In this week’s parsha, Jacob summons his twelve sons to bless them as he lies on his deathbed. He says to them, “Come together that I may tell you what is to befall you in the days to come” (49:1). Yet rather than predict their destinies, Jacob instead proceeds to describe each of his sons and to catalogue their actions: Reuven, who is “unstable as water,” slept with his father’s concubine; Shimon and Levi, whose “weapons are tools of lawlessness,” took revenge on the city of Shechem, etc. Why does Jacob proclaim that he will foretell the future, but then describe the past instead?
Rashi, drawing on Breishit Rabbah, offers one possible answer to this question: “Jacob wanted to reveal the end [of days], but the presence of God departed from him, and he began speaking of other matters.” According to Rashi, Jacob fully intended to prophecy, but found that God was no longer “with his mouth.” So instead Jacob resorted to a more run-of-the-mill descriptive litany.
But why would God’s presence suddenly depart from Jacob? After all, this is the man who has wrestled with God and man and earned the honorary title “Israel”; and this is the man who is described as “perfect” when he arrives at Shechem. Surely there is no reason for the Shechina to depart from such a gavra rabbah, especially not in the crowning moments of his short and difficult life.
The Beit Yaakov, a nineteenth-century Hasidic commentator (and son of the author of Mei Ha-Shiloach), may provide an answer in his comment on the opening verse of this parsha. He asks why Jacob’s lifespan is described with the smaller numbers first (i.e. seven years and four hundred years), whereas the lifespans of the other forefathers are described with the bigger numbers first (e.g. one-hundred and seventy-five years for Abraham). According to the Beit Yaakov, Jacob was different from Abraham and Isaac in that Jacob became holy only after he performed many small good deeds; whereas Abraham and Isaac were infused with a large-scale aura of holiness that in turn then enabled them to perform those smaller good deeds. Abraham and Isaac knew from the very beginning that God had a destiny in mind for them; whereas Jacob, whose life was marked by mistakes and misperceptions (Was he lying with Leah or Rachel? Was Joseph alive or dead?) had to figure everything out for himself.
Jacob did not have a grand vision of his own destiny; thus, when God appears to him in Beit El, he responds by making a bargain with God. He can never be sure that he will succeed – with his brother Esau, with his uncle Lavan, or with his boss Pharaoh. And so when he wishes to reveal the fates of his sons, he finds himself at a loss for words. The only way for Jacob to know the future is by living it; but the day of his death has drawn near.
We are all, I think, more like Jacob than like Abraham or Isaac. Like Jacob, we do not know the path our lives will take. We may know what lies around the next corner, but we have no idea whether the doors down the corridor will be open or closed, or whether the windows will let in light. We move about in worlds unrealized, trusting, hopefully, in the divinity that shapes our ends. Perhaps it is for this reason that although Abraham is the father of our great nation, and although Isaac may allow us to laugh at what seems so dearly wished-for and yet so devastatingly impossible, ultimately it is rough-hewn Jacob who is the spiritual forebear of b’nei Yisrael.