Knesset Yisrael: A Unique Unity
“All these are the twelve tribes of Israel and this is what their father spoke to them and blessed them; each man, according to his blessing, he blessed them.” (Bereshit 49:28) The brothers were clearly not alike. Each of Jacob’s sons had disparate capabilities with unique and often clashing character traits. Zevulon excelled in commerce while Yissachar with his keen, analytic mind engaged in research not only in Torah studies but in science and mathematics as well. Joseph had a charismatic and magnetic personality but was also a pragmatist. To save much of the civilized world at that time, singlehandedly he transformed the economy and society of Egypt. Judah was a leader and sovereign; Benjamin embodied courage.
Their father, Jacob, also compared many of his sons to beasts of the field, since each animal has a unique capability. “A cub and a grown lion is Judah… He crouched, rested like a lion, and like a lion who will rouse him?” Judah’s personality radiated power, authority, and prestige; as a lion he was a fearless warrior who relentlessly pursues his enemies.
In the opinion of the Rav, Rabbi Joseph Dov Ber HaLevi Soloveitchik, the central motif of Parshat Vayechi, is the makeup of the Congregation of Israel, “Knesset Yisrael.” Rather than being a monolithic entity, it is an integrated community of contradictory, mutually exclusive ideas and people. One needs to look no further than a page of Talmud to bear witness to this fact. Knesset Yisrael can only come into existence when all twelve tribes join together. If one tribe were to be eliminated, Knesset Yisrael would be stillborn.
The Klotzker Rebbe has a different interpretation of this verse. Judah is a lion not only when he stands upright but when he falls, makes mistakes. Who could rouse Judah from his fall? No one but Judah could help himself to rise again. Judah was valiant and self-asserting, the personification of human dignity and majesty. Yet at the conclusion of the incident with his daughter-in-law, Tamar, he was not embarrassed to publicly confess in front of his friends and associates, “She is more righteous than me.”
Earlier, when plotting Joseph’s demise, Judah acted more like a coward than a lion. It was, after all, his idea to sell Joseph into slavery. Later, however, when the time came to save Benjamin, Judah rose by himself without anyone extending a helping hand. He had sinned against Joseph and now he repented before him and his brothers with a contrite spirit. Judah had to experience his own trials before he could become king over others.
Rashi, the Rambam, and the Ramban concur. Knesset Yisrael is a confluence of talents, of approaches, of thoughts, of emotions. This amalgam of diversity no more apparent than in the makeup of the Jewish nation of today. Knesset Yisrael, notwithstanding its diverse elements representing various commitments and outlooks on life, remains united in its steadfastness to serve God and the perpetuation of the nation of Israel. It is a metaphysical unity unlike any other in the world.
May Hashem continue to safeguard the nation of Israel, Jews and God-fearing people the world over.
Rabbi Robert Kaplan