Addressing Sons or Tribes?
Bereshit 49 focuses on Yaakov's final communications with his sons, and opens with:
(א) וַיִּקְרָא יַעֲקֹב אֶל בָּנָיו וַיֹּאמֶר הֵאָסְפוּ וְאַגִּידָה לָכֶם אֵת אֲשֶׁר יִקְרָא אֶתְכֶם בְּאַחֲרִית הַיָּמִים.
(1) And Jacob called unto his sons, and said: 'Gather yourselves together, that I may tell you that which shall befall you in the end of days'.
Yaakov states here that he will speak of events that will befall his sons "בְּאַחֲרִית הַיָּמִים" (lit. "the ends of days"). Does this refer to experiences during Yaakov's sons' own lives, events which will occur to their tribal descendants upon their return to the Land of Israel, or what will transpire to the nation as a whole in much farther away Messianic times? While some of the individual blessings which follow appear to refer to specific character traits of the brothers and incidents that personally affected them in the past,1 others make more sense if read as referring to the future.2 What was the overall goal of Yaakov's last will and testament? Was he speaking to his sons as individuals ("בָּנָיו") or as the progenitors of future tribes ("שִׁבְטֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל")?3
Of the twelve blessings, Yosef's is one of the most difficult to understand. Almost every verse contains enigmatic metaphors, rare words, or allusions to undefined events, making it difficult to identify both the meaning of individual phrases and the overarching message of the blessing as a whole.
- "בֵּן פֹּרָת יוֹסֵף בֵּן פֹּרָת עֲלֵי עָיִן" – To what is Yosef being likened in this verse? What does the word "פֹּרָת" mean? Is "עָיִן" related to a "spring" or to "eye"? Finally, how is one to understand the doubling of the phrases?
- "בָּנוֹת צָעֲדָה עֲלֵי שׁוּר" – How does this phrase relate to the above? Are the two parallel, as is often the case in Biblical poetry, or is this a new thought? What "daughters" are spoken of and what is a "שׁוּר"?
- "וַיְמָרְרֻהוּ וָרֹבּוּ וַיִּשְׂטְמֻהוּ בַּעֲלֵי חִצִּים" – This verse appears to speak of a specific attack motivated by hatred to Yosef. Is Yaakov referring to a past incident which affected Yosef personally, or is he prophesying about some future trial awaiting Yosef's tribe? Either way, to which event does he allude?
- "וַתֵּשֶׁב בְּאֵיתָן קַשְׁתּוֹ וַיָּפֹזּוּ זְרֹעֵי יָדָיו" – Is the image of a bow "sitting strong" meant to convey combat or restraint? What does the phrase "וַיָּפֹזּוּ זְרֹעֵי יָדָיו" mean and how does this metaphor relate to the first?
- "מִידֵי אֲבִיר יַעֲקֹב מִשָּׁם רֹעֶה אֶבֶן יִשְׂרָאֵל" – Who is being referred to in these phrases – Yaakov, Yosef, or Hashem?
- "נְזִיר אֶחָיו" – Is "נְזִיר" related to נזר, a crown, or נזיר, one who is separated from others? What message did Yaakov mean to impart through this image?
Yosef and his Brothers
The last third of Sefer Bereshit focuses on Yosef's struggles with his brothers. As such, it is not surprising that many commentators assume that Yaakov might have alluded to the conflict somewhere in his final words, and especially when addressing Yosef himself. Is this assumption founded in the verses? What did Yaakov know about the conflict and how did he perceive the brothers' relationship at the end of his life? Was he worried regarding what might happen after his death, and if so, how did he attempt to address these concerns when blessing Yosef?