We read in our Parsha this week, Vayechi, about the blessings and rebukes that Jacob metes out to his sons. The Torah tells us that he “bade them farewell,” and leaves each of them with a parting message “appropriate to him.” Jacob knows that he is about to die, and he wants to leave them with his own summary of their strengths and weaknesses. He calls to them, and what we hear in this portion is not only a description of the individual son but also a more global description of the tribe that each of them leads. The picture he paints is often not flattering, sometimes referring—as he does with Reuben, Shimon and Levi--to sins they have committed in the past.
We have no idea how each son reacted to his father’s final words to him, but we can imagine that, in some cases, this message was not easy to hear. Jacob distills each of their characters—often through animal metaphors—Judah is the lion’s whelp, Benjamin is a ‘ravenous wolf,’ and Naphtali is a ‘hind let loose which yields lovely fawns.” For Reuben, he reserves a different kind of metaphor; he tells him that he is as “unstable as water.” I don’t know how I would feel if those were the last words that my father said to me.
In some cases, Jacob refers to the past, in other cases he signals the future. We know that here he makes clear that Judah will lead the people, and we can’t help but wonder if he’s learned anything from all of his family misery because—yet again—he makes clear that Joseph is the favored son. STILL. He calls him “the elect of his brothers,” and though Joseph is not meant to lead the people, he nevertheless gets blessings that, in Jacob’s words, surpass “the blessings of my ancestors.”
Eytz Hayyim tells us that this portion is poetic, and it is full of metaphors. I’ve mentioned animals and water, for example. And there’s another important metaphor in Vayechi, a metaphor that Jacob has used in the earlier section of this Parsha. It has just come up when Jacob blesses Ephraim and Manasheh, and Jacob uses exactly the same metaphor when he blesses their father, Joseph. But it’s not a metaphor that refers to THEM, but rather a metaphor that refers to GOD. The word is “shepherd.” For Ephraim and Manasseh, he invokes “THE GOD WHO HAS BEEN MY SHEPHERD FROM MY BIRTH TO THIS DAY.” (48:15)
And to Joseph, he calls upon the “shepherd, THE ROCK OF ISRAEL.” (49:24)
Though we are used to this metaphor, we may not realize that this is the first time that we read in the Torah of God being referred to as a shepherd. Fast forward to King David. To the most famous of his many psalms. And what do we read there?: THE LORD IS MY SHEPHERD. It is our patriarch Jacob to whom we are indebted for this metaphor.
So many people mistakenly think of the first five books of Moses as portraying a so-called vengeful, wrathful God. But here in Vayechi, in just a few little verses, we see that the God of our patriarchs is a loving God. A God who cares and protects and blesses and watches over us. A SHEPHERD.