A cantankerous but unified people
Judaism is a family-centered religion. It is not about finding a cave in the Himalayas and meditating on one’s navel for the next eighty years. Its role model of a holy person is not a celibate living in a monastery. All its great leaders were married and lived vibrant lives in a community of others centered around the family.
In Jewish history, the family of Israel begins with the sons of Jacob. However, the biblical account is not only the history of a family, but of the unique characteristics that make up the Jewish nation throughout time.
Independent and Cantankerous
Arguably the first and most obvious characteristic of the people is that they are a nation of individuals – or, more precisely: individualists, i.e. a non-conformist, independent people. Because of that they are a cantankerous group, not easily given to unity and reconciling opinions.
We all long for a placid, tranquil existence. However, in terms of ultimate good, lack of friction is not always a blessing. It can lull and seduce one into self-satisfaction to the point of inaction. An engine runs on friction. Torah is meant as the lubricating oil in the engine of the Jewish people. It harnesses the friction.
Each of the brothers was a righteous person, but individualistic almost to a fault. Jacob sought to harness their individualism by the blessings he gave them at the end of his life: “each one according to his own blessing” (Genesis 49:28), portraying them each in a different role, giving them each different assignments. Any parent realizes that each child is a unique world unto himself or herself. You cannot educate one child according to another child’s personality and talents. Just because it worked for one child does not mean it will work for the next child.
Jacob gave each of his children a blessing perfectly designed for his unique talents and his task in life. Jacob’s vision was of a single nation made of disparate parts, each contributing in its unique way toward a unified whole greater than the sum of its parts. He encouraged their individualism even as he sought ways to harness it in the service of a higher purpose.
Reuben, the first-born, should have been the leader. However, he meddled in his father’s private affairs (Genesis 35:22). Even though he only wanted to protect the honor of his mother, nevertheless it was none of his business. What he did was wrong.
He spent the rest of his life searching for a way to obtain forgiveness, and this why, according to Tradition, he is viewed as the father of teshuva, or repentance. Teshuva can patch up everything between the transgressor and God. It even makes the person greater. However, it does not necessarily undo the thing that was done. For example, if a driver accidently kills someone even though he may be acquitted in court he cannot bring back the life.
Despite his sincere teshuva, Reuben is not restored to his former position. He is spurned as leader. The brothers sell Joseph over his objections (Genesis 37). His father rejects his personal guarantee to allow him to bring Benjamin down to Egypt (Genesis 42:37-8). Even on his deathbed, Jacob cannot restrain himself from criticizing Reuben (Genesis 49:4).
And the tribe of Reuben throughout its history suffers from that stigma. It never assumed the role of leadership.
As firstborn, Reuben had a position of exalted greatness, but forfeited it. This makes him somewhat of a tragic figure. Nevertheless, he remains one of the great symbols of teshuva in Jewish history.
Shimon and Levi
Shimon, the second son, is the “man of war.” There is no question that the Jewish people need a strong army. If not for Shimon, and his brother Levi, the brothers probably would not have rescued their sister, Dinah, from Shechem (Genesis 34). On the other hand, Jacob criticizes them very strongly for their act on his deathbed (Genesis 49:5-7).
Indeed, Jacob acted to mitigate their power. If they lived as one concentrated unit, they would have been impossible to contend with. Left unchecked, they would have turned the Jewish people into a militaristic, Sparta-like State. Jacob, therefore, scattered them throughout the Jewish people (ibid. v. 7).
Shimon was absorbed by the tribe of Judah, which was situated in the south near Hebron. They also had some property in the north near the Sea of Galilee, but that was it. Shimon was also the smallest of the tribes (Numbers 26).
Jacob made Shimon teachers. Teaching was never the highest-paying profession. It was spiritually rewarding work, but humbling and monetarily unrewarding. As such, it was the perfect profession to help curb the tribe’s aggressive tendencies.
If Shimon stands for education, then Levi is the civil servant of the Jewish people. Levi became the priestly class, the one tribe set aside and singularly devoted to the welfare of the people. They were not given land, but lived off public funds. Dependent upon public good will, they learned to take criticism without responding in kind.
Aaron, the High Priest, descended from Levi and embodies the idea of peace, tranquility, compromise and serving God. This represented a complete turnaround from Levi’s original personality.
In the final analysis, Jacob’s blessing transformed both Shimon and Levi’s strong personalities into strong, selfless servants of the people.
The name “Jew” originates from the name Judah. It is not coincidental. Judah, more than any other brother, set the tone for Jewish life. It is his stock, both genetically and spiritually, that has survived.
In his blessing he is compared to a lion (Genesis 49:9). He represents strength, leadership, tenacity and survivability.
Judah even has God’s name in his name — the quintessential four-letter name of God (plus one additional letter). That is a statement about the eternity of Judah, the Jewish people.
The hallmark of Judah’s greatness is not that he is perfect, but that rises from every one of his problems. “The righteous man falls seven times and rises” (Proverbs 24:16). He falls many times in the biblical narrative. Yet, he rises from it each time. He is able to sustain the blow and move on. He has the tenacity to prevail.
Both the righteous and unrighteous fall. The question is what happens after the fall. The unrighteous person says, “What’s the use? As long as I am down here I might as well enjoy it.” Once he gets into a rut he is never able to rise. He becomes a prisoner of his own habits and weaknesses.
Not so Judah. He is the example of a righteous person who gets up and rises. His resiliency became the prime characteristic of the Jewish people. When Rome fell that was the end of Rome. It was over. So too with countless other empires. Not so with the Jewish people.
That is why Jews are called “Jews.” It is not just that they are descended from the tribe of Judah, but that they inherited his boundless capacity to rise above any situation.
Joseph and Benjamin were the sons of Jacob’s beloved wife, Rachel. Joseph is a continuous source of friction among the brothers, as well as the tribes long after his death. He was the one who most resembled his father, and whom Jacob loved the most. That is why the other brothers could not live with him peacefully.
Joseph was a man of enormous talents, the personification of Jewish brilliance – but Jewish brilliance which is harnessed and within the parameters of Jewish morality. Jewish brilliance outside such parameters historically becomes destructive and full of self-hatred. In our long history, there is unfortunately no shortage of such examples. Karl Marx comes to mind. Unharnessed Jewish brilliance can easily turn negative and nihilistic.
The greatness of Joseph is genius harnessed. He saved the world in his day. He gave food to everyone. He built Egypt into the greatest empire of its time.
Jewish Tradition teaches that there will be two Messianic figures: one descended from Joseph and another from Judah (through the line of David). The final and ultimate one will be through Judah/David. Nevertheless, there is a Messiah descended from biblical Joseph as well.
This is just a brief sketch of some of the brothers. When you put all them together you get a varied picture. The family of Israel has many, many colors to it. It has many strong personalities, many great individualists. By having such a wide variety the Torah has immediately placed us on notice what the nature of the Jewish people is going to be. It is going to be a divided people, full of friction and problems.
But it is going to be one people. It is going to be one family. It is a people with one father (Genesis 42:32)… one common history… one destiny.