The Tribes Then and Now By Leo Metzger


In Parashat VeZot HaBerachah, just before Moshe ascends Har Nevo to see Eretz Yisrael before he dies, he blesses the Shevatim. This situation is reminiscent of a similar scenario that occurred in the last hours of another great man’s life, that man being our patriarch, Ya’akov. On his deathbed, Ya’akov gathers his sons and blesses them individually; some are blessed with great wealth or power, like Yosef and Yehudah, while others are rebuked for past deeds, like Shimon and Leivi. Ya’akov requested of his sons one final task, to bury him in Ma’arat HaMachpeilah with his parents and grandparents in the land of Israel. This request puts the children of Ya’akov in a very similar situation as that of the Shevatim 250 years later at the border of Eretz Yisrael- about to reenter the land after having left it for a period of time. But the major difference between the tribes’ situation in the desert and that of the sons of Ya’akov is the content of the blessings they receive.

When Ya’akov blessed his sons, he took into consideration their abilities, personalities and deeds for both good and bad. He rebuked Re’uven and stripped him of his firstborn rights for dropping the baton of leadership and for moving his bed unjustly, while he blessed Yehudah that his descendants would be leaders and will never be deposed, because he took responsibility for his actions with Tamar when he could have avoided public humiliation by simply staying silent. He also berated Shimon and Leivi for how they dealt with the people of Shechem when Dina was taken captive.

When Moshe blesses the Shevatim in VeZot HaBerachah, he gives many of them blessings that were similar to the ones that Ya’akov had given their patriarchs. The main differences lie with the Berachot of Re’uven, Shimon, and Leivi. Re’uven was originally chastised for erroneously moving his father’s bed, and he was stripped of his rights as the firstborn for his impetuous actions. Moshe, however, blesses the tribe of Re’uven that they should not fall victims to their impetuous nature as their patriarch had, and that even though they chose to live on the opposite side of the Jordan River, they should still maintain a connection to the rest of the Shevatim. He then blesses Yehudah in a very similar fashion to Ya’akov: that his armies would be victorious.

Moshe then goes on to bless Leivi with a blessing that is quite the stark contrast to that of Ya’akov’s: Ya’akov cursed Leivi for his anger-driven actions that he perpetrated together with Shimon when they laid waste to the city of Shechem after their Prince had kidnapped Dinah. He had said that they would be scattered across the land, an allusion to the Levite cities spread throughout the Land of Israel and the members of the tribe of Shimon that lived in host territories in the southern region of the land due their lack of specific tribal territories. Moshe, on the other hand, blesses the Sheivet of Leivi for its adherence to Hashem’s laws and its work in the Mishkan, and says that they will become teachers of Torah all across the land. The contrast between Ya’akov’s and Moshe’s blessings was wrought from the continued efforts of the tribe of Leivi to better themselves and rise above their original nature.

Another stark difference comes to light when looking at the blessings of Shimon; Ya’akov had grouped Shimon and Leivi together while Moshe seems to have not given Shimon any blessing at all. Ramban states that the Torah always sticks to the format of twelve tribes, normally either the two sons of Yosef, Efrayim and Menasheh, are counted as one, and Leivi is included in the count, or they are counted as two separate entities and Leivi is excluded and dealt with in a separate count due to their unique status within the tribes. In any case, the number of tribes counted is consistently twelve. In this instance, Moshe decides to bless the tribes of Efrayim and Menasheh separately because the new leader Yehoshu’a is from Sheivet Efrayim. The tribe of Leivi is also included in the count since their blessing would benefit the whole nation, as they work in the Temple. The tribe of Shimon is chosen as the Sheivet to be omitted because of its small size and because its members would live scattered in the southern region of Eretz Yisrael, and since they did not have a specific tribal territory, they would benefit from the Berachah received by their host tribe.

We can learn from the difference between the blessing received by the Tribe of Leivi that if one is determined to accomplish something and puts in a real genuine effort, one can conquer any obstacle or challenge that comes his way, no matter how insurmountable it may seem.

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