Here we are, at the end of the book of Genesis, the book of our ancestral origins.
Genesis tells us the very partial stories of our mothers and fathers – Eve and Adam, Noah and his wife Na’amah (though nameless in the biblical narrative, this is what she is called in the Midrash), Sarah and Avraham, Isaac and Rebecah, Rachel, Leah and Jacob.
In Genesis, we’ve been privy to both public and private details—sometimes more than we cared to know—regarding these founders of the Israelite nation.
So here we are at the end of this book, and Jacob is on his deathbed. He calls together his 12 sons (but sadly, not Dina or the rest of his daughters) for some parting words.
Often this part of Genesis (49:1-28) is referred to as the “blessing” by Jacob of his sons, though one need only take a cursory glance to see that the word “blessing” is a misnomer. While some of the brothers receive kind and encouraging words from their father regarding their future, Jacob is less magnanimous or positive towards a number of others: he calls Reuben unstable, Shimon and Levi violent, Issachar terribly burdened, and Gad a loser, sure to be defeated by his enemies.
Modern biblical scholarship has taught us that these words, put in the mouth of Jacob by a late author, are merely a description of what transpired historically centuries after the time this story purports to happen. And so, in this way, the father of the twelve tribes is cast in the role of prophet, telling his sons what will happen to their progeny.
But if we return to the narrative itself, we find the same father on his death bed speaking of what he knows—apparently through prophetic spirit—some good, some bad, about each of his sons. And this is also repeatedly called a “blessing.”
“All these,” says the text at the end of this section, “are the twelve tribes of Israel, and this is what their father said to them, and blessed them, every one according to his blessing he blessed them” (Gen. 49:28).
The Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah, Shitah Hadashah 97) comments that the text says “he blessed them” and not “he blessed him.” This signifies that Jacob divided the Land of Cana’an among his various sons, each one getting a different agricultural area. Some got land that yielded one kind of produce, others another. Yet at the end of his words, Jacob grouped all his sons together so they might eat together and partake of what each of them had to offer the other, which is why the text reads “he blessed them.”
This Rabbinic tradition would have us look beyond the details of each individual’s lot and consider their collective state in such a way that we would envision each of these brothers, these tribes – who ofttimes did not get on well with each other – working together to overcome the challenges each faced on his own.
In this way, perhaps, we might continue to call Jacob’s words at the end of Genesis a “blessing.” Not that each son’s fate was to be seen individually as a positive thing, but that as a whole, the entire family was indeed “blessed” to have each other, each one filling in for the other that which he lacked.
May we, as Jews and non-Jews all over the world, members of different faith traditions, movements, organizations—alas, different “tribes”—figure out how to work together to fill the gaps in each other. May our lives as human beings all over the world be blessed in this way.