The last seventeen years of the life of our father, Yaakov, are years of contentment and serenity. His family has been reunited, albeit in the foreign land of Egypt, and the rift between Yosef and his brothers has somehow been repaired. Yaakov studies Torah with his grandsons, even those who were born in Egyptian exile, far from the holy home of Yaakov in the Land of Israel. He basks in the glory of the achievements of his beloved son Yosef and in the accomplishments and students of the school of Torah established by Yehuda in the land of Goshen. He is finally at peace after his long and difficult life of struggle, enemies and heartbreak. As the Lord had promised Yaakov, “Yosef will place his hands over your eyes.” The triumph and success of Yosef soothes Yaakov’s later years.
But Yaakov is aware that the success and prosperity of his family is illusory and temporary. He sees in his prophetic vision the exile of Egypt unfolding and how it will become progressively more bitter. The baleful scene that his grandfather Avraham witnessed in his dream of his “descendants being strangers in a land that is not theirs, and that they will be enslaved and tortured there” until God redeems them, is a living reminder to Yaakov of what the future of Egypt will hold for his descendants. Yaakov knows that difficult times are coming and that his dream of the creation of the people of Israel will be contested by the very Egyptian nation that has proved so kind and hospitable to him and his family in his lifetime. Yaakov’s concern therefore is how can he help prepare his descendants for the ordeal that awaits them. What are the weapons of inner strength that he can bequeath to them that will enable them to withstand the centuries of physical and psychological degradation that face them? The nature of a father and/or grandfather is to protect and support his progeny. Yaakov is therefore undoubtedly determined to help his children. But how?
I think that the answer lies in the final blessings that Yaakov grants to his children before his death. Yaakov addresses each one of his children individually. Each one has his merits and talents. Yaakov is not reticent to point out shortcomings of personality in his sons as well. But it is apparent that Yaakov’s intention is that each one of the sons develops, in fact, concentrate, on their inner strengths and particular individuality. It is as if the salvation of Israel lies in its diversity, its individual independence and human differences, rather than in a sense of conformity and unnatural sameness. Yehuda is the lion, Zevulun the sailor, Yisachar the great-boned donkey who bears the burden of Torah scholarship, Naftali is the swift gazelle and Binyamin is the prowling wolf. Our teacher, Moshe, in his final blessing to the then nation of Israel, also follows the pattern of Yaakov. He does not bless the people as a whole, nor does he blur the differences of outlook, professions, and personalities within the nation. Rather he blesses and strengthens the particular talents and ways of each of the individual tribes, thereby guaranteeing a healthy, balanced and strong Jewish people. Yaakov knows that without the individual strengths of each of his sons separately being reinforced and put to constant use, the Egyptian exile could very well overwhelm the Jews. Therefore the Psalmist phrases the redemption of Israel from Egyptian slavery as being the moment “When Israel left Egypt, the House of Jacob [departed] from an alien society.” Israel, as a united nation and people left Egypt. But it was only able to do so because it remained “the House of Jacob,” individual personalities and distinct individuals. This insight into the blessings of Jacob remains valid today. It was the great Rebbe of Kotzk who said it perhaps best: “If I am I because I am you, and you are you because you are me, then I am not I and you are not you. But if I am I because I am I and you are you because you are you, then I am I and you are you!”
Rabbi Berel Wein