Dan: Minimal Acquaintance, Major Role

Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg

The last event in Yaakov’s life, as detailed in this week’s parsha, involves his giving the brachos (blessings) to his children, the Bnai Yisrael. In some instances, Yaakov alludes to previous actions committed by his sons, including Reuven’s bed-switching incident and Shimon and Levi’s attack on Shechem. In others, Yaakov brings to light the traits that set each individual apart from all the others, as demonstrated in the brachos given to Yehudah and Yosef. However, when studying some of the brachos for the “lesser known” brothers, it is difficult to discern Yaakov’s focus or what greatness the Torah wishes to illuminate to the reader, especially since the Torah never records any previous incident or trait involving these people. One such example lies with the bracha given to Dan.


Yaakov’s blessing to Dan is as follows (Bereishis 49:16-18):

“Dan will judge his people, as one of the tribes of Israel. Dan will be a serpent on the road, a viper on the path, that bites the horse's heel so that the rider falls backward. For your deliverance, I wait, Hashem.”

Most commentators, including Rashi and the Ramban, understand this bracha as a prophecy regarding Shimshon, the famed judge (shofet) from the shevet Dan. The Rashbam, however, takes umbrage to this interpretation (ibid 16). He writes that it does not make sense to posit that Yaakov’s prophecy regarding the future tribe of Dan focused on one individual, a person whose death at the hands of the Philistines was a “troubling matter.” Instead, he explains that Yaakov’s bracha was alluding to the role of the future tribe of Dan being “measef kol hamachanos” – the gatherer for all the camps (Bamidbar 10:25). Shevet Dan, from the days of Moshe through Yehoshua, was positioned in the rear of the itinerant nation. The Rashbam explains that travelling in their position meant they were involved in dealing with the enemies of Bnai Yisrael who would be lapping at their heels, setting up ambushes and the like. They were giborim – courageous – and entrusted with protecting Bnai Yisrael from these attacks.

Obviously, this was an important role in the security of the future Bnai Yisrael. However, it is possible there is something more revealed by the Rashbam’s approach than Dan’s role as tactical rear-guard. 

One could also expand this inquiry to some of the other tribes. As mentioned above, reading through the brachos, Yaakov clearly focuses on previous incidents or distinctive traits for some of the brothers. Yet, looking at Gad, Naftali and Dan, nearly all the commentaries agree that the common theme of their brachos relate to their superior military abilities. Why the focus on military prowess? We tend to think of these great people in terms of their chachma and middos, not their ability to wield a spear in battle. 

The approach may lie in the understanding the fundamental mitzvah of kiddush Hashem – sanctifying God's name.

The Rambam, in his Sefer HaMitzvos (9), offers some deep insights into this commandment:

“The concept of this commandment is we are instructed to publicize this true belief in the world and not be afraid of any type of harm.”

He goes on to explain that even if one is faced with ideological persecution aimed at uprooting the fundamental ideas of God, he should pay no heed, and be willing to die rather than accept this idolatrous alternative. The essence of the mitzvah, according to the Rambam, is a person’s willingness to perish for his love of God and belief in His Oneness. 

This idea is often expressed through the famous three prohibitions-- murder, sexual impropriety and idolatry – where one should accept death rather than committing the violation. In fact, when the Rambam discusses the halachos of kiddush Hashem, he uses the willingness to die rather than violate the above three as the expression of the mitzvah. 

One of my rebbeim, Rabbi Reuven Mann, once made an astute observation about the nature of kiddush Hashem. When learning about the “big three” and kiddush Hashem, it is tempting to say that if one was in the situation of potential death versus violating these commandments, one would of course choose death. This assumption, he explained, was both simplistic and dangerous. In the realm of the abstract, it is easy to choose death. However, when faced with the decision empirically, where the opportunity to exercise one’s freewill comes into play, it is quite difficult to ascertain how exactly one would end up choosing. The average person’s sense of self-importance may come to the forefront, inevitably leading to the violation. To say with certainty that “I would take the bullet,” without clear and honest knowledge of the self, is foolhardy. A person must, in that moment, possess tremendous confidence in his place in the universe and his belief in God to make the right decision. 

The common scenario is where the opportunity to engage in kiddush Hashem comes to the individual, rather than the individual seeking it out, but that is not the only scenario. In fact, the circumstances of kiddush Hashem may apply both proactively and when not pertaining to one of the three prohibitions, as evidenced by those who willingly place their lives in danger to fight for the survival of  Bnai Yisrael. These soldiers who put themselves in the line of fire for the ideological perpetuation of the nation are engaging in kiddush Hashem. To take such measures and to do so motivated by the true ideas of God is a unique trait not found in most people. It requires a tremendous level of confidence in one’s beliefs. This might be what Yaakov is alluding to in his brachos to Gad, Naftali and Dan. They all possessed this characteristic, and it would be manifest in their progeny as well.

The opportunity to engage in kiddush Hashem manifests when the soldier steps onto the battlefield. In the case of Dan, there was an added dimension to this perfection in his role as the “measef kol hamachanos.” Bringing up the rear guard, from a military standpoint, requires vigilance and attention. The prevention of ambushes, the most dangerous of all attacks, was pivotal in securing the fate of the nation. This meant that the tribe of Dan was in a perpetual state of kiddush Hashem. Based on the Rashbam’s explanation, this could have been Yaakov’s intent in the bracha to Dan.

When we reflect on the countless demonstrations of kiddush Hashem in our history, there is no shortage of people or events that personify it. But while reacting to a situation that presents itself has its challenges, the essence of this mitzvah is not limited to that type of scenario. We see in those tribes whose role was to lead the way in battle or defend the fledgling nation from attack, the positive expression of kiddush Hashem. We also can see in shevet Dan an ability to remain in this state of mind on a constant basis. It is true that some of the brothers did not have had “prominent” exposure in the Torah. Yet, through Yaakov’s brachos, we come to realize their essential roles, both practically and as examples of perfection, in the emerging Jewish nation.