Human history is full of absent fathers. One does not have to go to an extreme case like a Genghis Khan (thousands of children) to find “single mother” families: they fill our cities. In history, the pattern is also pretty consistent: a great many fathers take little or no interest in their children, so loyalty across generations is rare. Men create children. But they rarely fully invest in them as well.
In the Torah, we find similar patterns. Men tend to live for themselves, and before Avraham, “might generally made right.” Still, generations of men did not want to live together, for one reason or another. Avraham’s father, Terach left his father. Avraham in turn left his father, Terach. After the Binding, Isaac separated from Avraham. And after the debacle with the blessings, Jacob also left Isaac. The text does not record any of the sons choosingto live with their fathers after they came of age.
This all changed with Jacob and his sons. Jacob was the first father who not only clearly engaged with his children (from Simeon and Levi in Shechem to Joseph, to his decisions during the famine), but he invested in them. Jacob was referred to, uniquely in the Torah, as “One Man.” The expression ish echad, “one man,” is not common in the Torah. The first two times it is used as a stand-alone phrase, it is specifically referring to Jacob:
We are all of us sons of one man; we are being honest; your servants have never been spies!” (Gen. 42:11)
… And they replied, “We your servants were twelve brothers, sons of one man in the land of Canaan; the youngest, however, is now with our father, and one is no more.” (Gen. 42:13)
It is a peculiar phrase, and it is repeated only a few places in the Torah – yet each time it seems to refer directly back to the archetypal “one man”, Jacob! Each of the tribes corresponds to one of the sons of Jacob, the first “one man.” And the text seems to suggest that each tribe is meant to have been cast from that same mold – “one man from the bed of his father.”
Those are the enrollments recorded by Moses and Aaron and by the chieftains of Israel, who were twelve in number, one man from the house of his father. (Lev. 25:41)
Those are the enrollments recorded by Moses and Aaron and by the chieftains of Israel, who were twelve in number, they were one man from the house of his father. (Num. 1:44)
Send for you men to tour the land of Canaan that I am giving to the sons of Israel, one man, one man for the bed/staff of his father, you shall send for all a chieftain among them. (Num. 13:2)
I approved of the plan, and so I selected from among you twelve participants, one man from each tribe. (Deut. 1:23)
The word for “bed” or “staff” is only used to mean “bed” a few times in the text – but the only individual whose bed is ever mentioned is Jacob himself! Every other “bed” in the Torah is not this same Hebrew word, mateh! Somehow Jacob’s bed is special. The text tells us why:
When I lie down with my fathers, take me up from Egypt and bury me in their burial-place.” He [Joseph] replied, “I will do as you have spoken.” And [Jacob/Israel] said, “Swear to me.” And [Joseph] swore to him. Then Israel bowed at the head of the bed. (Gen. 47:30)
When Jacob was told, “Your son Joseph has come to see you,” Israel summoned his strength and sat up in bed. (Gen. 48:2)
And, most relevantly for the rest of the Torah, because this is where Jacob gives an “end of life” blessing to each of his sons in turn – and from his bed!
When Jacob finished his instructions to his sons, he drew his feet into the bed and, breathing his last, he was gathered to his people. (Gen. 49:33)
Jacob’s bed was intrinsically linked both with his authority, his conversations with his sons, and his investments into them and their future! He did not merely biologically create children (the text does not suggest that he used the beds of his wives, so they may all have been conceived in his bed). He also spiritually invested in them, giving them both body and purpose, physical existence and spiritual meaning.
The same word for bed, mateh, also is found in the text to mean a staff, as in an authority symbol. Yehuda gives Tamar his mateh, and the mateh of Aaron and Moses and indeed of each of the heads of the tribes are also mentioned in the text: the word even generically refers to the tribes, those invested with blessing from Jacob.
Mateh confers authority, referring back to the original sources of authority: Judah’s staff and Jacob’s bed. And I think the Torah’s use of this word as a pun is teaching us a crucial lesson: a father’s authority comes in part from his investment in his children. And those who are the representatives of Jacob’s authority are each called a mateh, in a complete sense coming from Jacob’s bed. That is how Jacob is described as the “one man,” and his sons, in turn are meant to be reflections of their forefather. They were, after all, the children of Israel.
Of all the forefathers, Jacob was the first to bind the generations together. That is what a father is meant to do, to create something that endures, both physically and spiritually. The tribes – and all of the Jewish people – are a testament to that first One Man.
[an @iwe, @susanquinn, @kidcoder and @eliyahumasinter work!]