As a teacher of Tanach to adults, with a strong focus on text-based Chumash classes, when I first saw Professor Nechama Price’s Tribal Blueprints: Twelve Brothers and the Destiny of Israel, my interest and curiosity were piqued.
Since the shelves in our libraries and Judaica stores are well stocked with books on Chumash and the parashah, it is prudent to ask: What does this (or any) new book offer the reader (and teacher), that has not already been discussed?
As one reads Professor Price’s book, the answer becomes abundantly clear. In this unique anthology, the author devotes two chapters to each tribe, or grouping of tribes. We learn about the firstborn Reuven (the individual) in Genesis, and then Reuven (descendants of the tribe) in Tanach. We read about Binyamin (dubbed “The Baby of the Family”) in Genesis, and then about Binyamin in Tanach. Between Reuven and Binyamin, Professor Price gives us a clear biography of the tribes and of their mothers.
Who were the twelve brothers that birthed our nation and shaped our destiny? How were their actions influenced by the environment and home in which they were born and bred? What do their names, which were given to them at birth, tell us about their personalities? Why did some, like Yehudah and Yosef, become great leaders, and others, like Reuven and Gad, seemed doomed to rejection, loneliness and even failure? In what way did their father’s relationship with their mothers affect their futures?
In this fascinating, thoroughly researched exploration of the sons of Yaakov, Price addresses these questions and more. Her exceptionally clear style of writing is easily read by both the scholar and layperson. Almost every page has numerous explanatory footnotes quoting both earlier and later commentators, bringing support and proofs for her teachings. Additionally, Price offers insights of her own, culled from her years of teaching Tanach. An example of one such insight, which I found particularly astute and compelling, is in regard to the famous story of Reuven and his duda’im (mandrakes).
Reuven went in the days of the wheat harvest, and found mandrakes1 in the field, and brought them to his mother, Leah. Then Rahel said to Leah, “Please give me some of your son’s mandrakes.” She said to her: “Is it a small matter that you have taken away my husband? Would you take away my son’s mandrakes also?” Rahel said, “Therefore he will lie with you tonight for your son’s mandrakes.” Yaakov came from the field in the evening, and Leah went out to meet him, and said, “You must come with me; for I have surely traded for you with my son’s mandrakes.” And he slept with her that night (Genesis 30:14-16).
Price points out that at this point in the Torah narrative, Leah has birthed Reuven, Shimon, Levi and Yehudah. Bilhah, Rachel’s maidservant, has borne Dan and Naftali. Zilpah, Leah’s maidservant, has borne Gad and Asher. Only Rachel, the beloved wife, remains childless!
One day, Young Reuven goes to the field to pick flowers and proudly presents them to his mother, Leah. Rahel desires the flowers and requests them from her sister. Leah agrees to transfer them to Rahel only in return for one of Rahel’s nights with Yaakov.
What a bizarre story! So many details are difficult to comprehend. Why did Rahel want the flowers? What could be so special about these flowers that they are worth trading a night with Yaakov? And finally, what makes this story important enough to be included in the text of the Torah? (Tribal Blueprints, p. 14).
Price offers various reasons based on the commentators’ teachings on this passage. However, she begins with a unique and novel explanation of her own, reflective of the insight a female teacher of Tanach would intuitively offer to her students and readers. Under the heading “Token of Love,” Price writes:
This story could be the pure and innocent depiction of a sensitive young boy who recognizes his mother’s sadness and tries to cheer her up with a bouquet of flowers. These flowers are a token of his love to make up for the lack of love and gestures of affection that she should receive from her husband. Moreover, Reuven may be aware of his parents’ strained relationship . . . He watches Yaakov’s treatment of her during the day and sees her crying at night . . . So too, he may know the significance behind his own name,2 his mother’s desperate plea for love, and he wants to help her fill that void.
According to this line of thinking, Rahel trades a night with Yaakov for these flowers because they embody a child’s love for his mother. She is desperate to feel the tangible love of a child. Rahel’s anguish is passionately expressed only a few verses earlier, when she lashes out at Yaakov, saying, “Give me children or else I will die” (Genesis 30:1). Clearly, to Rahel, these flowers embody what she covets most in the world—the love of a child for his mother; she believes that acquiring them is worth relinquishing a night with Yaakov. The significance of this story is to display the level of extreme desperation that both Rahel and Leah feel, and what they are willing to sacrifice (p. 15).
Who were the twelve brothers that birthed our nation and shaped our destiny?
As a Bible scholar, Price reminds us that what the Torah text omits is as significant as what it includes. In regard to the youngest sons of Leah, Price writes: There are no stories about Yissakhar and Zevulun in all of Genesis. However, we know that they are present during numerous key episodes . . . We have every reason to believe they are present at the sale of Yosef. They were clearly included among the ten brothers who were sent down to Egypt twice. However, in spite of their physical presence, they are absent in the sense that they are the youngest sons of Leah . . . Yissakhar and Zevulun are followers who listen and do as they are told . . . One might suggest that the absence of details about Yissakhar and Zevulun means that there is no way to know anything about them. However, from their silence and apparent ambivalence, they might actually be revealing their personalities. Every family or clan has leaders and followers. Yissakhar and Zevulun, as presented in Genesis, are followers (p. 148).
Having read and thoroughly enjoyed the many insights and lessons in Tribal Blueprints, I am reminded of a foundational teaching of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, which is entirely relevant to Price’s work. On Genesis 12:10, Rabbi Hirsch writes:
The Torah does not seek to portray our great men as perfectly ideal figures; it deifies no man. It says of no one: “Here you have the ideal; in this man the Divine assumes human form!” It does not set before us the life of any one person as the model from which we might learn what is good and right, what we must do and what we must refrain from doing. When the Torah wishes to put before us a model to emulate, it does not present a man, who is born of dust. Rather, G-d presents Himself as the model, saying: “Look upon me! Emulate Me! Walk in My ways!”3 We are never to say: “This must be good and right, because so and so did it.”
The Torah is not an “anthology of good deeds.” It relates events not because they are necessarily worthy of emulation, but because they took place. The Torah does not hide from us the faults, errors, and weaknesses of our great men, and this is precisely what gives its stories credibility. The knowledge given us of their faults and weaknesses does not detract from the stature of our great men; on the contrary, it adds to their stature and makes their life stories even more instructive. Had they been portrayed to us as shining models of perfection, flawless and unblemished, we would have assumed that they had been endowed with a higher nature, not given to us to attain. Had they been portrayed free of passions and inner conflicts, their virtues would have seemed to us merely the consequence of their loftier nature, not acquired by personal merit, and certainly no model we could ever hope to emulate.
Ultimately, Tribal Blueprints teaches us that more than ancient Biblical personalities, the twelve sons of Yaakov and his wives were real people, with struggles, triumphs, failures and successes. The birthing of our nation was born of complex situations, reflecting the diversity, grandeur and beauty of Am Yisrael.
In conclusion, Price notes: The message of the twelve tribes is relevant in every family, community, or nation. Variety is necessary and provides life with its color, balance and beauty. Each tribe is essential to create the Jewish nation. Each one adds an inimitable and special quality to the whole. Similarly, we must each find our role, the colors that we can add, and the contributions we have to offer to the world around us (p. 288).
Tribal Blueprints is an exploration of the family of Yaakov, as well as a compelling and impactful journey through Tanach. This work provides insights into the individual lives of the tribes, as well as family and communal interactions. It is, indeed, a most worthy addition to any library.
1. Rashi on Genesis 30:14 identifies these flowers as jasmine.
2. “And Leah conceived, and bore a son, and she called his name Reuven; for she said: ‘Because the Lord has looked upon my affliction; for now my husband will love me’ (Genesis 29:32).”
3. See Sotah 14a and Shabbat 133b.
Michal Horowitz is a guest lecturer and scholar in residence in schools and communities around the country. She has hundreds of shiurim online, which can be found on OUTorah.org, YUTorah.org and TorahAnyTime.com. She lives in Woodmere, New York, with her husband and children.