Rabbi Shua Brick, Jewish Studies Teacher 

The final scenes of this great epic of Genesis tell us of the final Will and Testament of our forefather Yaakov. 

Medrash of Pirkei deRebbi Eliezer tells us that Yaakov’s deathbed was the first of its kind. Since creation, people had died without warning. They would be walking in the marketplace, and they’d sneeze and their soul would depart. Yaakov, however, prayed “Master of the Universe – do not take my soul until I give my last will and testament to my children and grandchildren.” 

God answered his prayers, and all of the Kings of Land heard about this and were riddled with jealousy, for this had never happened before in history. The Medrash continues, this is why when one sneezes one should sing the praises of God thanking Him that this sneeze was changed from a sign of death to one of life. And so, we now have the practice of saying “bless you” or “gesundheit” after someone sneezes. 

Yaakov prayed to change the natural course of death so that we could have this week’s Torah portion. So what is the magnum opus he shares with us? What is his dying message?

It’s rather hard to find on the first run-through, as the main focus of this week’s portion is the blessings he gives his 12 sons. These blessings are not well wishes as much as twelve obscure and prosaic pictures of their various personalities. We find out Rueben rushes to judgment like water, Judah is like a lion, and Binyamin is like a wolf. Also, Zebulon likes ships. 

This is what Yaakov had to tell us? He cried out to God, changed the very fabric of nature, beseeching – please don’t let me die just yet, before I go, I must tell the world… that Zebulon… loves sailing?!

What Yaakov demonstrates by blessing his 12 very different sons, and harping on their personalities, is that his final legacy is his children. It is a bold statement of inclusion and the acknowledgment of personalities and individuals as part of the greater whole. There are Zebulon’s and there are Issachars. And it’s important we get to know them for their own character traits and varying personality types. Here is a celebration of a rainbow of personalities, and while they might have had their ups and downs, we see them all come together as a family. That is the great testament of this week’s portion.