“Each According to His Blessing He Blessed Them”

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Le-iluy nishmat Yosef ben Aharon Shmuel H"YD, Grandpa Joe.
Beloved son of Karen and Uri,
Beloved grandson of Miriam and Moshe.
May they be comforted among the mourners of Tzion veYerushalayim.


Adapted by Rav Matan Glidai

Translated by Kaeren Fish


“All these are the twelve tribes of Israel, and this is that which their father spoke to them, and blessed them; each according to his blessing he blessed them.” (Bereishit 49:28)

The commentators are divided as to how to understand words “each according to his blessing.” Rashi (ad loc.) explains that the phrase refers to the blessings that have just been listed, and it indicates that the blessing given to each tribe speaks to its role and destiny in the future: “He blessed them with the blessing that was destined to come to pass for each of them.”[1]

Seforno, in contrast, understands the phrase as a reference to other blessings, not those set forth in our parasha:

“To each of them he gave a blessing for which [that tribe] had a particular need. For instance, he blessed Yehuda concerning the monarchy, and Yissakhar concerning Torah, and Levi concerning [Temple] service.”[2]

However, the simplest explanation of the verse would seem to be that offered by the Or ha-Chaim:

“‘According to his blessing’ – this means [the blessing] appropriate to him, reflecting his particular essence and reflecting his actions. For one has to know that every soul is endowed with a particular quality: there is a soul whose special quality is kehuna (priesthood); another possesses malkhut (kingship); there is the crown of Torah, and there is valor, and wealth, and success. Yaakov spoke with prophecy, blessing each with the blessing appropriate to him: [blessing] the king with kingship; the Kohen with kehuna, and so on.”

Each of the tribes had its own individual characteristics, and Yaakov blessed each as appropriate, with a blessing reflecting the tribe’s strengths and tendencies. In a family with two or three children, such individualized attention is a relatively simple task; in a family of twelve sons, a parent might be tempted to lead them all in a single path, rather than tailoring the educational goals and methods to each individually. Yaakov does not take the easier route; he pays attention to the differences between his sons and to what makes each of them unique.

The Or ha-Chaim stipulates two criteria for tailoring the guidance of a child: “reflecting his particular essence and reflecting his actions.” The “particular essence” of the child is what makes him uniquely himself: the educator must pay attention to what the child excels in and where his main abilities lie, and then must encourage him in those directions. However, this is not enough. The educator must also consider “his actions” – what the child does and what he desires, and then help him progress and improve in those areas.[3]

Along with these considerations – the child’s “particular essence” and his “actions” – there is, of course, another consideration: the needs of the collective. Every person must ask himself which of his abilities can be put to good use and have a positive impact; where he might be the “right person for the job”; where his talents are most needed. This creates a complete and whole society in which every individual fills the role best suited to him and thereby makes his optimal contribution, while at the same time enjoying the unique talents and abilities of his peers.

Moreover, in such a society, every individual absorbs something of the uniqueness of his fellow. Yaakov’s twelve sons became the twelve tribes, whose separate and unique identities, playing a significant role in many different spheres of life,[4] were maintained up until the Assyrian exile. But the wholeness of Am Yisrael is more than just the sum total of all the different facets represented by the tribes. The nation is more than just a puzzle made up of its pieces. Commenting on the verse, “each in accordance with his blessing his blessed them,” the midrash teaches:

“Since the text has already noted, ‘he blessed them,’ what is added by the words, ‘each in accordance with his blessing he blessed them’? Since his blessing likened Yehuda to a lion, Dan to a snake, Naftali to a hind, and Binyamin to a wolf, he then blessed them all together as one, making them [all] ‘lions’ and ‘snakes.’ That this is so we see from the fact that Yaakov says, ‘Dan shall be a serpent,’ but the Torah also calls him a lion, as it is written, ‘Dan is a lion’s whelp’ (Devarim 33:22), thus fulfilling what is written, ‘You are all fair, my love, there is no blemish in you’ (Shir Ha-shirim 4:7).” (Bereishit Rabba 99:4)

When everyone engages in the sphere and occupation best suited to him, there is mutual benefit whereby each party can also develop in areas that come less naturally to him. Dan, whom Yaakov likens to a snake, receives, in the blessing bestowed by Moshe before his death, Yehuda’s quality of being a “lion.” Naftali, whom Yaakov compares to a hind, absorbs something of Binyamin’s “wolfish” character, and so on.

The great significance of this concept in the educational realm is clear. An educational institution generally provides the same general guidance for all its students. But does this mean that strives to mold them all in the same image, ultimately producing graduates who are virtually identical to one another? Certainly not. Anyone who holds such a view is doing a great disservice both to the individual student and to the collective.

On the other hand, we must remember that “each according to his blessing he blessed them” is preceded by “all these are the twelve tribes of Israel.” One proceeds on his own individual path out of a sense of belonging to and rootedness in Am Yisrael.

Rashi writes (49:8) that after Yaakov had already rebuked Reuven, Shimon and Levi, Yehuda was afraid that he was next in line and would be rebuked for the episode involving Tamar. How did Yehuda end up embroiled in such an improper situation? The verse reads, “Yehuda went down from his brothers and turned in to a certain Adullamite, whose name was Chira” (38:1). It all started from Yehuda “going down” and separating himself from his brothers, seeking to realize his personal ambitions without giving proper attention to the needs of the family as a whole, and without seeing himself as part of it.

For this reason a person must choose his occupation only after he engages to an extent in all the areas of endeavor of Am Yisrael and develops a perspective on Am Yisrael’s role in the world. The Mishna in Avot (1:2) teaches that the world stands on three things: on Torah, on Divine service, and on acts of kindness. However, Chazal teach (Yevamot 109b) that “Anyone who says, ‘I have only Torah’… he does not have even Torah.” A person has no right to devote himself exclusively to a certain avenue before engaging in all three realms and thereby consolidating his common basis with all of Am Yisrael and a sense of rootedness in the collective. Only afterwards should he turn to the path best suited to his particular talents and abilities, and focus on one of these three pillars of the world.

The same applies to our Torah study. Am Yisrael needs not only scholars who are proficient in Talmud and the poskim, but also people who specialize in Tanakh and in Jewish philosophy. However, the basis of Torah, the common foundation, is acquired only through study of Gemara: “The Holy One, blessed be He, forged a covenant with Israel over the Oral Law” (Gittin 60b). Only after some years of intensive study of Gemara, providing a broad, strong and solid basis in Torah as a whole, is a person properly equipped to choose a specific specialization suited to his abilities and tendency.

(This sicha was delivered at seuda shelishit, Shabbat parashat Vayechi 5753 [1993].)

[1] According to this interpretation, then, the phrase “each according to his blessing he blessed them” is understood in the same way as “each according to his dream he interpreted” (41:12).

[2] From the words “and Levi – concerning service” it is clear that Seforno has a different set of blessings in mind, since in our parasha there is no such blessing to Levi.

[3] It should be noted that the Or ha-Chaim here negates the 18th-century psychological perception of man as a blank slate at birth, a “tabula rasa,” with his personality developing and being molded by his education. From his commentary here we understand that people are born different, each with its own strengths and tendencies.

[4] These separate identities will be rehabilitated in the future, with the building of the Temple and the inscription of the names of the tribes on the stones of the Choshen.