The Best of Both Worlds

Before his passing, Jacob gathered his 12 sons and blessed them. To his son Zevulun he said: “Zevulun will live by the sea coast. He will be at the ship’s port. The end of his territory will be at Tzidon .”

The question has been asked, in what way is this a blessing? What difference does it make if the Zevulunites will live by the sea shore or elsewhere?

Rashi seems to have anticipated this question and explains that living by the sea enabled this tribe to become seafarers, dealing with import and export commerce. This, in turn, allowed them to support their brethren from the tribe of from the tribe of Yisachar, who engaged in the study of Tora

Based on this approach, the Talmud considered Zevulun to be an equal partner with Yisachar in the study of Torah. One who supports the students of Torah receives half of the credit for their Torah study. Indeed, the two tribes of Yisachar and Zevulun to this day are used as symbols for the partnership that exists between the students of Torah and their supporters, respectively.

The Rebbe underscored the importance of the supporters of Torah in his statement that the Zevulunites have an even greater role than the Torah scholars in carrying out the Divine plan of making this world a dwelling place for G‑d. They, the Zevulunites, elevate the worldly affairs in which they are engaged by using their resources for positive and holy endeavors. The Yisacharites, by contrast, are immersed in Torah study which is divorced from and beyond the material existence. Yisacharites live in the heavens and Zevulunites dwell here on Earth.

In addition, by channeling their resources toward Torah students and Torah educational institutions, the Zevulunites also acquire a share of the Torah’s celestial “credits.” They, thus, have the best of both worlds; they benefit from engaging and elevating the world through their Mitzvos, even as they enjoy the benefits of Torah that transcends the world.

The question, however, remains, why did Jacob not mention explicitly that the tribe of Zevulun would use their business dealings for the support of their brethren’s Torah study? Why did he mention the secondary aspect of living by the sea and omit the main point that they were supporters of Torah?

 Do you See the Sea?

One way of answering this question is to reflect on the metaphoric sense of the word “sea.” “Water,” in general, and the “sea” in particular are metaphors for Torah. More specifically, the Messianic Age is characterized as an age in which Divine knowledge will deluge the world. In the words of the prophet Isaiah: “The earth will be filled with the knowledge of G‑d as the seabed is covered with water.” Indeed, Maimonides concludes his magnum opus, the Mishneh Torah, with this verse, as he describes the Messianic Age as an age of utopia. It will be washed clean of all vices and pain because it will be flooded with Divine knowledge, Maimonides explains.

Where is Your Heart?

We can now understand why Jacob’s blessing simply refers to Zevulun’s role as a sea merchant without mentioning his role as the supporter of Yisachar’s Torah learning. And herein lies one of the paradoxes of Judaism. Although Zevulun’s role is a preeminent one as compared to Yisachar, nevertheless Zevulun’s heart is with his brother Yisachar and his preoccupation with Torah study. Zevulun cannot be complacent with his task; he must always yearn for the lofty perch of Yisachar.

In practical terms this means that not only does Zevulun the merchant dedicate every free moment for Torah study, he also yearns for the time when he will be able to devote all of his time to Torah study, the way the Yisacharites do. A true Zevulunite experiences a kosher form of envy; he envies the Yisacharites’ immersion in the sea of Torah and does everything in his power to emulate him even as he is involved in his business pursuits and thereby creating a dwelling place for G‑d. 

If the Torah only had emphasized that Zevulun will be a supporter of Torah it would not have conveyed and captured the essence of this blessing. Rather, the blessing he received is that he will never lose sight of his essential goal, without compromising his own mission as a Zevulunite. While fully appreciating the challenge and opportunity he has in making this world a dwelling place for G‑d and enabling others to learn Torah, he knows deep down that his place is truly at sea; the sea of Torah knowledge in general, and the sea of Divine knowledge to be revealed in the Messianic age.

This deeper meaning is alluded to in the continuation of the blessing: “He will be at the ship’s port.” Zevulun will always be looking out at the sea of Torah, waiting to take his ship and sail on that holy sea.

Waiting to Traverse the Sea

There is a yet another message conveyed in Zevulun’s blessing.  The word used for ship here is aniyah. The root of this word implies sorrow and lamentation. This is a description of exile conditions. Zevulun is always to be found at the port, ready to take the sorrow of Galus into the sea. The greatest blessing we can receive in our own lives today is to know where we are and not be delusional about our status. We must recognize that we are still in exile, yes, but couple that knowledge with eager anticipation that exile will end imminently. No matter how much we have to contend against Galus conditions, engage the world the way it is now and labor to transform our environments into extensions of the Holy Land, we must always be ready to steer our ship into the sea of Divine knowledge.

 The End

The Torah continues: “The end of his territory will be at Tzidon.”

The word Tzidon is cognate to the word tzyayid, which means to hunt for food. In Chassidic literature, a parallel is brought from the way the Torah describes Eisav as one who hunted and fed his father Isaac. The Tzemach Tzedek, third Rebbe of Chabad, explains that there is a parallel between Eisav and Zevulun,. In Yitzchak’s mind, Eisav was the enterprising individual who would use his talents to provide for the sustenance of the Torah scholars, much like Zevulun would in the future. Yitzchak therefore felt that Eisav deserved his blessings because the Zevuluns of the world are needed to transform the world into a dwelling place for G‑d.

We may suggest that the reason Eisav failed in his true task was due to his lack of appreciation for the Yisachar ideal represented by his brother Jacob. While Eisav may have initially appreciated the need to engage the world and even refine it, he shows us that without yearning for the sea of Torah the Zevulun role can degenerate into materialism.

As great as Zevulun is in paving the way for the future Redemption, we must realize that it is but a means to an end; the end of exile and our immersion in the Divine sea of knowledge of the Messianic Era.

Thus Jacob’s blessing to Zevulun concludes with the words “The end [more literally: the side or secondary aspect] of his territory will be at Tzidon.” This means that Tzidon - hunting for material goods, even for the loftiest of reasons - is of secondary significance in Zevulun’s overall mission.

We are Ready!

More specifically, Kabbalah and Chassidus teach us that the description of Eisav as a hunter who provided his father with food is also a metaphor for the sparks of holiness that are embedded in all physical material. When we engage the world in accordance with G‑d’s plan and vision, we extract and liberate those powerful sparks of holiness. According to the Kabbalists, when the process of releasing these sparks is completed we are ready to greet Moshiach as he ushers in the final Redemption.

Thus the conclusion of the verse, “The end of his territory will be at Tzidon,” can also be interpreted another way: that Tzidon stands for the process of releasing the captured sparks. When this process comes to an end, it is time for us to commence our journey into the sea. The Rebbe revealed to us that we have, in fact, concluded that mystical process of refining the sparks. All that is left for us to do today is to greet Moshiach and welcome him into our lives by living in accordance with the Messianic ideals of total devotion to the Mitzvos and particularly the intensive study of Torah.