Parashat Vayechi: Different but complementary

There is a facet to Torah learning that is national rather than personal.

YEMENITE TORAH scrolls (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
In this week’s Torah portion of Vayechi which concludes the book of Genesis, we listen to Jacob blessing his sons as they stand around his bed at the end of his days. Jacob bequeaths a blessing and a purpose to each son. A tribe is going to come of every son and the twelve tribes together will form a nation. Jacob’s words shaped the nation and defined the different tribes as a mosaic made of pieces that are different from one another but that complement each other and form one big picture together.
Two of the tribes – Issachar and Zebulun – got blessings from Jacob that were connected and complementary. Zebulun was blessed with a skill for maritime trade: “Zebulun will dwell on the coast of the seas; he [will be] at the harbor of the ships, and his boundary will be at Zidon” (Genesis 49:13). And Issachar was blessed with the ability to withstand carrying heavy loads: “Issachar is a bony donkey, lying between the boundaries… and he bent his shoulder to bear [burdens]…” (Ibid Ibid:14-15). Our sages explained that this was not a physical burden but rather a spiritual one, carrying the yoke of the Torah: “…for Zebulun would engage in commerce and provide food for the tribe of Issachar, and they (the tribe of Issachar) would engage in (the study of) Torah” (Rashi). Meaning, Zebulun would support Issachar who dedicated his life to the study of Torah.
This begs an explanation since we know a person cannot pay another to keep commandments for him. Can you imagine someone paying his friend to put tefillin on for him, or to make kiddush on Shabbat for him? Of course not. So how is learning Torah different? Why is it enough for the tribe of Zebulun to support the tribe of Issachar? Furthermore, since Torah learning is required of each person to shape his personality, how could the tribe of Zebulun be exempt from it?
Actually, the sages did not mean to say that the tribe of Zebulun was exempt from the commandment to learn Torah. Like every Jew, they also had to learn Torah every day. A Jew cannot live a spiritual life with God at its center without learning Torah. We learn Torah not only because we are commanded to do so, but also because we are aware of its tremendous power to change and repair our ways. Even the tribe of Zebulun learned Torah.
But c In addition to individuals learning Torah, the entire nation has a national obligation to learn Torah and raise people who will serve as the intellectual layer of God worshipers, teachers of halacha (Jewish law) and spiritual leaders. This is the entire nation’s commandment. Every Jew must fulfill it, either by dedicating his life to learning Torah and teaching, or by supporting someone learning Torah for the benefit of the entire nation.
A national mission cannot be carried out by the entire nation. Every person has different and unique talents and there is no reason to expect everyone to carry out identical missions. Every Jew does his job, one that suits his talents and abilities, and together – when each person does his best to fulfill his own personal role – we create a nation on the foundations of Torah.
When there is no expectation of everyone to behave identically, social tensions are also reduced. Every group, every tribe and every person understands that one person’s job is not necessarily another person’s. My mission is not his so there is no reason to be angry at someone who is devotedly fulfilling his own special mission. The twelve tribes were different from one another. They were not expected to be similar, let alone identical. But they were all required to follow the path of Torah, the path of God, to live a life of loving-kindness and justice. When this is understood, love and solidarity can exist, with each tribe and each group contributing its own unique contribution to the building of the entire nation.  ■
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.