Rabbi Michael Rosensweig
Yaakov's Final Spiritual Bequest to His Children
"Vayikra Yaakov el banav vayomer heiasfu ve-agidah lachem eit asher yikra etchem bi-acharit ha-yamim"(Bereishit 49:1). The gemara (Pesachim 56a) relates that Yaakov intended to reveal details of the End of Days to his children when they gathered to receive his final blessings but was frustrated in this attempt. Consequently, he became concerned that this failure implied that his progeny were spiritually flawed and unworthy. His fears were allayed only when they collectively recited the text of "Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad" and asserted their shared commitment to Hashem's unity ("kesheim she-ein belibcha ela echad kach ein be-libeinu ela echad"). Yaakov responded to this affirmation by proclaiming "baruch sheim kevod malchuto leolam va-ed". The gemara goes on to discuss the halachic status of this phrase which celebrates Hashem's glorious sovereignty (kevot malchuto). It was articulated by Yaakov and integrated into the Shema according to this report, but was subsequently omitted in Moshe Rabbeinu's actual rendition of the Shema in parshat Vaetchanan (Devarim 6:4). The gemara concludes that this phrase should be included but in an undertone so as to set it apart from the primary text of the Shema. This intriguing gemara requires clarification: why did the specific proclamation of Shema Yisrael calm Yaakov's anxiety? Moreover, what is the significance of Yakkov's reference to Hashem's sovereignty in this context?
The Rambam (Keriat Shema 1:2) cites this gemara prominently in the very beginning of his discussion of the mitzvah of keriat Shema. Moreover, the Rambam subtly reformulates the gemara. He accentuates the importance of Divine unity (one of his thirteen tenets of faith- see hilchos Yesodei ha-Torah and Introduction to Perush ha-Miahnah Perek Chelek) in this context. Furthermore, the Rambam records that Yaakov's very intention in gathering his children was to inculcate the tenet of Divine unity! Why this particular focus at this crucial juncture?
We may better appreciate the significance of the Shema's Divine unity affirmation in Yaakov's final meeting with his children when we consider the formidable challenge that Yaakov encountered as he addressed his remarkably diverse family to bequeath his final legacy. The berachot that he subsequently transmitted reveal the wide range of personalities and ideologies embodied by these great men. How would he impart pivotal principles and values designed ultimately to shape a unified and integrated nation to men whose talents and interests were so disparate. Moreover, when Yaakov's aspiration to reveal Divine mysteries was rebuffed, he began to question whether the wide diversity that characterized his sons did not perhaps betoken a serious flaw or even failure in the development of the shevatim as a foundation for Kelal Yisrael. He may even have been concerned that the different interests and inclinations of the shevatim might find expression in their avodat Hashem in a manner that might engender challenges to the theological principle of Hashem's unity. Many heretical movements that are dualistic or pluralistic stem from a misunderstanding of the diversity encountered in the world.
When the highly individualistic shevatim responded reflexively and as one by succinctly affirming Hashem's unity via the formula of Shema Yisrael, Yaakov recognized that his fears were groundless. The fact that they selected this mechanism to convey their religious commitment reflected their acute sensitivity to both the challenge and opportunity of harnessing diversity as a vehicle to promote Divine unity. By asserting their exclusive Divine focus (kesheim she-ein belibechah ela echad kach ein be-libeinu ela echad), the shevatim established themselves as the authentic spiritual heirs of Yaakov.
The Maharsha (Pesachim) explains that Yaakov's response invoking Hashem's sovereignty (baruch sheim kevod malchuto) invoked the theme of kabalat ol malchut shamayim in addition to the theological truth of Hashem's unity. Yaakov was profoundly impressed with the unified reflexive reaction of the shevatim. When the full dimensions and implications of Divine unity are recognized, it becomes the foundation for greater religious commitment and an ambitious expansion of the corpus of Torah and the range of avodat Hashem. Civil law, ritual performance, marital interaction are equally halachic expressions of avodat Hashem rooted in Hashem's unity. The principle that halachic life and law encompass many different realms and types of experience, projects Torah's breadth and its relevance to all domains of existence. Ke-sheim she-mevarchin al ha-tov kach mevarchin al ha-ra (One must acknowledge Hashem's sovereignty even in misfortune) further demonstrates the impressive scope of halachic life and exemplifies the extraordinary faith in Hashem that underpins it.
It can be demonstrated that the Rambam in particular (See Sefer ha-Mizvot no. 2, and hilchos Keriat Shema 1:2) integrated the themes of yichud Hashem (Divine Unity) and kabalat ol malchut shamayim (commitment to the Heavenly yoke). It is conceivable that this interrelationship stems from the final interaction between Yaakov and his sons. A more profound and powerful legacy from Yisrael to the shevatim would be difficult to imagine.