Parashat Vayechi: E Pluribus Unum? by Judry Subar

We must temper using our own resources to satisfy our individual human desires in recognition of our responsibility to preserve our Earth for the benefit of humanity.

Mortality sets the scene for the concluding chapters of Genesis. Vayechi, the last portion of Genesis, tells us generally how both Jacob and Joseph prepared for their own deaths.  The primary emotional force of the portion, though, lies in Jacob’s decision to sermonize to his sons and grandsons as his life was ending.  

Jacob’s deathbed statements can be understood in different ways.  Were they blessings as suggested by Genesis 49:28?  Were they prophecies as intimated in Genesis 49:1?  According to one view found in Midrash Rabbah, when Jacob instructed his sons to listen to him muse about their personalities, he meant to signal that their twelve respective tribes were actually one social entity.  Strange, though, to interpret Jacob’s thoughts as being all about unity when he expressed himself so differently about his various children.  Reuben, for example, is castigated for bad acts; Judah’s future is foretold; Joseph is explicitly praised; and the only one of Jacob’s last testaments that refers to more than one of the brothers uses decidedly negative rhetoric to comment on Simon’s and Levi’s predilection to operate as a team.   

How can we understand the tension between the Children of Israel acting as one unified whole and Jacob’s focus on the individuality of his many children?  Perhaps by reference to another tension, between the Land of Israel as one land for one people and the land’s suitability as a place for separate families to lead separate lives.  Earlier in Genesis, Abraham received a divine promise that the land would be the singular inheritance of his offspring.  But the land was ultimately to be apportioned among family groups, as instructed in Numbers 26:55

The process of dividing the land was so significant that, according to a midrashic interpretation of Leviticus 25:3, the prohibition against tilling the land during the sabbatical year – shmita – would not be triggered until the partition was complete.  Maybe the interplay between the unity of the land and its people on the one hand, and the fact that both the land and its residents can be subdivided into workable units on the other, reminds us that a healthy relationship between us and our planet (and our land) requires that we temper our inclination to use our own exclusive resources to satisfy our individual human desires in recognition of our responsibility to preserve our Earth and its constituent parts for the benefit of humanity. 

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Judry Subar, who lives in Potomac, Maryland, spent most of his professional career as a lawyer with the federal government in Washington, DC.  Since his retirement, Jud has been involved in various writing and educational projects.