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   by Jacob Solomon

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Jacob's final blessings to his children include: Issachar is a strong boned donkey. He crouches between the boundaries. He saw tranquility, for it was good; and the Land, for it was pleasant. Yet he bent his shoulder to bear, and became an indentured laborer (49:14-15).

The simile of a strong boned donkey and the references to the Land appear to refer to agriculture. The tribe of Issachar would see farming potential in its portion of the Land. Its allotted area would remain settled, and its population would spare no effort to develop the Land to maximum effect.

Rashi, however, follows the well-known Midrashic explanation, relating the image to Issachar's dedication to the learning, teaching, and applying Torah for the service of the Israelite Nation. They would render decisions, and teach the complex regulations concerning the Calendar (after Chronicles I 12:33). This tribe would supply two hundred Sanhedrin heads, and their pronouncements were to be accepted as authoritative.

But the allegory does not seem to be a good promotion for Torah study and Torah life. It appears to suggest that Torah dedication means interminable 'toil, tears, and sweat' with rewards that are illusory - only 'seeing' the land, 'for it was good'. Jacob expresses his blessing in the form of his son's descendants finding themselves bending 'their shoulders to bear' and becoming 'indentured laborers' - in the form of hard years of Torah study with no end in sight.

But a closer look at the text reveals a sudden change of tense. Issachar being a 'strong boned donkey' crouching 'between the boundaries' is in the present tense. But the next verse: 'He saw tranquility, for it was good; and the Land, for it was pleasant…' is in the past tense. This suggests that Issachar was strongly motivated. He saw from the outset that his service to the Israelites in the framework of intensive Torah study would promote 'tranquility' for it would be 'good' and the 'Land' for it would 'be pleasant'. Therefore he would 'do his bit' and become and 'indentured laborer' - put in the tribe's contribution in the spiritual well-being of the Israelite nation. Thus the switch from the present tense to the past shows that the tribe of Issachar would realize the great benefits accruing from its intense dedication to Torah learning and practice: spiritual blessings on the 'Land' so it would be 'good' 'tranquil' and 'pleasant'. (One only needs to sense that in today's atmosphere of the Beth Hamidrash and for that matter, the library).

That message implied from the wording of the above text - that Torah Judaism must be presented in terms of destiny - is vital. As Faranak Margolese (in Off The Derech: How To Respond To The Challenge) explains, it is untrue that Torah in pre-war Europe was one extended Mirer Yeshiva experience. Torah was being seriously undermined - becoming a commitment only to a minority of Jews (70% of pre-war Polish Jews did not attend Jewish Schools). The competing ideologies - communism, Bundism, and secular Zionism, promised destinies - better futures, challenges, and means of advancing society in creating more wealth and opportunities. Traditional Judaism tended to promise just 'more of the same'…

This is a salutary message for Torah teachers. As Margolese puts it, the Torah today must be presented in the frame of its capacity to deliver. The spiritual benefits that come from Judaism include those from Torah learning, Sabbath and Festival participation and observance, the innumerable lessons learnt from the Torah, Prophets, and Writings and later sources, and the joy experienced in keeping the Mitzvot ranging from the dietary laws to the wide range of guidelines improving relationships between people. Those are the destinies of the Torah - in this world. In the terms of the Parasha, the modern generation must be educated with that destiny - seeing in Torah terms that the 'rest' (from mundane pursuits) will be 'good' and they will in turn be prepared to undergo the years of Torah study to gain the true understanding of their source of spiritual strength - they will be pleased to 'bend their shoulders to bear' and become 'indentured laborers…'

Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.

Parashiot from the First, Second, and Third Series may be viewed on the Shema Yisrael web-site:

Also by Jacob Solomon:
From the Prophets on the Haftara

Test Yourself - Questions and Answers


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