January 11, 2001
Parashat Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26)
Not long ago, on a trip to Israel, I heard the following story about an Israeli doctor and patient. The patient came to the doctor with a case of poor hearing. After a few moments the doctor realized that his patient had a drinking problem, which was affecting his hearing. The doctor instructed the man to refrain from drinking any more alcohol, hoping that this would remedy the problem.
A few weeks later, the doctor met the patient on the street, and his hearing was perfect. The doctor asked him if he was drinking, and the patient responded, "No, I am doing just what you told me." The doctor was delighted and reminded the patient to remain off the bottle.
Two weeks later, the doctor met the patient for a second time, but now things had reverted to the old situation. The hearing had regressed and the doctor asked if the patient was drinking again. The patient responded that indeed he was back on the bottle. "But why?" cried out the frustrated doctor. "Didn't I tell you that if you drink you won't be able to hear?" The patient answered, "Yes, doctor, that is true, but I must be honest with you, I like what I drink better than what I hear."
In this week's Torah reading, Jacob's sons did not want to hear everything he had to say. As he lay on his deathbed, Jacob gave his sons instructions on how to conduct their lives after he was gone. The Torah tells us that Jacob gave each child his own blessing combined with a unique and individual instruction. Jacob knew the strengths and weaknesses of each of his sons, and he addressed each accordingly.
The late Torah scholar Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetzky, in his commentary on the Torah, "Emes L'Yaakov," asks why Jacob introduced his personal comments to his sons with the following words: "And Jacob called for his sons and said, Gather around and I will tell you what will happen to you in the end of days" (Gen. 49:1). What business is it of each tribe to hear what Jacob had to say to the other tribes? Wasn't this a personal and confidential moment for each one of the sons? How then could Jacob violate the privacy that was needed?
Kaminetzky explains that Jacob wanted to teach us all a lesson. True, we have our own unique individual and personal needs, but those needs and demands must also include the community. He writes, "Although each person is an individual, nevertheless he is a member of the collective, and he can't forget that."
If Judah had thought only of his leadership qualities, Issachar only of his Torah scholarship or Zevulun only of his business acumen, they never would have viewed their talents as part of a bigger picture, namely the Jewish people. If this had happened, the Jewish community could not have been formed. If we thought only of ourselves, we would have been individuals pursuing our own selfish agendas, but the community never would have been forged, and we would not be here as Jews today.
Although President Kennedy in his inaugural address coined the saying, "Do not ask what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country," this has always been the Jewish ethic, for the community is our most precious asset.
Elazar Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.