Knowing that his death is imminent, Yaakov summons his sons and says, “Assemble yourselves and I will tell you what will befall you in the End of Days. Gather yourselves and listen, O sons of Yaakov, and listen to Yisrael your father.” (Ber. 49:1-2) Why does Yaakov have to mention the same thing twice, i.e. “assemble yourselves” and “gather yourselves”? What does he mean by “the End of Days”? Why does he refer to himself as “Yisrael your father”? It would have been sufficient to simply refer to himself as “Yisroel” or “your father”, but not both.
After having blessed Yosef and Yosef’s sons privately, Yaakov wanted to do the same to all of his other sons as well to ensure that there would not be another flare-up of jealousy between the brothers and Yosef. Yaakov was also aware that some of his sons might balk at coming to him, as they were loathe to be subjected to any criticism or reproach. As a result, he begins by enticing them with an opportunity to view the hidden secrets of the future, something which anyone would be anxious to know. After they are gathered together he informs them that they should not find his words and criticisms abhorrent. Instead, they should respect him and his advice and insights, both as their father and as “Yisrael”, the name which signifies the lofty spiritual level that he had attained.
Abarbanel is puzzled by the nature of these “blessings”. They are not what we would normally call blessings, and they are not uniform for each son. Rather, they are a diverse collection of prayer, personal characterizations, reproach and insights into the future, all unique to the individual son, and all couched in unusual metaphorical and poetic language.
Abarbanel says that Yaakov’s intent was to determine which of them would be fit for royalty and leadership. He focuses on specific aspects of their character and behavior only as they relate to their or their future progeny’s fitness for this task.
Yaakov begins with Reuven, his firstborn. He makes it clear that he and his offspring will be characterized by rash impetuousness, a quality which precludes effective and balanced leadership. Shimon and Levy are disqualified on two counts. First of all there is the violent and wrathful nature that they demonstrated with the men of Shechem. Secondly, they would be scattered amongst the other tribes. Levy of course would be scattered amongst 48 different cities. The tribe of Shimon also would not be found in one distinct contiguous region, but would be scattered amongst the tribe of Yehuda. To lead effectively the ruler must have a solid and unified base.
Abarbanel then proceeds to describe the four characteristics of Yehuda that made him uniquely fit for royalty. First of all, his brothers agreed to acknowledge him as their leader, without any trace of jealousy. This was unusual, since in most cases a perception of equality amongst brothers leads to more jealousy when one is singled out.
Secondly, his progeny, namely King David, would demonstrate success in battle. Royalty requires the respect that comes from military prowess and success. Thirdly, he did not have the impetuousness of Reuven or the violent character of Shimon and Levy. This is evident from the way Yaakov describes him, “A lion cub is Yehuda; from the prey, my son, you have elevated yourself...” (Ber. 49:9) What he means is that like an immature lion, Yehuda has the potential for “predatory action”, but he keeps it under control; he has elevated himself above predatory behavior. Finally, he has the permanent, self-assured strength and power of the mature lion: “He crouches, lies down like a lion, and like an awesome lion, who dares rouse him?” (Ber. 49:9)
Proceeding to the younger sons, Abarbanel continues to demonstrate how each is unfit for royal leadership:
Zevulun is a merchant; it is not becoming for a king to be involved in commerce.
Yissachar labors in the fields. Again, this is not a profession fit for a king.(According to the Talmudic opinion that the tribe of Yissachar provided the Torah scholars, the disqualification still applies as they would not have sufficient time to engage in statecraft.)
Even though the tribe of Dan provided the great judge and warrior Shimshon, Dan is described as a serpent, meaning that he does not confront his enemies head-on but rather waits in ambush. A king must have the strength and prestige to confront the enemy directly.
Similarly, Gad will also be a warrior, but with a weakness: “It will retreat on its heel” (Ber. 49:19), meaning that he will only be in the rear echelons.
Asher, with his rich land, will be the supplier of the kings: “...his bread will have richness, and he will provide kingly delicacies.” (Ber. 49:20)
Naftali, the “hind let loose who delivers beautiful sayings”, would serve the king as his chief communicator, bringing relevant news from country to country.
Even though Yosef’s strengths and character are described at length and in glowing terms, he could never be accepted by his brothers as their leader. Their jealousy was too entrenched. As King David says (Psalms 78:67-69): “He rejected the tent of Yosef, and the tribe of Ephraim He did not choose...He chose the tribe of Yehuda...and he chose David, His servant.”
Binyamin also is described as a “predatory wolf” who will “distribute spoils”. Again, a king who goes to war does not set his sights on the spoils.
Finally, the Torah summarizes and emphasizes that despite their differences, they were all considered the tribes of Israel, all of them important and all of them derived from a holy source: Israel, their father: “All these are the tribes of Israel...he blessed each according to his appropriate blessing.” (Ber. 49:28)