Parashat Vayechi tells of Yaakov’s blessings to his sons before his death. Addressing his son Yissakhar, Yaakov describes the tribe that would descend from Yissakhar as a strong donkey (49:14). Rashi, based on the Midrash, famously explains that Yaakov here foresees the time when Yissakhar’s descendants would become the nation’s leading scholars, as described in Sefer Divrei Hayamim I (12:33). According to Rashi, Yaakov’s description of a donkey that carries its cargo tirelessly is an allegorical reference to these scholars’ tireless work to master and understand the intricate laws of Torah.
Interestingly, the Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 99:10) draws an additional association between Yissakhar and the donkey, pointing to the night when Yissakhar was conceived. As we read in Parashat Vayeitzei, Rachel asked Leah to share with her the herbs which Leah’s son had brought for her, and Leah agreed in exchange for a night with Yaakov, who was supposed to have spent that night with Rachel. When Yaakov returned home from the field that evening, the Torah tells (30:16), Leah came out to greet him and informed him that he was to spend the night with her. This union resulted in the birth of Yissakhar. The Midrash, commenting on Yaakov’s analogy comparing Yissakhar to a donkey, tells that Yaakov’s donkey brayed as he made his way home that night, and this is how Leah knew that he had come. She then went out to invite Yaakov into her tent. It thus turns out that the donkey’s bray is the cause of Yissakhar’s conception, and this, the Midrash writes, is the reason why Yaakov compares Yissakhar to a donkey. (A slightly different variation of the Midrash’s account appears in Masekhet Nidda, 31a.)
What might be the significance of this description of Yissakhar’s origins? Why does the Midrash find it important that Leah became aware of Yaakov’s arrival because of his donkey’s bray?
Rav Pinchas Friedman suggests that the Midrash’s comment hearkens back to the interpretation of Yaakov’s analogy as a reference to Torah scholarship. The Gemara in Masekhet Berakhot (3a) teaches that the nighttime period is divided into three segments, each of which is indicated by a certain sound. The first third of the nighttime period, the Gemara comments, is when donkeys bray. Rav Friedman explains that the Gemara here is teaching something more profound than the nature of donkeys. It is impressing upon us the importance of diligent Torah study – symbolized by the donkey – specifically at nighttime. The Rambam, in Hilkhot Talmud Torah (3:13), famously emphasizes the unique value of learning Torah specifically at nighttime. As people were unable to work during the night due to the lack of proper illumination, it was an opportunity to focus one’s mind on Torah study. This message is conveyed by way of the image of the donkey, an animal which, as Rashi writes here in Parashat Vayechi, bears its burden both day and night. The diligent student of Torah, like a donkey, does not allow himself time to rest, as even when worktime ends, he devotes his attention to intensive toiling in Torah study. And thus the early period of the night is associated with the donkey, as this is the opportunity which ought to be seized for serious engagement in learning, which the donkey symbolizes.
Accordingly, Rav Friedman explains, the Midrash emphasizes the role of the donkey in Yissakhar’s conception – noting the connection between serious scholarship, the quality associated with Yissakhar, and the image of the donkey, the symbol of the kind of tireless work and effort that must be exerted to acquire knowledge and comprehension of Torah.