The Supremacy of the Blessing of Asher
Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg
The holiday of Shemini Atzeret brings with it the reading of the final Torah portion, Vezot Habracha. The majority of this reading details the various blessings given to the tribes of Israel, each something special, yet somehow lacking any preference of one over the other – or so it would seem. When looking at the blessing given to the tribe of Asher, we are faced with a perceived favored status, anathema to the notion of equality among the tribes. With the help of the Ramban, a brilliant solution is offered to ensure this potential distortion is eradicated.
As mentioned above, the blessing given to the tribe of Asher stands apart from the rest of the brothers. We see Moshe deliver the following (Devarim 33:24):
“And of Asher he said: "May Asher be blessed with sons [mibanim]. He will be pleasing to his brothers, and immerse his foot in oil. Your locks are iron and copper, and the days of your old age will be like the days of your youth.”
At first glance, there is nothing that would seem to indicate a superiority in the blessing of Asher relative to the other tribes. That is, until the Ramban enters into the picture. He asks as follows:
“If the letter mem [in the word mibanim] serves to signify greater status [meaning that Asher is singled out from among the tribes for greater blessing]….then one may wonder: how could Moshe diminish the rest of the tribes by saying that Asher be blessed more than all the sons of Jacob? Moreover, his blessing was not fulfilled, for it did not come to pass”
We see then the first indication that there is something exceptional about this blessing in comparison to the other blessings of the tribes. Could it be that Asher’s blessing occupied a place of prominence greater than the others? The Ramban says this is impossible. Yet, as we will now see, something distinctive is being expressed with the blessing of Asher:
“Now, our Rabbis meant to explains blessed ‘mibanim’ that Asher be blessed with the many children that he will beget…therefore, the Rabbis said that Moses blessed all the rest of the tribes with strength or with their inheritance, and Asher alone was blessed with children.”
Yet one can still ask, how was the blessing for Asher ultimately fulfilled? After all, all the tribes had children! The Ramban observes that in the Book of Chronicles, Asher’s children are noted as being leaders, mighty men of valor, and chiefs of the princes. In other words, they filled important leadership positions. This would then appear to be the fulfillment of the blessing.
He is not done. The Ramban continues, offering another explanation “in line with the simple meaning of Scripture”. He writes how the word “mibanim” is similar to the later part of the verse, where it is indicated Asher will be favored among his brothers.
“The reason is his land is rich and from there will come all royal dainties for all the tribes, and they will all constantly say, ‘May God bless this land which brings forth such fruits’.”
An adjustment of the above answer is provided in the Ramban’s understanding of Onkelos:
“And Onkelos translated, ‘the blessing of Asher will be from the blessings of the sons’. It appears that Onkelos meant to say that all of the tribes will come to Asher to buy oil, and Judah, and the Land of Israel, will be his merchants for wheat of Minnith, and balsam, and honey, and oil, and all choice fruits of the land, all of which they will bring to sell him, and they will buy oil. Thus Asher will be blessed with all the delicacies available to all the tribes, this being the sense of the expression ‘favored by his brethren’, for they will sell to him and buy from him what they desire.”
Thus, we see in this second explanation a validation of the initial premise – the blessing given to Asher will be one that is qualitatively superior. Yet it is not something that intrinsically places the tribe on some type of higher footing. Rather, there will be a realization by the other tribes of this feature Asher possesses, one they will praise. Onkelos goes a bit further, suggesting that the tribes will travel to Asher to buy its olive oil, something considered so valuable that they trade their most valued delicacies for it.
We can clearly see the Ramban’s attempt to answer the apparent quandary of the blessing given to the tribe of Asher being greater in comparison to the other tribes. One could ask, though, what have we really learned about Asher through these various explanations?
It is possible that there are a number of ideas the Ramban is attempting to convey concerning the blessings as a whole, with Asher serving as the paradigm. Looking at the first explanation, we see Asher was blessed with sons, whereas other tribes were blessed with great lands or traits. Of course, all the tribes had children, so the superiority of Asher’s blessing was expressed through the positions they occupied in society. There is a subtle but critical idea being presented by the Ramban. Each blessing given to each tribe had two features to it. The first was something specific to the tribe, reflecting an attribute or characteristic. The second feature was the blessing’s role in the development of the nation as a whole. The Jewish people had to convert from being a group of sectional tribes to a unified functioning society, one that possessed the ideal arrangement to allow for the proper worship of God. Each blessing then was a piece in this puzzle, coming together to become the nation of Israel. Some tribes possessed the traits necessary to win in battle. Others had types of land that supplied the needed physical products. Asher supplied those who were able to rise to the top of society, pushing it forward and raising its level of perfection. We see then the first idea of the blessing of Asher – supplying a critical component in the fabrication of the Jewish society.
The Ramban shifts themes with his second explanation. Asher’s superiority relative to the other tribes would seem to be on full display in the simple understanding. What idea are we supposed to glean from this idea? It is interesting to note the reaction the tribe of Asher would have to its blessing of delicacies. A philosopher has no concept of a delicacy – caviar and porridge both translate into calories. Yet without question we value a luxury, its rarity and exclusivity of great appeal. In possession of such delicacies, one could easily distort their importance, attributing to them some type of intrinsic importance when compared to other foods. With such an attitude comes the desire to hoard, to keep these valuable commodities under lock and key. Once such an outlook emerges, a person relates to the physical world in the most inappropriate way possible. Our surrounding world exists to aid in our perfection. God clearly intended we take advantage of it, enjoying both the bountiful and the delicacies. Yet these must all exist in the context of assisting us in our worship of God. Once we attribute superiority to one food over another, we immediately lose the proper perspective. Therefore, one can see the blessing being given to the tribe of Asher. They would be blessed with an abundance of delicacies. Yet, as is clear from the response of the other tribes, these special foods were shared among the rest of the tribes, promoting the appropriate view of the physical world.
The modification offered by Onkelos shifts the focus slightly. We see the tribes of Israel coming to Asher to purchase oil. It is notable that the oil located in Asher’s land was in fact olive oil, oil used in many different areas of Jewish law (such as anointing kings, as noted by the Ramban). In Onkelos’s interpretation, we see the tribe of Asher in possession of something important for use in the system of Jewish law. Olive oil, in and of it itself, is not really something of tremendous value. However, when it becomes a part of Jewish law, a new identity emerges. It is no longer simply olive oil. This is indicative of the Jewish law as a whole, taking that which is perceived as merely a product of the physical world, and endowing it with a new type of importance. One can easily have seen this over the past week. Prior to the holiday of Sukkot, citrons and palm fronds are no different than apples and oak trees. Yet, when Sukkot arrives, these become etrogim and lulavim, imbued with significance and assigned unique roles. Recognizing the importance of olive oil in Jewish law, the other tribes will sell their delicacies, what the whole world would think of as being of tremendous value. The tribe of Asher, then, will be in the special position to promote this ideal to the rest of the Jewish people.