By Rabbi Robert Layman
For three months, we have read from the Book of Genesis, beginning with the account of creation, proceeding through the stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs, the saga of Joseph and concluding with the death of Jacob.
Genesis consists of 50 chapters, making it the longest of the five books of the Torah. Chapter 49 may be considered the centerpiece of this week’s portion, Vayechi. It is often referred to in Hebrew as Birkat Ya’akov (Jacob’s blessing) and, more accurately, in English, as the Testament of Jacob. As soon as we begin reading chapter 49, it becomes eminently clear why Birkat Ya’akov is a misnomer.
Much of what the patriarch declares to his sons on his deathbed consists of admonition or outright condemnation. He is very unhappy with the behavior of his firstborn Reuben and the violence perpetrated by Simeon and Levi.
On the other hand, Jacob reserves his warmest praise for his fourth son Judah, who has demonstrated his leadership capabilities and whose descendants will be leaders of the Jewish people. Not surprisingly, Jacob is very effusive in his praise of Joseph, his favorite son, and invokes God’s beneficence upon him. The sons, who do not loom large in the narrative of the patriarchs, receive, for the most part, commendations that the reader may consider “pareve.”
Let me cite two examples to which the ancient rabbis assigned a special significance. The two youngest sons of Leah, Issachar and Zvulun (Zebulun) are listed in reverse order of their birth in Jacob’s testament. Jacob says, “Zebulun shall dwell by the seashore; he shall be a haven for ships, and his flank shall rest on Sidon.” The reference is to a port city in Phoenicia, present-day Lebanon. In rabbinic tradition the tribe of Zvulun is seen as consisting of prosperous merchant seamen. More on that a bit later.
Jacob now turns his attention to Issachar whom he likens to “a strong-boned ass, crouching among the sheepfolds.” According to current cultural standards that may not sound complimentary, but it was meant as a compliment. The rabbis viewed the phrase “crouching among the sheepfolds” as an allusion to the sedentary character of the tribe of Issachar. But they were not implying idleness.
On the contrary, the members of that tribe were actively engaged in the study of Torah. “What!” you may protest, “the Torah had not yet been given to the people in the era of the patriarchs. It doesn’t appear until the account of Revelation in chapter 19 of Exodus, the book that we shall begin reading next week.”
In rabbinic tradition, the Torah pre-existed the creation of the universe and academies for the study of Torah were established even before the time of the patriarchs. Indeed, they suggest that the description of Jacob in his youth as a simple man dwelling in tents implies that he studied in well-established yeshivot. It would follow, therefore, that at least one of his sons would emulate his father, and that son was Issachar.
The Midrash relates that because Issachar was sedentary and did not actively pursue an occupation, the tribe was sustained by his prosperous brother Zvulun. Rashi summarizes the relationship in these words: Zvulun engaged in prakmatia (business) and provided food for Issachar, who was engaged in the study of Torah.
While we may regard some of Jacob’s testament as perfunctory and not deserving more than a perfunctory reading, we may have to think again when we examine how the rabbis viewed Jacob’s predictions.
We will realize that there is a lesson for future generations in the relationship between the tribes of Issachar and Zvulun. Throughout the ages, a certain portion of the Jewish population has devoted much of its time to the study of Torah in its broadest sense of Jewish learning and, while they were still obligated to earn a living, their earnings were insufficient to support them and their families. It was up to the more successful and affluent members of the community to support these students and their institutions.
The need continues to this day with our attempts to perpetuate Jewish learning through our day schools. The cost is substantial and beyond the reach of many families, so we depend on the descendants of Zvulun among us to assume the responsibility of providing sustenance for those who, like Issachar, devote themselves to the study of Torah and the perpetuation of Jewish life. It is an obligation which the Jewish community has yet fully to assume.
May this week’s parshah provide the stimulus for greater involvement in philanthropy, especially in these difficult times. Shabbat shalom.
Parshat Vayechi is usually read around New Year’s Day in the secular calendar. Let us pray that the year 2021 will bring recompense for the unprecedented difficulties that we have endured in 2020.
Rabbi Robert Layman, a past president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia, retired from the active rabbinate in 2001. He is an instructor in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Temple University. The Board of Rabbis is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.