The first thing Parashat Shemot tells us is the names of Ya’akov’s sons who are heading down to Egypt. At first glance, this might seem entirely logical. After all, it’s good to know exactly who went down to Egypt during the migration. If one looks closely, however, one sees something rather unusual. The listing of the sons, in the order given by the Pesukim, is Reuven, Shim’on, Leivi, Yehudah, Yissachar, Zevulun, Binyamin, Dan, Naftali, Gad, and finally, Asher. One notices that it is out of order. Binyamin should be last, after the final four of the list, rather than before them. What is the reason for this most unusual order? It can’t be the normal division by mother, because the children of Rachel are usually listed last. We know that the Torah doesn’t waste words, and, similarly, will generally list things as they are usually listed. What messages are we being taught here?
The answer may be that the Torah is stressing the importance of the spiritual over the physical. Let’s examine this in depth, shall we? Reuven, the first listed, is the firstborn. But here, it is not that trait that makes him noteworthy, but the quality for which he was known for: being penitent. The Jews now are going down to Egypt, a land notorious for its immoral and licentious ways. The Jews, while not necessarily following the Egyptians, might be influenced negatively from living amongst them. They will inevitably make mistakes, and will need to do Teshuvah. We today also face this same challenge. While not as bad as Egypt by a long shot, America is, unfortunately, a place of limited morals. A Jew who falls short wonders how he can recover. That is why Reuven is placed first; no matter how far one falls, one can always rise back up, as long as one follows the example of Reuven, and repents.
Shim’on is next. Though this is not widely known, the descendants of Shim’on were teachers in Israel. In Egypt and today, one needs the right teachers in order to instill the knowledge of how to correctly perform Hashem’s will. For this august reason, Shim’on was placed second. Leivi follows. His children were the Kohanim, the priests. Their job was to regulate and ensure the spirituality of the nation. Today, they represent those who do Hashem’s will with love and passion. While knowledge of the Mitzvot is a prerequisite for this - hence Shim’on’s reason for coming first – doing them with love is the next step up, giving Leivi the honor of being mentioned third.
Yehudah, the epitome of leadership, is next. In the Torah’s times and today, Jews can be inspired onto greater heights by having a good leader. A group of Jews united can do infinitely more than those same Jews scattered. In order to unite, however, we need a strong and righteous leader to rally behind. This strong leader is represented by Yehudah, father of the Jewish monarchy, allowing him to go as fourth in the list of the brothers.
Yissachar comes after Yehudah. His descendants were scholars and experts in Torah, something that all Jews need. Torah is needed for every aspect of Judaism, now and forever. The reason that Yissachar is fifth, though, is because those who inspire Torah in others, like Leivi and Yehudah, are greater than those who actually learn it themselves. Zevulun, the quintessential supporter of Torah scholars, is, as always, after his brother. While one might think that Zevulun should go before Yissachar, because he supported him, I believe he did not because wealth carries a risk: When used poorly, it can bring tragedy. However, as he represents a tribe whose money is used mostly for spiritual purposes, he acquires the honor of being listed sixth.
Binyamin is the last of those who represent spirituality. Binyamin is one of the four people recorded by the Gemara (Shabbat 55b) to have never sinned. He is the manifestation of one who closes himself off from the outside world, dedicating himself to Hashem. While this is certainly admirable, it greatly limits the amount of good that he can do among others, which is why he came last among the spiritual brothers.
Dan is the first of the physical brothers. He, according to Ya’akov’s Berachah, represents cunning and intelligence. While intelligence is a wonderful tool that can be used to further the service of Hashem, it is not inherently good, having within it the capability for evil, which is why it is physical. Naphtali represents speed and zeal. While zeal, too, is wonderful when used in the service of Hashem, like intelligence, it is not inherently good, and unlike intelligence, it does not actively prevent one from doing ill. Gad represents raw strength. This is an incredibly physical element and has the potential to be used for good or ill, though its use for good is limited. Asher, representing wealth, comes last among all the brothers. While wealth can be used for great good, its corrupting nature and tendency to be used for primarily selfish reasons causes it to be listed as the last of the list of traits.
However, none of the brothers’ qualities are inherently evil. All can be used to benefit Klal Yisrael and the world as a whole. Everyone has strengths and weakness, those traits that he excels in and those that he does not. It doesn’t matter. Anyone can do good, play his part, and help society. Anyone can do it; even an Asher.