Vayechi- The Blessing of Dan: A Panoramic View of Recent History

In the final season of the well-known American TV Series The Office, something tragic happens. Shirley, the aunt of America’s favorite Assistant Regional Manager (“…Assistant to the Regional Manager!“) Dwight Shrute, suddenly passes away. As Dwight’s overly-German family and friends gather to eulogize their lost relative, and each one steps up to give their final respects, it becomes clear to the viewer that the Shrute family is not one for emotional good-byes:

“She had 50 acres of farmland.”
“She had 2 children.”
“She was old.”

Without a mention of what kind of person Shirley was, or how she lived her life, each of the eulogizers get up on proceed to list an unemotional, unconnected detail of her life- how big her land was, how ugly she was, how many beets she produced. The writers of the American sitcom were clearly playing on a trait that they had developed in Dwight since the first season of The Office, a lack of emotional attachment, and projected this onto his family and friends. However, producers Greg Daniels and Ricky Gervais could not have known that this episode’s emotionless good-byes harken back to a much earlier parting of ways, during our forefather Yaakov’s last days, in the land of Egypt.

Yaakov’s life had not been easy. He was forced to leave Eretz Canaan twice, originally running away from his brother Eisav and later to avoid a terrible famine. But, even with this difficulty, it’s clear that Yaakov was not an unemotional person, as we see from his passionate discussion with Yosef at the beginning of our סדרה.

In stark contrast to this emotional display are Yaakov’s final words to his sons as he prepares for death. There are no tears, there is no personal praise, no telling his sons about their strengths and encouraging them to continue to grow after his passing- he doesn’t even tell his sons that he’s proud of them. As a matter of fact, many of Yaakov’s parting messages are quite negative. He rebukes Reuven for interfering with his life, saying his firstborn will fail as a leader because he lost his rights. Shimon and Levi are reminded to stay apart, called overly-violent and murderous. Yissachar will abandon his responsibilities and take on a lazy lifestyle, and Binyamin will be a blood-thirsty hunter. Other brothers’ blessings are just plain weird: Asher will make oily bread and bake for the royal table, and Yosef will be the quintessential “chick magnet,” with girls climbing on trees to get a good look at him.

While the מפרשים have a field day trying to explain each of these unusual parting messages, it is clear that something is missing from פרשת ויחי: an emotional good-bye. Why did Yaakov give such cryptic blessings to his sons instead of giving them final חיזוק before his passing on?

If we look at the beginning of פרק מט, the penultimate perek of ספר בראשית, Yaakov opens his final messages to his sons with an introduction:

וַיִּקְרָא יַעֲקֹב, אֶל-בָּנָיו; וַיֹּאמֶר, הֵאָסְפוּ וְאַגִּידָה לָכֶם, אֵת אֲשֶׁר-יִקְרָא אֶתְכֶם, בְּאַחֲרִית הַיָּמִים

And Yaakov called out to his sons, and he said: Gather and I will tell you what will happen to you in the End of Days (בראשית מט:א)

Ramban, delving into the end of the פסוק, explains:

באחרית הימים – הם ימות המשיח, כי יעקב ירמוז אליו בדבריו, כמו שאמר עד כי יבא שילה ולו יקהת עמים…

In the End of Days- these are the days of Mashiach. Yaakov was hinting to them in his words [what would happen then]…  (רמב”ן שם)

According to Ramban, Yaakov took advantage of his final speech to his sons not to say good-byes, to but to explain to them what he saw, through רוח הקודש, would happen in אחרית הימים. Each of the brother’s “blessings” has a hidden message, guidance for the time immediately before משיח- our challenge, with the help of the מפרשים, is to try to interpret them and learn from Yaakov’s cryptic final words to his sons.

Of all of the final blessings that Yaakov gave over to his sons, only one seems completely positive- that of Dan:

 דָּן, יָדִין עַמּוֹ כְּאַחַד, שִׁבְטֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. יְהִי-דָן נָחָשׁ עֲלֵי-דֶרֶךְ, שְׁפִיפֹן עֲלֵי-אֹרַח הַנֹּשֵׁךְ, עִקְּבֵי-סוּס, וַיִּפֹּל רֹכְבוֹ, אָחוֹר. לִישׁוּעָתְךָ, קִוִּיתִי ה’.

Dan will judge his nation, and will unite the tribes of Israel. Dan will be like a snake on the path, biting the heels of the horse to knock down its rider backwards. For your salvation I wait, O Lord. (שם מט:טז-יח)

In this cryptic final message to Dan, Yaakov gives over a lot of important information. The first is that one of Dan’s descendants will be an important leader, despite the fact that his ancestor was a son of a maidservant and not one of Yaakov’s main wives. This proves to be true, as we know that Shimshon, one of the most courageous and strong judges of ספר שופטים, was a descendant of Dan.

Ramban plays on this theme by explaining the next פסוק. He reminds us that Shimshon’s final act was to do exactly what the symbolic snake does here- after being imprisoned and blinded, he knocks down the “legs” (pillars) of a Philistine building to cave it in, killing most of their leaders, and giving his life to get rid of the leaders who were terrorizing the Jewish People of his time. Again, we see that Dan’s descendants will be brave, selfless leaders, putting themselves at risk for the sake of their people, just as a snake puts itself in danger by bringing a horse down on top of it.

Last but definitely not least is the seemingly unrelated verse “לישועתך קויתי ה’,” which Chizkuni interprets simply as saying that in times of danger, when the Jewish People pray to G-d for salvation, and He will send Dan to save them. Not wanting to feel left out, Rav Chizkiah ben Manoach Chizkuni also ties this into the story of Shimshon, saying that this is clearly demonstrated with the penultimate judge.

So, we see that Dan’s blessing shows us of how, in times of strife, he will be the one to step up and save the Jewish People. Despite his less-than-perfect origin, he will be courageous, selfless, effective, and he will save us with G-d’s help. While חז”ל mainly relate Dan’s bravery to Shimshon’s time, based on Yaakov’s initial context of “אחרית הימים,” it’s clear that this blessing is mainly meant for a later point of history: our times of the אתחלתא דגאולה. Even though we cannot be entirely sure who Dan is, as his descendants were unfortunately lost along with the rest of the Kingdom of Israel in the days of the First בית המקדש, recent history shows that symbolic “בני דן” have stepped up to fill in their place and fulfill Yaakov’s final prophecy.

About a hundred years ago, as Europeans were beginning to persecute their Jewish neighbors, things very much seemed like Yaakov predicted they’d be in אחרית הימים. The leadership of “Reuven” was long-gone, and no one was properly caring for the Jews’ needs. The spiritual leadership had retreated to the shtetl in the face of the Enlightenment, taking on the more peaceful and lazy lifestyle that our forefather predicted Yissachar would (ironically, many of these would proudly associate themselves with Yissachar, taking Yaakov’s clearly negative message in a positive light). The more enlightened Jews were involved in art and culture, becoming their generation’s Yosef and Asher. Others were getting attached to communism and joining the Nazi party, echoing to Yaakov’s prediction that some of his sons (Levi, Shimon and Binyamin) would cause bloodshed. With this division came a vacuum of leadership, one that needed to be filled, especially with the rise of Hitler and Anti-Semitism. Something needed to be done to unite and save the Jews.

Secular Zionism stepped in to fulfill this role. Herzl, the Zionist Congresses, and other secular Jewish leaders saw the need for a safe place for Jews to live, so they became the “בני דן” of the early Twentieth Century, doing the work that others failed to do. First, they tried to unite the Jews of Europe under the vision of Zionism and the dream to return home. Even though, as secular Jews, their roots were questionable and their legitimacy dubious (much like Dan’s), they nonetheless put the nation’s needs before theirs and managed to bring Jews to the British Mandate, in several stages of aliyah.

Next, came the fight for Israel’s Independence, as life under the British Mandate, with incessant attacks from the neighboring Muslims, became unbearable. Like a snake underneath a horse and rider, Israel’s young army managed to win independence against a bigger and more powerful enemy, and even managed to avoid being crushed in the process (unlike Shimshon). By 1949, the State of Israel, a vision of our generation’s “בני דן”, was born, alive and well, and the ישועה was well under-way.

But, jumping 68 years later, one part of Dan’s blessing has yet to be fulfilled: “לישועתך קויתי ה’.” The ישועה, salvation, for which we have waited for so long and which is so very close, can only come when the Jewish People recognize, as Chizkuni explains above, that Dan is G-d’s vehicle for redemption. Unfortunately, in our times many have yet to realize or accept this. Without understanding and appreciating the significance of what our “בני דן” have accomplished, and accepting what we know they will do soon,  there can never be any hope of bringing the long-awaited גאולה.

On Yaakov’s final day, he gave cryptic, unusual and unemotional parting messages to his children. Now that we understand better at least one of his blessings, we can appreciate why it was necessary for our forefather to use his final minutes to tell his children what would happen in אחרית הימים. Our modern fulfillment of the Dan’s blessing is not obvious at all. But, now that we better understand what is happening, we have an obligation to ourselves and to our people to ensure that it is fulfilled, and that our long-awaited ישועה will finally come. We need to shed the labels of our שבטים, ones that we’ve taken on through birth or choice, and become a united עם ישראל, joining together at the ancient epicenter of מלכות יהודה in the hope that our בני דן’s efforts will truly “מאחד שבטי ישראל.” Only through this can we ever hope to bring the ישועה that Yaakov, in his final prophecy, told our ancestors that Dan would bring about.