A Family Becomes a Nation
Adapted by Immanuel Maier
Translated by Kaeren Fish
At the beginning of parashat Shemot, Pharaoh speaks of "the nation of Bnei Yisrael.” This expression appears immediately after the introductory verses describing the descent of Yaakov's family to Egypt. At what point does this "family" become a "nation"? It would seem that the transformation happens somewhere between the descent to Egypt in parashat Vayigash and the end of our parasha. However, if we wish to narrow the definition, we might point to two factors that turn Yaakov's family into the "nation of the Children of Israel.”
The first factor is Yaakov's choice of Yosef. After the many years that Yosef has lived away from his home, during which time Yaakov had believed his son to be dead, Yaakov now treats Yosef as a firstborn son. The law of the firstborn, set forth in parashat Ki Tetze, stipulates that the firstborn son receives a double portion of his father's inheritance.
Of all the brothers, it is Yosef who receives the portion of two tribes – Menashe and Efraim. This is the result of Yaakov's explicit decision, but attention should be paid to the fact that Menashe and Efraim are not regarded as the "best" of the tribes; rather, they are ranked along with Reuven and Shimon: "Efraim and Menashe shall be for me like Reuven and Shimon" (Bereishit 48:5).
Further evidence of Yaakov's choice of Yosef is to be found in the blessing that he bestows on him later in the parasha. This blessing is longer and includes more elements than the blessings given to the other brothers. While Chazal attempt to minimize this discrepancy, it still seems that Yosef's blessing awards him a place of honor.
The choice of Yosef is also reflected in the commentary of the Akedat Yitzchak (R. Yitzchak Arama) on parashat Vayeshev, where the text describes Yaakov as loving Yosef "mi-kol banav.” The Ba'al ha-Akeda discusses the question of whether this means that he loved Yosef alone, "of all the brothers," or whether he loved him "more than" his other sons, and concludes that Yaakov loved all his sons, but Yosef more than all the others.
This, then, is the first element of incipient nationhood: the identification, selection, and blessing of the leader, the firstborn.
The second factor in the transformation of Yaakov's family into a nation is the series of blessings that Yaakov bestows on his sons prior to his death. Each blessing is suited to the nature of the particular tribe and specifies its unique role and destiny. The role of the tribe of Zevulun is not like that of the tribe of Yissakhar. The blessing given to each tribe reflects its own substance, character, and abilities.
However, beyond the specific content involved, the blessing also has significance that applies to all the tribes. In his blessing, Yaakov sets aside the future inheritance of each tribe. Each tribe receives an inheritance that is suited, inter alia, to its particular role. Thus, Yaakov clarifies the situation in which the family/nation currently finds itself: Bnei Yisrael are currently in exile, in Egypt, on a temporary basis. Their aim and aspiration is to leave this land and return to Eretz Yisrael.
Yaakov underlines this aim in his request to be buried in Eretz Yisrael. The lengthy narrative that the Torah devotes to this burial shows clearly that the question of where a person of Yaakov's stature is buried is not a trivial matter. The Egyptians themselves understand perfectly well the symbolism and significance of Yaakov's request, and they are not happy about it. Nevertheless, Yaakov's wish is fulfilled.
The question of where a person is buried is closely bound up with the question of the place with which he identifies. Here Yaakov identifies himself with the land of Israel, of which he is a part. He is not part of the land of Egypt, nor is he an Egyptian.
The combination of a "customized" blessing to each son and an orientation for the definition of the tribe leaves room for their respective individual identities. The text notes,
"All of these are the twelve tribes of Israel, and this is that which their father spoke to them and blessed them; each one according to his blessing he blessed them." (Bereishit 49:28)
Indeed, we know that the tribes remained within their delineated inheritances for many generations. But they did not exist as separate tribes whose aims were unrelated to one another. They were tribes that jointly constituted the nation of Israel, with their varied talents and abilities enriching one another. All the tribes come together to serve God. How is this unity achieved?
The answer to this question is quite simple. So long as God is at the center, everyone shares a single, unified goal; thus, all the tribes are able to come together and work jointly towards this shared goal. If the goal is not completely pure, conflicts are sure to arise. In this situation, each party focuses on its own partisan interests, and every tribe naturally becomes the competitor and adversary of every other tribe. Unity is then impossible to achieve. Indeed, we see this scenario played out over and over during the course of our history. In the many instances where Am Yisrael has been guided by biased or impure interests, we see schism after schism, with one conflict leading to the next.
In order to exist in a state of togetherness, to nourish, help, and enrich one another, we need to unify around a clear and well-defined goal – service of the Almighty.
(This sicha was delivered on leil Shabbat parashat Vayechi 5772 .)