One of the featured motifs of Sefer Bereshit, the Book of Genesis, is sibling discord. It began with fratricide when Cain killed Abel, and continued in each generation of the patriarchal/matriarchal narrative. Yitzhak and Yishma’el couldn’t coexist; the twins Ya’akov and Esav had to separate for 20 years before they could see each other again; and Yosef and his 11 brothers are estranged for just as long. And we can’t forget the Sister Wives, Leah and Rahel, as they competed for Ya’akov’s attention and fertility. As we reach the end of this first book of the Torah, is there any hope of breaking this cycle?
Indeed there is hope, and much of it is provided by Yosef himself, speaking kindly and humbly (for a change) about God’s hand in orchestrating the conflict and resolution. No hard feelings, he says. But it is Ya’akov, he who cheated his brother twice, he who played favorites among wives and children, whose final charge to his sons lays the groundwork for whatever hope there is for cooperation among the Children of Israel.
The blessing/prophecy that the elderly father shares with his sons, one by one, doesn’t pull any punches. If the boys acted poorly in the past, they will hear about it in the present and rue it in the future. But the narrative implies that instead of giving each son a private word, Ya’akov shares his parting messages to the brothers in a large gathering. Why is this his strategy? Rabbi Avraham Feder, in his book Torah Through a Zionist Vision, writes: “To the end Jacob knows what is required to survive as a nation in the world. To that end, the tribes will represent in combination the requisite variety of skills, talents, and attributes necessary to make survival promising” (vol. 1, p. 148).
Ya’akov teaches us significant lessons as he bids farewell to his sons. On Shabbat morning, we’ll look at a mini-sermon from Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch on this subject, and see how the modern Jewish nation might learn from earlier generations.
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi David Wise