Rabbi David Walk
Did you ever hear a professional quarterback or baseball pitcher talk about how the game is beginning to slow down for them? Although I never experienced that feeling in my short and undistinguished athletic career, I think that I get the concept, because I watch sports on TV with super slow motion for every important play. Then you can notice little things these uber athletes accomplish that the rest of us just dream about doing. But there are also some people who seem to live their lives in slow motion, in other words with greater awareness. They notice things the rest of us miss, and their observations are so much more profound than others that it's like they're living a 45 RPM recording at 33 RPM speed. I've encountered a few such people. They tend to observe and understand things that the rest of miss, because we allow life to pass us by too swiftly. I think this idea is important to understanding a critical feature in this week's Torah reading, because Ya'akov Avinu possessed this quality.
In this parsha Ya'akov is preparing to die. He calls in his sons to deliver blessings before his departure for another realm. There are many controversies about these blessings. Why does he deliver the rights of the first born to Yosef? Hasn't he seen enough sibling rivalry? And then he does it again with Ephraim and Menashe, his grandsons, placing the younger one before the older. Why does his 'blessing' for Shimon and Levi sound more like a curse? It actually contains the word 'curse'. Even though Yosef gets the first born's double portion (two tribes), why does the ultimate leadership (and the Mashiach) go to Yehudah? But I think that the most critical question, which unlocks the key to answering all the others, is: Why does he claim that he will reveal to his sons what will befall them 'at the end of days' and then doesn't deliver?
I am going to disagree with the accepted approach to this entire problem. Rashi explains: He attempted to reveal the End, but the Shechinah (Divine Presence) withdrew from him. So he began to say other things (Genesis 49:1, from the Midrash and Pesachim 56a). In other words, Ya'akov was going to use ruach hakodesh (Divine inspiration) to reveal all, and God only allowed him to reveal the personal futures of the sons for their respective blessings. Many commentaries use this same explanation to describe everything that Ya'akov told his sons and grandsons. Ya'akov was only relating what God told him. In other words, God showed Ya'akov that Ephraim's descendants would be greater than Menashe's, and that would be true of all the blessings. However, God didn't want the final scene of human history revealed, so the last act remained a mystery.
I don't see it that way.
It's true that Ya'akov bestowed the blessings based upon distant future realities. However, I don't believe that Ya'akov based these blessings on a prophecy or Divine vision of what the future would hold. On the contrary I believe strongly that Ya'akov was delivering his personal predictions based upon his own observations of the sons' behavior. He predicted that the future would be a continuation of the present. And he observed the present very carefully. Ever since the original dreams of Yosef back in parshat Yayeishev, Ya'akov was shomer et ha davar (closely monitoring the matter, 37:11). He had been watching carefully for a long time, and these blessings or predictions are the result of these observations. That's why they are so close to the truth but not perfect. If Ya'akov had prophecy rather than powers of observation, I assume he would have known about the tribe of Levi becoming God's work staff down here on earth. Instead, Ya'akov just lumps in Levi together with Shimon, based upon their behavior up to that point. And their 'blessing' is pretty nasty.
The same idea is important to the blessings of Ephraim and Menashe. Ya'akov had known them for 17 years, and, according to the Midrash, he taught them the traditions of his father and grandfather. He saw something in Ephraim which would lead his progeny to positions of leadership in the Jewish nation. Menashe showed many good qualities and these would also be bequeathed to his offspring. But Ephraim had something special. I firmly believe this approach to the episode. However, I still have so many questions. What did Ya'akov see in Ephraim? How was he able to look beneath the surface to see so much more than the rest of us notice?
We read these stories over so many years and each year more of the veil is removed revealing greater details into the relationships and character of our forebears. We still get only a glimpse. The one character who we really get to observe grow from hasty youth to competent maturity is Yehuda (Hah, you thought I was going to say Yosef, didn't you?). The early Yehuda is easily seduced by circumstances. He sees the opportunity for the brothers to rid themselves of troublesome Yosef without soiling their hands with blood. He spots the woman at the side of the road. He seizes the moment, takes the chances and throws caution to the wind. But all that changes. He repents his indiscretion with Tamar, and decides to take full responsibility for the sin against Yosef by becoming the guarantor for Binyamin.
His behavior change has a profound affect on Yosef and Ya'akov. Yosef is forced to change his plans, as I described in last week's article, and reveals himself earlier than expected. Ya'akov is moved by Yehuda's newly acquired level of responsibility to foresee his descendants ruling over Jewish destiny. I think that all of these conclusions are the result of Ya'akov's patient power of observation.
I believe that we need to look at these blessings in the light of Ya'akov's care and concern in the granting of these blessings. We see in them advice to be heeded, in some cases to encourage change (Reuvain, Levi, Shimon), and in others to stay the course (Yosef, Yehuda). But most importantly I believe that we must follow Ya'akov's example and watch our children carefully enough to give similarly affective advice.