked at his; our daughters and sons and nieces and nephews teach us early on that they have unique interests and strengths. We know that a scientifically minded child will think in certain ways, that an athletic child will enjoy certain activities, that an artistic child will excel in certain areas. Certainly, we coach our children toward the greatest overall success, but we nurture their unique strengths, each על פי דרכו.

But as an international Jewish community resembling the orphaned children of Yaakov, without any umbrella authority to direct our diverse energies, how do we create a culture that encourages and pursues this variegated development?

• In Israel, the Kinor David yeshiva, founded upon the philosophy of Rav Kook, is dedicated to teaching students music as well as Torah.

• In Pennsylvania, the Lancaster Yeshiva Center takes post-high school students and trains them in both Torah and the construction business. Talmidim learn masonry, flooring, plumbing and so on.

• Yeshiva University’s Sy Syms Business Program encourages students to learn Torah half the day, and gain a valuable business education during the other half of the day.

• The Yeshivat Hesder in Tekoa, where Rav Adin Steinsaltz delivers weekly shiurim, offers classes in creative writing.

This is a great beginning, and these institutions reflect Yaakov’s final words. Yaakov’s message summons us to create and cultivate more such institutions – schools and shuls, youth groups, adult programs, forums and contests – to recognize and stimulate the abilities all of us possess, bringing them into service of the klal.

At the outset I asked about Yissachar’s odd berachah; this son is classically identified as the talmid chacham among Yaakov’s children, but he is blessed not as a lion, serpent, deer or wolf, but as a donkey, hardly an impressive beast. The Zohar was troubled by this, and it answered:

• “בגין דחמור נטיל מטולא ולא בעיט במריה,” “The donkey carries a burden and does not kick its master.”

• “ולא אית ביה גסות הרוח,” “The donkey is not arrogant.” And,

• “ולא חייש למשכב באתר מתתקן,” “The donkey doesn’t care about sleeping in an unprepared space.”

Yes, even being labelled a donkey can be a positive. And so with all of our traits, all of our abilities, and even all of our challenges and struggles – when each is recognized as ברכתו, as a blessing for the individual, then ברך אותם, they will also be blessings for the community.

1. The six hundred year period is roughly until the coronation of Shaul, minus the periods of Moshe, Yehoshua and Elazar.

2. The first midrash is in Bereishis Rabbah 98:2. The second is Bereishis Rabbah 99:4. The Zohar is Bereishit 681.

3. The Or haChaim cites are from Bereishis 49:28.

4. Find out more about Kinor David at, about the Lancaster Yeshiva Center at and Tekoa at

5. One point continues to trouble me - the difference between certain tribes who receive 3 or 4 pesukim, and others who receive just 1. I don't believe my answer is strong enough in accounting for this discrepancy.

No comments:

Post a Comment