As for me – when I came from Padan, Rochel died on me in the land of Canaan on the road to Efrat, which is Bethlehem.
Rashi understands Yaakov’s soliloquy as a defensive measure. Yaakov has just asked his son to commit himself to take risks and expend effort on his burial. He realizes that there is something ironic about this. Why did he not do the same for Rochel, when she died? Yaakov uses the opportunity to fend off any questions and criticism about his earlier behavior.
It is difficult to see this as the pshat in our pasuk. The text does hint at something unusual; there is room to see it attempting to explain Yaakov’s earlier behavior. But there is nothing at all in the text that leads to the answer that Yaakov offers – i.e., his deliberate burial of Rochel on the road so that the future exiles would pass her tomb and she would pray for their return.
I have seen others explain our pasuk as self-congratulatory, rather than apologetic. Yaakov points with pride to his choice of burial plot for Rochel. Rather than carry her remains a bit further to Bethlehem, Yaakov stopped short, and buried her on the road. Now, Bethlehem is in the territory of Yehuda. Failing to proceed on to the city, Yaakov remained in the territory of Binyamin, rather than cross into Yehuda’s portion. Rochel was therefore buried in the territorial possession of her own son.
We could support this view by recalling that Rochel, aware that she was not going to survive the birth of her second son, named him Ben-oni, the son of my affliction. She apparently wished her son to forever remember the story of his birth, and perpetually mourn her tragic death. Now, it is a truism that with the passage of time, the dead are forgotten. Burying Rochel in Binyamin’s territory would keep her story alive with Binyamin and his descendants.
Still, I find this approach less than satisfying. It does not account at all for the mention of Reuven and Shimon just two verses before. Their juxtaposition tells us that they are somehow connected to his point about Rochel’s burial.
I would propose a variation on the previous pshat that does show a connection. The elevation of Menashe and Ephraim to a status equivalent to Reuven and Shimon meant that there would be twelve distinct sets of borders created when the Land would be divided. Had this not happened, and there would have been only one Yosef shevet, there would only have been eleven. It was only because twelve groups had to be accommodated that Yehuda’s portion would end at Bethlehem, rather than swallow up land beyond it. Since Yehuda’s portion now was to stop short at the edge of Bethlehem, it left room for Binyamin’s to begin just beyond it.
Thus, the treatment of Ephraim and Menashe in the pesukim that precede ours was the direct cause for Rochel’s kever being located in her son’s territory.
The scepter shall not depart from Yehuda…until Shiloh arrives
Some Christian translations attempt a distortion of this pasuk. They see it as foretelling the end of the Jewish monarchy that would derive from Yehuda. They do this by reading it as if to say, “Kingship will not depart from Yehuda, until the messiah comes – at which point it will depart” from Yehuda and move where it really belongs. In other words, the promise to Yehuda is valid only till the expiration date implied by the last phrase.
I suppose that they will have to say the same about Hashem’s promise to Yaakov, “Behold, I am with you. I will guard you wherever you go, and I will return you to this soil. For I will not forsake you until I have done what I have spoken about you.” Ridiculously, they must read this as Hashem telling Yaakov that He will not forsake him for centuries through the Egyptian exile. But once He delivers on the promise and takes them into the Land, at that point He will forsake them!
A different proposed meaning is also impossible to accept. That reading sees our pasuk promise that Hashem will constantly remain with him from that moment on, and protect him from all mishaps. This cannot be what that promise meant, because during that time, Yaakov’s descendants suffered horribly under Egyptian rule.
Rather, Hashem meant that His promise to Yaakov would not be nullified no matter what happened in the interim. It would remain valid, and bear fruit at some future time, even if its effects would not be apparent at some points along the way.
Our pasuk is meant the same way. It does not promise uninterrupted rule by Yehuda. It does promise that when there would be a ruler, he would come from Yehuda’s shevet. At times, however, there would be no such ruler, and Yehuda’s role would not be apparent.
(For the record, the Christian approach suffers at both ends. Not only is the implication that Hashem would abandon in the end the leadership of Yehudah unsound and unwarranted, but the beginning of the promise is also problematic. It would be a very, very long time until a Davidic monarchy (descended from Yehuda) would begin.)
The part of this that we can agree upon is that the pasuk does reference the coming of moshiach and its relationship to the Davidic line. So what does our pasuk actually say about the time before the Davidic monarchy would be established?
I believe that the promise here to Yehuda vested immediately, and did not wait for the times of David to take effect. Yehuda would be recognized as the leader immediately. Thus, when the shevatim carried Yaakov’s casket back to Canaan, Yehuda stood up front. At the Reed Sea, it was the tribe ofYehuda who jumped into the waters before they split. While in Egypt, we can imagine Yehuda in the ranks of the Jewish overseers appointed by the throne.
We thus recognize the intent of the pasuk as teaching that whenever there would be some sort of rule and leadership, Yehuda would fill it. At times, there would be no real leadership, and therefore no position of prominence for Yehuda. But his potential to assume the reins of leadership would always wait in the wings. This would hold true until the times of moshiach, when he would become king over everything.
I must concede, however, that I cannot account for the period of time during which Shaul was king over Israel, and Yehuda seems to have been absent.
- Based on Meshivas Nafesh, by R. Yochanan Luria (15th century) ↑
- Bereishis 48:7 ↑
- See Rus 1:2 ↑
- Bereishis 35:18 ↑
- Bereishis 49:10 ↑
- Bereishis 28:15 ↑