The Midrash says that the tribe of Zebulun, which was a traders’ tribe, became a full partner in the Torah learning of the tribe of Issachar, which was the tribe of scholars.
(photo credit: ILLUSTRATIVE: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Jacob’s blessings to his sons prior to his death stand at the center of Parashat Vayehi. Jacob earmarked a few words to each son through which he provided guidance. These words acted as guidance not only to that particular son but to all of that son’s descendants as well.
The division of the People of Israel into 12 tribes that existed until the Temple’s destruction was not merely a tribal/familial division, but was also a fundamental one. Each tribe was given a special role and together the tribes formed a nation with each tribe contributing its share.
Among the tribes were two who complemented one another – the tribe of Issachar and the tribe of Zebulun.
Issachar was older than Zebulun, but despite this, in Jacob’s blessings, Zebulun precedes Issachar. This was explained by the sages of the midrash: “But Zebulun came before Issachar, and why so? Because Zebulun dealt with trade and Issachar dealt with Torah, and Zebulun would come and feed him, and therefore he [Jacob] put Zebulun before Issachar.”
(Genesis Raba, 99:9) The sages of the midrash describe a historical reality in which the tribe of Issachar was the tribe of scholars studying Torah, the teachers of Halacha (Jewish law), and the heads of yeshivas. Meanwhile, the tribe of Zebulun was the tribe of traders that took upon itself to help the tribe of Issachar study Torah. Thus, the tribe of Zebulun became a full partner in the Torah studying of the tribe of Issachar. Jacob even had Zebulun precede Issachar, since without Zebulun’s support Issachar would not have been able to study Torah calmly and at ease.
The Talmud adds another element: Zebulun’s cooperation in Issachar’s Torah studying is considered a full partnership, not only in the reality we know but even in the next world: “Whoever casts merchandise into the pockets of scholars will be privileged to sit in the Heavenly Academy, for it is said, ‘for wisdom is a defense even as money is a defense.’” (Talmud Bavli, Tractate Pesahim daf 53) The virtue of a person who deals with the Torah is an eternal virtue. He is slated to be privileged to sit in the Heavenly Academy – a term referring to reward in the next world. But there could be a person who cannot study Torah for a variety of reasons, and despite this, he will also be privileged with that same eternal virtue of the Heavenly Academy. How? If he supports Torah learning and makes it possible for others to learn Torah, the Torah that they study will be considered as belonging to the person who made the studying possible no less than to the person who actually did the studying.
This tradition became popular throughout the People of Israel’s thousands of years of existence and it continues to be so even after the division of tribes is no longer evident, including that of Issachar and Zebulun.
Jews with financial capabilities have seen and continue to see themselves as privileged to support those studying Torah. This was so popular that we have documents with a standard phrasing of “Agreement of Issachar and Zebulun” in which one side commits to supporting the other who studies Torah, and for this the learner provides part of his reward for learning to his supporter.
Why have so many people in the People of Israel throughout the generations seen themselves privileged to support those who study Torah? What has motivated them to use their money to enable others to study Torah? The Jewish nation is ancient. For over 2,000 years, our nation was dispersed around the world, and amazingly it still preserved its identity and remained a united nation. This phenomenon is unique to the Jewish people. There is no other nation that maintained its identity under conditions similar to those of the Jewish nation for such a long time. This identity preservation was possible only because of the Torah. A Jew could be born in one country and move to another later on, but as long as he was in touch with a Jewish community, his Jewish lifestyle stayed the same, since Jews everywhere lived according to the Torah.
For that, we must have people investing their time and energies into studying Torah. A person encumbered with life’s issues, even if he studies a bit of Torah, cannot preserve the entire Jewish nation. For that we need Torah scholars – people who are busy with studying Torah in a comprehensive way and can teach Torah to the entire nation. Only by maintaining scholars who can teach Torah to others can the torch be passed to future generations.
It is therefore understandable that someone who cannot personally spend their time studying Torah sees it as a privilege to be able to keep the Torah through Torah scholars. This partnership is not a private issue but one of national interest of the first degree. The writer is the rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.