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Partners and Precedents (Vayetze)

The following is a brief write-up of some ideas originally presented as part of a series on midrash at Congregation Ahavas Achim in Highland Park, NJ. 

During his valedictory address to bnei Yisrael, Moshe confers the following blessing upon the tribes of Yissachar and Zevulun:

And to Zebulun he said: “Rejoice, Zebulun, in your endeavors, and Issachar, in your tents” (Deut. 33:18).

Rashi, citing the medrash, explains the significance of this blessing as follows:

Zebulun and Issachar entered into a partnership: Zebulun would dwell at the seashore and go out in ships, to trade and make profit. He would thereby provide food for Issachar, and the members of Isaachar would sit and occupy themselves with the study of Torah. (Gen. Rabbah 99:9).

475194934The agreement referred to in his medrash is perhaps the most familiar sort of “business partnership” discussed in rabbinic literature. It is the “Yissachar-Zevulun” partnership, the partnership which for centuries has brought together scholars and sponsors in a way that both parties utilize their natural talents to their fullest, while also reaping benefit from the talent of the other. So successful has this partnership proven, in both spiritual and material terms, that its conditions were formally codified in Jewish law: “A person is able to make a deal with his friend, that one will study Torah and the other will support him, and they will split the [spiritual] reward” (Rama, Y.D. 246:1).

So Yissachar and Zevulun count among our people’s greatest innovators. And, like most great innovations, theirs seems so obvious when considered in hindsight. Yet the partnership of Yissachar and Zevulun was not, in fact, an obvious partnership, for one simple reason which we often forget: others were more qualified to fill each of their respective roles.

To realize this, we need only return to the very same set of blessings to which the blessing of Yissachar and Zevulun belongs. There, it is the tribe of Levi which Moshe designates as the nation’s Torah leaders, and the tribe of Yosef which he singles out for material prosperity:[i]

And of Levi he said… “They shall teach Your ordinances to Jacob, and Your Torah to Israel” (Deut. 33:8-10).

And of Joseph he said: “His land shall be blessed by the Lord, with the sweetness of the heavens with dew, and with the deep that lies below, and with the sweetness of the produce of the sun, and with the sweetness of the moon’s yield, and with the crops of early mountains, and with the sweetness of perennial hills, and with the sweetness of the land and its fullness, and through the contentment of the One Who dwells in the thorn bush. May it come upon Joseph’s head and upon the crown of the one separated from his brothers” (Deut. 33:13-16).

These blessings are consistent with the roles played by Levi and by Yosef throughout the Torah. Levi is the tribe from which bnei Yisrael draws its priests and ministers, and the tribe which produced Moshe, the lawgiver himself. Yosef is the investor par excellence, the man whose economic vision sustained not only his brothers, but indeed, the entire world, through a seven year famine. Yet nowhere will you find in our literature reference to a “Levi-Yosef” partnership. It was not Levi and Yosef who came up with this partnership, but Yissachar and Zevulun. Why? What was it, exactly, that led these two unlikely revolutionaries to this most revolutionary idea?

Actually, we have very little material to draw upon in our search for answers. That is because there is not a single narrative in the entire Torah which personally features either Yissachar or Zevulun. In fact, the only story we have that is “about” them at all is the story of their birth, in this week’s parshah. It seems, then, that we have little choice but to turn there:

Reuben went in the days of the wheat harvest, and he found dudaim in the field and brought them to Leah, his mother, and Rachel said to Leah, “Now give me some of your son’s dudaim.” And she said to her, “Is it a small matter that you have taken my husband, that [you wish] also to take my son’s dudaim?” So Rachel said, “Therefore, he shall reside with you tonight as payment for your son’s dudaim.” When Jacob came from the field in the evening, and Leah came forth toward him, and she said, “You shall come to me, because I have hired you with my son’s dudaim,” and he resided with her on that night. And God hearkened to Leah, and she conceived and bore Jacob a fifth son. And Leah said, “God has given me my reward for I have given my maidservant to my husband;” so she named him Issachar. And Leah conceived again, and she bore Jacob a sixth son.  And Leah said, “God has given me a good portion. This time, my husband will live with me, for I have borne him six sons;” so she named him Zebulun… And God remembered Rachel, and God hearkened to her, and He opened her womb (Gen. 30:14-22).

madragora-autumnalis-sara.jpgThis is a well-known scene. It lies at the center of the twelve tribes’ birth accounts, and is by far the most detailed of those accounts. Usually it is the detail of the “dudaim” which draws our attention—the mysterious flowers which appear to function as one of the world’s first recorded natural fertility cures. Yet while the “dudaim” certainly represent scientific breakthrough, the most enduring novelty that emerges from this tale may actually have less to do with the flowers’ medical properties than with the manner in which those flowers were exchanged.

See, Leah and Rachel, both wives of Yaakov, enter this episode from opposite directions. Leah has borne Yaakov four sons, but still longs for his affection; Rachel enjoys Yaakov’s love, but remains barren. Then Leah acquires the dudaim—just the remedy Rachel needs to stimulate her fertility. Yet Rachel’s request for these dudaim insults Leah: “Is it a small matter that you have taken my husband, that [you wish] also to take my son’s dudaim?” Motherhood, insists Leah, initially, is my blessing. Yours is marital bliss. I cannot have yours; therefore, you cannot have mine.

To which Rachel responds with a radical proposition: Well, what if you can partake of my blessing? And what if I can partake of yours? And what if the blessings God has granted us can be redistributed thereby to our mutual benefit? This is a brilliant solution, for it recognizes that each sister has what the other lacks, and lacks what the other has. But for Leah to adopt this solution is no simple matter, because in order to do so, she must loosen her grip on precisely that part of herself which she views as uniquely hers—that part of herself from which so much of her sense of identity and of personal worth stems—and share it with someone else.

To her eternal credit, Leah ultimately accepts Rachel’s partnership. And who is born as a direct result of this partnership? None other than Yissachar and Zevulun. How fitting, then, that it was these boys, specifically, who would go on to strike the most celebrated partnership in their people’s history—a partnership which featured material exchange, just like their mother’s had, yet, also like hers, cast its value proposition in fundamentally spiritual terms. Partnership, after all, was part of these boys’ spiritual DNA; they literally owed their lives to it. And so, it turns out, joining forces as they did together did not require them to invent a new partnership model. All they had to do was emulate the model set by their mother.

Thus would Leah’s words upon their birth find themselves fulfilled in a way she might never have anticipated. For not only did she retain the blessing of motherhood, even as she shared that blessing with her sister; she actually merited, as a direct result of this partnership, to mother children who would inspire thousands of her descendants to partner together in like fashion. This, indeed, is a great “reward” (Gen. 30:18); this, indeed, is a “good portion” (ibid. 20).[ii]

Shabbat shalom!

[i] The tribe of Zevulun, by contrast, actually protests, later in Tanach, that the land which it received as its territorial allotment is comparatively infertile (see Megillah 6a).

[ii] Rachel, too, would receive long-term reward for the partnership that produced Yissachar and Zevulun; later in Tanach, Yirmiyahu proclaims:

So says the Lord: A voice is heard on high, lamentation, bitter weeping, Rachel weeping for her children, she refuses to be comforted for her children for they are not. So says the Lord: Refrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears, for there is reward for your action, says the Lord, and they shall come back from the land of the enemy.  And there is hope for your future, says the Lord, and the children shall return to their own border (Jer. 31:14-16).

As R. David Fohrman has noted, the Hebrew phrase “there is reward,” “יש שכר,” undoubtedly plays off the name “יששכר,” “Yissachar.” For more on the intertextual allusions to Rachel’s life hidden within Yirmiyahu’s prophecy, see “Rachel’s Tears” (Aleph Beta Academy, Tisha B’av 2015) and “Take in a Clasp of Brotherhood” (What’s Pshat, Rosh Hashanah 2014).

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