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Parshat VaYechi


Adapted from Torah Ohr, Vayechi; Yehudah Attah 5688 and 5738 by Rabbi Yossi Marcus[1]


The twelve tribes are prototypes of all future souls of Israel. Each soul contains within it all of the twelve characteristics. When Yaakov blesses the twelve tribes, he is speaking to more than twelve people; he is speaking to every one of his descendants. This essay explores the spiritual characteristics of the first four tribes, Reuven, Shimon, Levi and Yehudah, as well as their parallel in the morning prayers.


Yehudah, your brothers will acknowledge you…

The word Yehudah connotes thanking and acknowledgment. Yehudah therefore refers to the soul’s submission to G-d, its “acknowledgment” of the Divine reality. [It is for this reason that all Jews, regardless of their tribe of origin, are called Yehudim, as if they were all of the tribe of Yehudah. Mordechai in the Scroll of Esther is called a Yehudi, though he was in fact of the tribe of Binyamin. For it is Yehudah’s characteristic that most identifies the Jew and accounts for his tenacious clinging to his faith in the face of persecution of all sorts. It is not his great scholarship or worship or spiritual sensitivity, but his selflessness.] 

Yehudah, however, is the fourth son. This symbolizes the fact that in order for the submission of the soul to be manifest, it must first cultivate its characteristics that are symbolized by the older brothers: Reuven, Shimon and Levi. (Thus the above verse would read: “Yehudah, your brothers will bring out the acknowledgement in you.”)

This corresponds also to the order of the prayers: Reuven and Shimon correspond to the first two sections of the Shema, and Levi to the prayer immediately after the Shema called Emes Viyatziv. This then leads into the silent prayer, the Shemoneh Esrei, corresponding to the submission and selflessness of Yehudah.

Reuven and Shimon

The word Reuven connotes vision, while Shimon connotes hearing. Reuven therefore refers to the soul’s ability to experience G-d not just intellectually but “visually.” This refers to when the Divine reality is plainly obvious to the soul, like a fact or event that a person has witnessed with his own eyes. The impression of vision is such that no argument can dampen it and no proof can bolster it. It allows no room for doubt. The soul cultivates its vision through meditation, “gazing” upon the Divine, like a dove gazing upon its mate. This calls forth the soul’s love for G-d, since love and attraction is produced through sight. Hence the correlation between Reuven, sight, and the first section of Shema, which begins with “and you shall love G-d your G-d….”

Shimon, on the other hand, refers to the soul’s intellectual apprehension of G-d, when it does not “see” the Divine reality but merely “hears” of it from afar. It is like a person who hears a report of some event—even firsthand—but who has not witnessed it himself. He believes it fully, but it cannot be said that he “sees” it. Such an experience of the Divine produces awe and fear, not love and intimacy. Hence the correlation between Shimon, hearing, and the second section of Shema, which begins with “and it will come to pass if you will listen to the commandments…take heed lest your heart go astray…,” since G-dliness is for him only something that he has listened to and heard, his service must be one of fear (“take heed…”).


The word Levi connotes joining and attachment. Levi therefore refers to the soul’s cleaving to G-d through the study of Torah, G-d’s wisdom. Hence the correlation between Levi and the prayer Emes Viyatziv, which speaks of the Torah.


Reuven, Shimon and Levi correspond also to the three pillars upon which the world—including the miniature human world—stands: Torah, Prayer, and Deeds of Kindness (Ethics 1:2).

Reuven, love, is the pillar of Deeds of Kindness. For a genuine love of G-d produces a love for His creatures and a desire to do kindness.

Shimon, awe, is the pillar of Prayer, the effort of one who is far to rise and come close to the Divine.

Levi, attachment, is the pillar of Torah, whose study facilitates the union of man and G-d (Zohar 3:71a).

The Fourth Son

When the soul experiences its characteristics of Reuven, Shimon and Levi—love, awe and attachment; Viahavta, Vihayah and Emes Viyatziv; Deeds of Kindness, Prayer and Torah—it is prepared to experience Yehudah, silent transparency, Shemoneh Esrei, when the worshipper stands as a servant before his master (Shabbos 10a).

However, “the older brothers” serve only to manifest the soul’s selflessness. This selflessness exists always, albeit in a concealed fashion. The service of “the older brothers” does not create this selflessness but rather brings it to the fore so that it translates into practice in thought, speech and deed.

Striking the Enemy

The verse continues and says that the hand of Yehudah is “in the neck of your enemy.” The enemy here refers to the earthly consciousness, which is necessary for survival but which should be experienced like a neck, the back of the head, symbolizing a halfhearted investment (as opposed to the face, which symbolizes complete association and involvement. When one gives a gift to a friend, one does so face to face, with heart and soul. When one is forced to give to the enemy, one does so begrudgingly, tossing it over one’s shoulder.)

Through the service of Reuven Shimon and Levi, which reveals the power of Yehudah, the soul is capable of entering the earthly consciousness and remaining connected to its source—the hand of Yehudah (its selflessness and devotion) remains with the soul as it operates within unG-dly environs.

But the enemy here is also a physical enemy, since despite its spiritual and metaphoric significance, a verse cannot be stripped of its literal meaning (Shabbos 63a).

This enemy will be subdued even before the Messianic era begins. For the verse continues with “Yehudah is a crouching cub [referring to David]…and the staff [of kingship] shall not pass from Yehudah [referring to Solomon].” The verse then alludes to Moshiach, who will be a descendant of both David through the Solomonic line (and not through the other sons of David—see Rambam’s commentary on Sanhedrin 11:12).

So the verse mentions the subduing of the enemy before its reference to Messianic times. This sequence alludes to the fact that even before the Messianic era Yehudah’s hand will be in the neck of his enemy. The future redemption will thus follow the manner in which the redemption from Egypt unfolded, where the Egyptians looked favorably upon the Israelites (Exodus 3:21) even before they were freed.


Hence the connection between the verses of Yehudah to the opening words of the parasha: “and Yaakov lived in the land of Egypt.” Even while Yaakov is in Egypt, the lowest of lands, even while the soul is in exile within the strictures of “Mitzraim,” he is alive through the study of Torah and the fulfillment of mitzvos. This ensures that “your hand is in the neck of your enemy,” since “when the voice is the voice of Yaakov in the houses of prayer and study, the hands of Eisav are powerless” (BR 65:20). Furthermore, Eisav himself comes to the aid of Yaakov and assists him in all of his physical needs so that he can study Torah and fulfill the mitzvos without worry. Yaakov then grows in his worship and brings ever-increasing light to the world. This light then dispels the darkness of Exile and brings the redemption, may it be now. &


[1] From a discourse of Rabbi Shneur Zalman, "the Alter Rebbe."



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