The Meaning Behind Jacob's Mysterious Blessings
What Was Jacob's Final Blessing To Joseph Really About?
Bereishit ends with a series of blessings that Jacob gives to each of his sons on his deathbed. But Jacob's blessings are so poetic and impenetrable – they're so difficult to understand!
The Torah rarely takes the time to record the intimate events of a biblical character's deathbed experience, and yet a full chapter is devoted to Jacob's blessings to his twelve sons. What do they mean? What are we, thousands of years later, supposed to make of Jacob's mysterious blessings?
This video aims to understand Jacob's blessing to Joseph, in particular, and answers another biblical mystery: Did Jacob ever find out what his sons did to Joseph? What was his reaction? All that and more!
At the end of this parsha, Jacob gathers his children around and give them blessings. I’ve long been bothered by these blessings: they’re poetic and difficult to understand. What is the Torah trying to tell us through these blessings? What do they mean?
What Was the Meaning of Jacob's Blessings to His Sons?
Well, I got to work on understanding this parsha together with Rabbi Fohrman, who had his own nagging questions about this parsha, particularly, on the end of Genesis as a whole; HIS question is: Does Jacob ever find out what really happened to Joseph? Did the brothers ever tell their father that they threw Joseph into a pit and faked his death?
After all, we’ve just spent the whole second half of the book of Genesis focusing on this whole saga and we have no idea what Jacob’s perspective is on all of this. Is it possible that our patriarch Jacob is just clued out?
Strangely, I think one of these difficult blessings, gives us a clue. I believe that Jacob’s blessing to Joseph actually sheds light on what Jacob knew, or didn’t know, about what went down at the sale of Joseph.
So whether you’re struggling with the difficult blessings, or you’re bothered by Rabbi Fohrman’s question, this video promises to make EVERYONE happy. You with me? Let’s go.
Jacob Blesses Joseph
Let’s take a look at Jacob’s strange blessing to Joseph:
“They embittered him, and fought with him
and they despised him [and who did these things?]
ותשב באיתן קשתו
But his bow was strongly established
ויפזו זרעי ידיו
and his arms quivered
מידי אביר יעקב
from the hands of the Mighty One of Jacob
משם רעה אבן ישראל
from there, he shepherded the rock of Israel.”
Now, this is Biblical poetry – and truthfully, it’s pretty hard to make heads or tails of it. What was going on in the scene portrayed in this blessing? There seem to be these people, and they really didn’t like Joseph... there are also archers and this guy who sounds really strong, but his arms are shaking because he’s shepherding or something… some kind of rock?
It’s tough to figure out what this all means. So let’s break the blessing down a bit and see if we can begin to understand what’s going on here.
What Was Joseph's Blessing from Jacob Really About?
וימררהו – they embittered him
ורבו – And they attacked him, struggled with him
וישטמהו – and they despised him
בעלי חצים – the archers, those who shot with arrows.
So for starters, there are a lot of “they’s” and “him’s” here. Who do these pronouns refer to?
Well, we know who the “him” is – it’s Joseph; after all, this is his blessing. But who are “they?”
It’s tempting to say that “they” could be the brothers. I mean, they certainly embittered Joseph, they attacked him, and we know that they really hated him. The description seems fitting. So the case is open and shut: Jacob knew about how his sons treated Joseph, right?
But not so fast. What do the brothers have to do with archers? They’re not בעלי חצים; they don’t use arrows as their weapons of choice. They throw Joseph into a pit.
Even as a metaphor, it doesn’t make much sense: An arrow is like a gun, it’s a direct way to kill someone. But the brothers never actually tried to murder Joseph in cold blood, they merely sold him into slavery.
And there’s another objection you could pose with the interpretation that Jacob was talking about the brothers in this blessing. Take a look at the word וישטמהו. The Hebrew root of that word is “satam” – sin, tet, mem. We translated it as “and they despised him”... But of course, in Hebrew, there are several words for hatred, the most common one being “sinah.” Satam is a word for hatred that appears pretty rarely.
Now, if we had found the word sinah, that would have looked like a slam dunk. After all, we have the brothers on record as hating Joseph. The text says ‘וישנאו אתוֹ’ – they hated him for getting the special coat. And sinah is the word that is used time and time again in the sale of Joseph. But sinah is not the word that we find in this blessing, it’s satam.
So, we haven’t yet seen any clear evidence that connects this blessing to Joseph and his brothers. But as it turns out there actually is some very telling evidence that centers around that unusual word, וישטמהו. Because this word is even more intense than plain hatred.
It’s a seething sort of hatred, a deep-seated grudge. And there are only two other times that it appears in the Book of Genesis…
Parallels to Jacob's Blessing in the Bible
The first time the word satam appears is with Esav. It happens right after Jacob steals his blessing:
וישטם עשו, את-יעקב, על-הברכה, אשר ברכו אביו
“And Esav despised Jacob regarding the blessing that his father blessed him.”
So satam is the word that describes how Esav felt towards Jacob. it’s the word that Jacob would be personally familiar with to describe a sort of seething hatred and jealousy between brothers.
And the verse doesn’t stop there, look at what happens next:
ויאמר עשו בלבו,
And Esav said in his heart
יקרבו ימי אבל אבי, ואהרגה, את-יעקב אחי.
Let the days of mourning for my father be at hand; then will I kill my brother Jacob.
So satam is more than just hatred between brothers, it’s a hatred that makes one brother want to kill the other. Does this sound familiar? It sure does, it sounds a lot like the feelings that the brothers had towards Joseph.
So it might really make sense for Jacob to call this hatred between brothers “satam,” it’s his word for describing the kind of experience that he and Joseph both share.
And it just so happens that the word satam makes one other appearance in the Book of Genesis, and guess where it appears? Right here in Parshat Vayechi, in the chapter that immediately follows Jacob’s blessings to his sons.
Jacob dies and the brothers are afraid that with their father out of the picture, Joseph may finally take revenge on them for what they did to him all those years ago:
ויראו אחי-יוסף, כי-מת אביהם,
And when Joseph's brothers saw that their father was dead
ויאמרו, לו ישטמנו יוסף;
They said: 'Maybe Joseph will despise us
והשב ישיב, לנו, את כל-הרעה, אשר גמלנו אתו.
And he will fully reciprocate all the evil which we did to him.
Now isn’t that interesting? It’s not just that this word appears with Esav and then again with Joseph and his brothers, but the two times we see the word satam, it’s in two very similar situations. We have:
- A father’s death…
- A deep-seated hatred…
- And one brother who now wants to take revenge on the other…
In each story, as long as there’s a father in the picture, the hatred has to be held back. Esav holds in his hatred, waiting for the day that Isaac is gone. And here, after Jacob’s death, the brothers fear that Joseph will now get back at them for what they did to him.
And consider the rest of this verse: ויּאמרו, לו ישׂטמנו יוסף; והשב ישׁיב, לנו, את כל-הרעה, אשׁר גמלנו אתו. “Joseph will now despise us,” they say, “and he’s going to reciprocate all of the evil which we did to him.”
This isn’t only a statement about Joseph getting even now that Jacob is dead. The brothers fear that he’s going to pay them back with the same hatred, the same evil, that they showed him all those years ago when they threw him into the pit.
That evil, that hatred is called satam, not just sinah. Maybe Jacob’s blessing really is about Joseph’s fight with the brothers after all.
Interpreting the Meaning of Jacob's Blessing to Joseph
So, we’re getting there. But, if our theory is correct, what about the בעלי חצים, those slingers of arrows? What is the connection between the brothers and arrows? Well, interestingly enough, if we read on in the blessing, we meet another archer of a very different kind:
ותשב באיתן קשתו – but he sat with his bow firm…
ויפזו זרעי ידיו מידי אביר יעקב – and his arms quivered from the hands of the Mighty One of Jacob.
So, here’s another archer, except this one is holding a bow firmly outstretched… and he’s not releasing it. He has the power in his hands to cause harm but he’s holding back. The only thing stopping him is his own strength, his own discipline.
Does that sound like anyone you know? Is there anyone in the story of Joseph and his brothers who has the power to cause harm but chooses not to use it?
There sure was. Joseph was second in command of all of Egypt, the most powerful nation in the region. Food has run out and Joseph is in charge of concentrating and distributing all of the resources. By this point in the story, all of the power lies with Joseph.
He has a bow aimed at his brothers, he contemplates revenge. He even toys with the brothers, he takes Benjamin captive – but he never actually releases the bow. Joseph could have killed his brothers or withheld food from them or taken them all as slaves – but what does he do instead? He takes care of them.
ויפזו זרעי ידיו – his arms were quivering… imagine Joseph holding that bow. It’s taking all of the strength he has, so much that his arms are shaking. Think about the imagery here: bows are made to be released, not held. As much strength as it takes to shoot an arrow, it takes far more strength to hold it in place.
Think about what it took for Joseph to not take revenge. He’s holding 17 years worth of pent-up anger at his brothers who never apologized to him. From afar, he looks firm, secure, strong – but up close, you can see him trembling. He’s using every muscle in his body to stop himself from acting on his anger.
Here is Joseph, with all of the power in the world to unleash revenge on his brothers – and his external power is outmatched only by his internal strength not to act on it.
From where did Joseph have this superhuman strength? מידי אביר יעקב – it was only possible by the hands of the Mighty One of Jacob. The will to not take revenge was Joseph’s, but the strength to hold the bow and not give in, that came from God.
It was God saying, “If this is what you want, Joseph, if you don’t want to shoot despite all of the power that you have as master of Egypt, then I’ll help you make that a reality.” God’s powerful hands held Joseph’s quivering arms steady, and helped him hold back from acting on his anger toward his brothers.
Now we can understand why the brothers are referred to as בעלי חצים, slingers of arrows. The arrows are not a metaphor for weapons of choice, they are a metaphor for power, and who had it.
The archers here are a contrast with Joseph. The brothers let their arrows fly. They took their power and abused it. They unleashed it upon their younger brother when he was the weaker one.
But Joseph, he acted differently. He took stock of his power and chose not to lash out or seek revenge. He held firmly to his outstretched bow. And never shot a single arrow.
Did Jacob's Blessing Imply That He Knew What Joseph's Brothers Did?
If we’re reading this correctly, it points us to a fascinating conclusion. It means that Jacob must have had some knowledge about what went on between Joseph and his brothers. He might not have known all of the gory details, but it seems he had an inkling that an unforgivable crime had been committed against Joseph… and that Joseph never sought vengeance from his brothers.
How did Jacob know? Maybe the brothers confessed to him, maybe he read between the lines. After all, Jacob is no stranger to sibling rivalry.
Jacob is sharing his own pain with Joseph; he’s letting Joseph know that he sees his struggle. “I know what you’ve been through, Joseph. Years later, your scars haven’t disappeared. Any person in your position would want to take revenge, but you’ve triumphed over it. Your God-given strength, your will and discipline have allowed you to overcome hatred and pain to make peace with your brothers. This is your greatness. This is what makes you a true leader.”
Imagine what Joseph must have felt when he heard this message: “My father really does know what I’ve been through, how much I’ve suffered. He understands my struggle like nobody else and he loves me for it. He’s telling me, it’s brought out my greatest gift.”
And now we get to the end of the blessing: משם רעה אבן ישראל – from there comes the shepherd of all of Israel. Joseph is a leader to his brothers; and he will become a leader of Israel – there will be malchut Yosef, kings will come from Joseph.
Where did Joseph get this capacity to lead? It all started here. It all started with Joseph having the will to hold his bow and not give in, to forgive the unforgivable. That’s what Jacob recognized. That’s when Joseph truly became a shepherd of Israel.