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"Each One According to the Blessing He Gave Them"

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Student Summaries of Sichot of the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion



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"Each One According to the Blessing He Gave Them"

Adapted by Dov Karoll


"And this is the blessing that their father gave them, each one according to the blessing he gave them" (49:28). Rashbam [s.v. asher] explains that the last phrase in the verse refers to the future destiny of each of the brothers; he bases this understanding on Ya'akov's statement that he will tell his children "what will happen [to them] at the end of days" (49:1). Ya'akov foresaw the potentials and destinies of each of his children, and he blessed them accordingly. Seforno [s.v. asher] explains this phrase as meaning that Ya'akov gave each child the blessing that was uniquely appropriate for him, such as giving leadership. According to these interpretations, this verse serves as a summation of Ya'akov's blessings, emphasizing the care and precision of Ya'akov's perspective.

Rashi (s.v. beirakh) interprets this verse differently, based on the fact that the verse switches from singular to plural in the middle, "Each one according to the blessing he gave them." Indeed neither Rashbam's nor Seforno's explanation accounts for this transition.

Why does the verse end "to them"? Rashi explains that one would have thought that only Yehuda received the courage of a lion, Binyamin the fierceness of a wolf, and Naftali the swiftness of a hind. This concluding phrase comes to teach us that Ya'akov included all the children in all these blessings.

In these blessings, Ya'akov blessed each of his sons in ways that were appropriate to each one's strengths and abilities. He recognized that Yehuda is especially equipped for leadership, Naftali for alacrity, and so on. Nonetheless, Rashi emphasizes, these abilities are not focused exclusively in the named sons. The ability to act regally is not for Yehuda alone. All Jewish people have the status of "the sons of kings" (see, for instance, the view of Rabbi Shimon on Shabbat 111a). Could it be that alacrity is reserved for Naftali alone? Everyone is meant to exhibit some degree of this trait. The same holds true for the blessings of the other tribes.

The special qualities that Ya'akov sees, both in actuality and potential, in each of the tribes, he also transmits to all of them in some degree. While each son has his own strengths and special abilities, he must also strive to attain the values and positive attributes of his fellows. On the practical plane there is some hierarchy: only Yehuda will reign and only Levi will perform the Divine service in the Temple; nevertheless, these values are crucial ones for all the tribes to achieve.

In the period of the Renaissance, up until the Seventeenth Century, there was a widespread cultural ideal of the "Renaissance man," a person knowledgeable and capable in many fields. These people would show special interest and talent in one area, but would be capable in many. With the advance of science and technology, this model has changed, and in the more recent periods, there has been a much greater tendency toward specialization. This is certainly understandable, given the insurmountable vastness of the corpus of knowledge at our disposal. However, there is a price to be paid for this specialization. It is said that, "These days we are learning more and more about less and less, so that ultimately we will know everything about nothing." While that is said in jest, there is some element of truth to it.

In the last century, it became popular to write the history of one's own nation; one person wrote a 20-volume history of Italy, and someone else wrote a 20-volume history of France. Today, a whole staff will work on researching a fifty-year period in one country's history.

There have been parallel developments in Torah scholarship. Great Torah scholars used to write works on a broad range of topics. Today you will find lengthy treatises on one very narrow topic: thick books on the ceremony of hakhnasat sefer Torah (dedication of a Torah scroll) or on tevilat kelim (ritual purification of utensils acquired from gentiles).

This has its advantages: if you want to learn about hakhnasat sefer Torah, you can just go to the library, or to the computer, and you have all the material in one place. While it may be a sign of enrichment to the library, it is a sign of weakness for the beit midrash.

We need to strive for breadth of knowledge while achieving intense study of particular areas. Of course, we must learn as much Torah as we can, both in terms of breadth and depth. We cannot suffice with being specialists in one narrow area of Torah, but must attain broad familiarity, and, hopefully, mastery of many areas. This principle obtains not only in talmud Torah, but in religious life generally. It is crucial to maintain an area of intense focus, while not ignoring or sidelining other realms of religious existence.

[This sicha was delivered at se'uda shelishit, Parashat Vayechi, 5762 (2001).]