Parsha Potpourri: Parshas Vayechi


Yissochar chamor garem roveitz bein hamishp’sayim (49:14)

Rav Tzvi Markovitz questions why the tribe of Yissochar, whose descendants are known for their dedication to Torah study, is specifically compared to a donkey as opposed to any other animal. He posits that while Torah scholars also “carry a load” similar to a donkey, this parallel isn’t sufficient, as there are other animals – such as horses – which are also capable of transporting heavy burdens.

Rav Markovitz explains that although all animals carrying loads must inevitably stop to rest, there is a critical difference in how they do so. When horses stop for a break, their burden must be removed until they are ready to continue. Donkeys, on the other hand, are able to lie down and rest even while still carrying the weight on their backs.

There is a well-known, if perhaps apocryphal, story which is told about Aristotle. In between lessons, Aristotle’s students once bumped into him “on the wrong side of town,” in an area known for its immoral activities. Unable to reconcile his current behavior with the lofty philosophical teachings that he espoused during his lectures, his students asked for an explanation. Aristotle answered them, “When class is in session, I am the great Aristotle, and I share my pearls of wisdom with the world. At other times, I am not the Aristotle with whom you are familiar.”

It is specifically to donkeys that the tribe of Yissochar is compared, as those who “carry the load of Torah” must also periodically stop to recharge. The distinguishing characteristic of true B’nei Torah is that in contrast to Aristotle, they conduct themselves even at these moments in accordance with their year-round behavior, never casting off their “burden” for even a moment.


V’zos asher diber lahem avihem vay’varech osam is hasher k’virchaso beirach osam (49:28)

Just prior to his death, Yaakov gathered his sons together one last time to charge them with continuing his spiritual legacy. In addition to addressing them collectively, Yaakov also spoke to each son individually, and our verse seems to indicate that his message to each son was some form of blessing. This is difficult to understand, as Rashi explains Yaakov’s final words to Reuven, Shimon, and Levi more like words of rebuke than of blessing. In what way was his harsh criticism considered a blessing?

Rav Uri Weissblum answers that we must redefine our understanding of a blessing. If somebody is sick but doesn’t realize it, or perhaps knows that he is sick but is unable to diagnose his illness, a doctor who diagnoses the sickness and clarifies its treatment is offering him a tremendous gift. Similarly, if someone has a large pot with a hole in the side, giving him gifts to put in the pot which will only fall out will leave him with nothing. A better “gift” would be to bring the hole to his attention so that he may fix it and retain his future acquisitions.

Therefore, Yaakov felt that the most appropriate “blessing” he could offer to his three eldest sons was to point out to them the characteristics which needed improvement (Reuven’s impetuosity and Shimon and Levi’s anger). Calling their spiritual illnesses to their attention would allow them to “plug the holes,” become whole, and ready for future blessings.

Rav Yisroel Salanter points out that everybody has his own personal “holes” which need fixing. He suggests that this is the intent of the Mishnah in Avos (4:2) “u’bore’ach min ha’aveirah” – a person should flee from “the sin.” Rav Yisroel explains that every person has within himself one bad middah (character trait) which constitutes the root of his personal struggles. The yetzer hara (evil inclination) attempts to disguise this trait so as to prevent its identification and cure. By calling their personal weak spots to their attention, Yaakov was indeed giving his sons a tremendous blessing.

However, rebuke can only be considered a blessing if a person accepts and learns from it. Rav Shimon Schwab notes that although Yaakov referred to Shimon and Levi as “brothers” and seemed to equate them in all of their actions, Levi’s descendants became a tribe of Torah scholars while Shimon’s descendants included Zimri publicly committed a grave sin (Bamidbar 25:6). Rav Schwab posits that the difference between them was that unlike Shimon, Levi accepted Yaakov’s rebuke, internalized his father’s words, and uprooted his negative character traits, and indeed it was Levi’s descendant Pinchas who killed Shimon’s offspring Zimri for his sin.

The lesson of Yaakov’s final words wasn’t limited to his immediate children, as it is relevant to everyone. Yaakov teaches us that it is not a person’s sins or what lot in life a person receives that is critical, but rather what he makes of them. Yaakov left this world by teaching us that if a person acknowledges and learns from his flaws and difficulties, he can turn even his biggest mistakes into the greatest of blessings.


V’hinei im’cha Shimi ben Geira … v’hu kil’lani klala nimretzes … va’eshba lo b’Hashem leimor im amis’cha becharev … v’atah al t’nikeihu ki ish chacham atah v’yadata es asher ta’aseh lo v’horadta es seivaso b’dam she’ol (Melochim 1 2:8-9 – Haftorah)

At the end of Dovid HaMelech’s life, he gave his final instructions to his son Shlomo, who would succeed him as king. He commanded Shlomo to remember the vicious curses which Shimi ben Geira had heaped upon him (Shmuel 2 16:7-8). However, because Dovid had sworn to Shimi that he wouldn’t kill him for his actions, he advised Shlomo to use his wisdom to find a means to avenge his disgrace and execute Shimi.

Shlomo dutifully called Shimi and commanded him to build a house in Jerusalem, informing him that he must remain within the city limits, for on the day that he departs he will be killed (2:36-37). Shimi agreed to the terms, built a house in Jerusalem, and indeed refrained from exiting the city for three years. At that time, two of his slaves escaped, and he pursued them out of the city to bring them back. Upon hearing of this, Shlomo had Shimi summoned and decreed that because he had violated the conditions of their agreement, he was to be killed.

Although in hindsight this represented a brilliant method of reconciling Dovid’s desire to have Shimi punished with his promise not to directly kill Shimi for his act of rebellion, how did Shlomo know that his plan would succeed, as we find that Shimi managed to abide by the condition for three years before an unexpected episode caused him to stumble? Why did Shimi, who was a wise man who understood the consequences of leaving Jerusalem and managed to refrain from doing so for three years, suddenly commit such a foolish mistake, one for which he paid dearly with his life?

The Alshich HaKadosh explains that Shlomo, in his great wisdom, understood human nature profoundly. A person’s natural inclination is to crave freedom and to resist any restraint placed upon it. Although Shimi’s “jail” didn’t resemble the typical cell, in that he was free to enjoy everything offered by the greatest city on earth, he was nevertheless artificially confined. Shlomo recognized that sooner or later, Shimi’s need to feel free and unrestrained would win out and he would violate the terms of their arrangement. When this eventually occurred, Shlomo was ready and waiting to execute Shimi in a dignified manner, just as his father had requested.


Answers to the weekly Points to Ponder are now available! To receive the full version with answers email the author at [email protected].


Parsha Points to Ponder (and sources which discuss them):

1)     Rashi writes (47:29) that one of Yaakov’s reasons for requesting that Yosef not bury him in Egypt was to avoid the lice which would be swarming in the ground. As the plague of lice only functioned above the ground, why was Yaakov worried that it would affect him if he was buried below the ground? (Y’fei Toar Shemos Rabbah 10:7, Ayeles HaShachar)

2)     The Parshas Derochim writes that Rochel died just as Yaakov prepared to enter the land of Israel (48:7) because he was only permitted to be married to two sisters outside of the land of Israel. Tosefos writes (Yevamos 20b) that a regular Kohen who marries a widow and is then anointed as the Kohen Gadol (who is forbidden to marry a widow) is allowed to remain married to her since she was permissible to him at the time of their marriage. Why wasn’t Yaakov similarly allowed to remain married to Rochel and Leah even in the land of Israel since they were both permitted to him at the time he married them outside of the land of Israel? (Matamei Yaakov, M’rafsin Igri)

3)     What is the significance of the fact that Yaakov drew his feet onto the bed prior to dying (49:33), and why does the Torah record this information? (Taz Yoreh Deah 339:4)

4)     Although Yosef attempted to calm and reassure his brothers (50:19-21), Rabbeinu Bechaye writes that he never explicitly forgave them for their actions. As a result, they died still responsible for the sin of mercilessly selling him into slavery. Their atonement was only completed when their descendants were later brutally punished as the Asarah Harugei Malchus – 10 great Rabbis who were brutally murdered by the Romans. If Yosef forgave them, why did he refuse to say so, and if he didn’t forgive them, why was he unwilling to do so after so much time had passed? (Esther Rabbah 7:25, Rabbeinu Bechaye 50:17, Ayeles HaShachar, Shiras Dovid here and Esther 3:15)

© 2011 by Oizer Alport.