Parshat Vayechi: The True Meaning of Achdus
As Yaakov Avinu realizes that his end is near, he calls his children to his bedside and he instructs them, “he’asfu ve’agidah la’chem es asher yikra eschem be’acharis ha-yamim,” assemble together and I will tell you what will happen to you in the “End of Days.” Yaakov then reiterates this message, “hi’kavtzu ve’shimu be’nei Ya’akov,” gather and come listen to your father. (49:1-2)
The Midrash is intrigued by the apparent redundancy of Yaakov’s invitation. After all, first he says “he’asfu,” and then, immediately thereafter, he repeats "hi’kavtzu,” both of which mean essentially the same thing, gather or assemble. The Midrash, therefore, assumes that there is an additional, deeper, message imbedded in Yaakov’s invitation. Among the various suggestions offered, the final opinion cited in the Midrash is that “tzivah osan al ha-machlokes,” Yaakov instructed them to avoid machlokes, bitter and needless infighting, and he reminded them, “kulchon asifah achas,” you should all be one group.
It’s no secret – and it certainly was no secret to Yaakov – that the relationship between the brothers had often been strained, to put it mildly. Now, shortly before his death, Yaakov calls his children together and speaks to them as a loving father, saying, please kinderlach, no more fighting, come together and unite. Of course Yaakov wasn’t just talking as a father and wasn’t just speaking to his children; he was also talking as a forefather to all of his descendants, and his message was eternally relevant: avoid the self-destruction that inevitably comes with machlokes.
And yet, given this backdrop and this understanding of why Yaakov called his children to his deathbed, the content of what he told them, the actual blessings, seem to belie that very goal. After all, if the purpose was to increase achdus and decrease antipathy, then wouldn’t it have made more sense to give the very same blessing to all of the children, or perhaps one general beracha to all of them as a group? Instead, not only did Yaakov give each of the brothers a different blessing, but some of them got what appear to be more positive and complimentary berachos than others received.
Rather then inspiring harmony and brotherly love, it appears as if the blessings will create jealousy and enmity. Why did Yaakov do this and how does this further the goal of “tzivah osan al ha-machlokes?”
HaRav Aharon Lichtenstein suggests that perhaps the answer to this question lies in the Torah’s “summary statement” after Yaakov finished all of the blessings: “Va’yivarech osam,” and he blessed them, “ish asher ke’virchaso berach osam,” each according to his blessing he blessed them.” (49:28) This pasuk is also confusing in that not only is it redundant, but it shifts between plural, “osam,” and singular, “ke’virchaso.
The Ohr Ha-Chayim explains that the phrase “each according to his blessing” means, “ha’rauy lo ke’fi be’chinas nishmaso u-kefi ma’asav,” that the berachos were perfectly calibrated and consistent with the recipient’s innermost spiritual characteristics and unique talents and abilities. He explains that Yaakov didn’t give the same beracha to all of his children because a true blessing is one which enables a person to actualize his or her unique talents. By definition, therefore, each of the children had to receive different berachos, each suited for their respective personalities.
Despite the highly individualized approach that Yaakov took to the blessings, the verse nevertheless concludes “berach osam,” in the plural, to highlight the mutual interdependence of the blessings and the ultimate unity of purpose embodied by the berachos as a whole. The Ohr Ha-Chayim explains that because the brothers are guided by a common goal - they are on the same “team” – when any one of them succeeds, in reality the entire family benefits. Each brother has an area of expertise and the Jewish people needs the collective talents of all of the Shevatim. The greatest success for the collective group comes when each constituent part succeeds in their area of unique focus.
In light of the Ohr Ha-Chayim’s understanding, R. Lichtenstein explained that we can gain a deeper understanding of the achdus that Yaakov was striving for when he gathering all of the brothers together. Yaakov gave them different berachos because he recognized – and embraced – their differences. The achdus of the brothers was not unanimity, but rather, a diversity of personality with a unity of purpose. It’s where the distinctive parts work together for the good of the whole, each contributing something unique rather than merely duplicating the contribution of others.
Yaakov’s final blessing to his children has been a difficult and often elusive message for his descendants to embrace. As hard as it is, it’s equally important that we do not stop striving for this goal. If we truly internalize the fact that we are “kulchon asifah achas,” then we can begin to appreciate – and not demonize – each other’s differences and, in turn, then we will be the worthy heirs to all of Yaakov’s berachos.