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The Torah's Weekly Portions
Bereshit - Vayechi 101
Posted January, 2001
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Beginning at Perek Mem-Zayin, pasuk chav-chet (Chapter 47, verse 28), Parashat Vayichi ends Sefer Bereshit (the Book of Genesis).  This particular Parashah is very rich with many interesting points.  Most commonly discussed is the story of Yaakov (Jacob) blessing the two sons of Yosef (Joseph), Ephraim and Menasheh.  The reason this is considered interesting is that Yaakov gives the greater blessing to the younger, rather than the older, son.  Needless to say, of course, this leads to a great deal of commentary.  For those who are interested, you can read about this in Perek Mem-Chet (Chapter 48).  Along this line, there is another set of prophecies given by Yaakov concerning the end of days as we know them now.  These can be found at Perek Mem-Tet (Chapter 49). 

1. Then Jacob called for his sons and said, "Assemble yourselves and I will tell you what will befall you in the End of Days:

2. Gather yourselves and listen, O sons of Jacob, and listen to Israel your father:

3. "Reuben, you are my firstborn, my strength and my initial vigor, foremost in rank and fore most in power: 

4. Water-like impetuosity -- you cannot be foremost, because you mounted your father's bed; then you desecrated Him Who ascended my couch:

5. "Simeon and Levi are comrades, their weaponry is a stolen craft:

6. Into their conspiracy, may my soul not enter! With their congregation, do not join, O my honor! For in their rage they murdered people and at their whim they maimed an ox:

7. Accursed is their rage for it is intense, and their wrath for it is harsh; I will separate them within Jacob, and I will disperse them in Israel:

8. "Judah -- you, your brothers shall acknowledge; your hand will be at your enemies' nape; your father's sons will prostrate themselves to you:

9. A lion cub is Judah; from the prey, my son, you elevated yourself. He crouches, lies down like a lion, and like an awesome lion, who dares rouse him?:

10. The scepter shall not depart from Judah nor a scholar from among his descendants until Shiloh arrives and his will be an assemblage of nations:

11. He will tie his donkey to the vine; to the vine branch his donkey's foal; he will launder his garments in wine and his robe in the blood of grapes:

12. Red eyed from wine, and white toothed from milk:

13. "Zebulun shall settle by seashores. He shall be at the ship's harbor, and his last border will reach Zidon:

14. "Issachar is a strong-boned donkey; he rests between the boundaries:

15. He saw tranquility that it was good, and the land that it was pleasant, yet he bent his shoulder to bear and he became an indentured laborer:

16. "Dan will avenge his people, the tribes of Israel will be united as one:

17. Dan will be a serpent on the highway, a viper by the path, that bites a horse's heels so its rider falls backward:

18. For Your salvation do I long, O Hashem:

19. "Gad will recruit a regiment and it will retreat on its heel:

20. "From Asher -- his bread will have richness, and he will provide kingly delicacies:

21. "Naphtali is a hind let loose who delivers beautiful sayings:

22. "A charming son is Joseph, a charming son to the eye; each of the girls climbed heights to gaze:

23. They embittered him and became antagonists; the arrow-tongued men hated him:

24. But his bow was firmly emplaced and his arms were gilded, from the hands of the Mighty Power of Jacob -- from there, he shepherded the stone of Israel:

25. [That was] from the God of your father and He will help you, and with Shaddai -- and He will bless you [with] blessings of heaven from above, blessings of the deep crouching below, blessings of the bosom and womb:

26. The blessings of your father surpassed the blessings of my parents to the endless bounds of the world's hills. Let them be upon Joseph's head and upon the head of the exile from his brothers:

27. "Benjamin is a predatory wolf; in the morning he will devour prey and in the evening he will distribute spoils.":

28. All these are the tribes of Israel -- twelve -- and this is what their father spoke to them and he blessed them; he blessed each according to his appropriate blessing:

Specifically, this week's commentary will focus on pasukim chet through yud-bet (verses 8 through 12).  Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch renders these a little differently from the Art Scroll Stone Edition Chumash translation above. 

8. Yehudah (Judah), thou art he to whom thy brethren will pay homage.  Thy hand is on the neck of thine enemies, thy father's sons shall bow down before thee. 

9. A young old lion is Yehudah, above plunder, my son, art thou risen; he kneels down, he rests like a lion and who would rouse him up to an excited lion. 

10. The sceptre will not depart from Yehudah, nor the law-inscribing style from between his feet, until his last weak sprout comes, and to him, then virilely strong, the effete weakness of the nations will turn. 

11. He binds his foal to the vine, and his ass's colt to the choice vine-branch.  He has washed his garment in wine, and his mantle in the blood of grapes. 

12. His eyes, more sparkling than wine, his teeth white than milk. 

This is the first occurrence of a prophecy concerning the moshiach (the annointed one) who will bring about a return for the people of this world to what was in the time of Adam and Chava in Gan Eden (the Garden of Eden).  As Rav Hirsch's commentaries are quite lengthy, I'll do my best to present the highlights and summarize. 

First, Rav Hirsch summarizes Yaakov's qualities and personality, ascribing these not to him personally as much as to the tribe that descended from him.  He states, 

You combine the courage of youth with the prudence of age, have no lust for fighting and plunder for its own sake, are no wild-cat and no wolf, are a lion and above low robbery with murder.  Not in fighting and in the thick of the fray does Yehudah's greatness lie.  Not flaring-up courage, which in the hour of danger wins respect, and then becomes languid, is what distinguished him, even when he is quietly resting he remains a lion.  The greatness which commands respect which he develops in political repose ensures security from without, and internally grants the peace with, under his guidance, allows development to proceed along well-planned lines. 

Concerning Yehudah being the ruling tribe, Rav Hirsch says, 

This trend in Yehudah's character to have influence in the nation both internally and externally befitted him for the "sceptre and lawgiving style," to be the Lord protector of both material and spiritual forces. 

With pasuk yud-aleph (verse 11), we get into the messianic prophecies with an explanation concerning ha moshiach (the messiah). 

So Yaakov visualizes moshiach and how does he see him?  He sees the saviour of mankind, the conqueror of nations, not on a steed, but on a young ass's foal.  The "ass" is always used to represent peaceful well-being, peaceful national greatness, whereas "steed" is used to represent military might.  Similarly, the ass is chosen from all the "unclean" animals to express the dedication of all one's movable possessions.  It is the animal that carries people at a leisurely pace and bears his packs and baggage for him.  Thus, the Jewish conception of the power of kings is not to be represented by horses. 

Two points are stressed with this picture painted here of the future time.  The king of mankind does not ride on a charger, but on an ass, so he comes as the King of Peace, and he ties up his animal to a vine.  If one can tie an animal, and especially an ass, the lively mettlesome young donkey, to a vine, it is a sign of an infinitely increased development in nature (the vine stem growing like that of a tree), and in general of immense prosperity and abundance. 

 Rav Hirsch then brings a quotation from Zechariah Tet:tet (9:9) that confirms this: 

"Rejoice greatly O daughter of Tzion, shout with joy O daughter of Yerushalayim, for see, thy King cometh unto thee, he is a tzaddik (righteous man) and nosah (victorious); humble, and riding upon an ass and upon a colt, the foal of an ass." 

Before getting to the conclusion, it is necessary to back up to pasuk yud (verse 10) for a moment.  We have a portrait concerning the time prior to the appearance of the moshiach and this is no less important than the previous prophecy because it leads to the conclusion.  On this point, Rav Hirsch says, 

Here we have the dullness, the senile weakness of humanity.  Accordingly: the time will come when the spirit of Judaism seems to have come to its end, and the world at large, have become worn out and dull, have lived through everything, tried and tested everything, feels that some new regenerating spirit must come, and this, that last sprout from the stem of Yehudah will bring that. 

Pasuk yud-bet brings us to the conclusion. 

Thus he [Yaakov] sees his final generation, sees the return of paradise on earth, the whole of nature rejuvenated as it was at the beginning, the subjugators and slayers of men no longer regarded as heroes, no drop of blood on the garments of great men, and he sees this generation, with eyes more sparkling than wine, teeth whiter than milk, the joy of life shines from their eyes, their white teeth prove their health. 

This is something of the vision, of which Yaakov probably would have liked to reveal more to his sons, had he been permitted to do so. 

I try to do my best to avoid polemic debates with people of other religions, having outgrown the need for such silliness a few years ago.  However, this is bound to spark something thus I will address it up front.  The image of their would-be moshiach riding an ass is covered in the books of another religion.  However, without the entire picture - the preceding events of where Judaism will be, and the more important events that follow - the world returning to a state of perfection and peace and health being universal - the singular event is meaningless. 

This past year on Yom Kippur, I heard a most interesting drasha (lecture).  The things that the rabbi said echoed these words of Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch - he spoke of our time, that we seem to have no leaders, no one to turn to, and that many of us are doing our best to lead an observant life under very difficult circumstances.  The challenges are brought both from without and from within.  Ahavat Yisrael (the love of all Jews for all Jews) seems to be at a low and there is terrible infighting among and between the various religious and non-religious groups.  In reading these commentaries tonight, as I prepared this, I was struck by the similarity of what Rav Hirsch is saying and what Rav Katzman said on Yom Kippur. 

If nothing else, this provides a great deal of food for thought.  Thank you for allowing me to share these things with you.


Translations in Torah Portions of the week are partially taken from the ArtScroll Stone Edition Chumash and from Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch Chumash

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