Today’s Torah reading contains a touching scene with Father Jacob gathering his children before he dies to bless them. Let me ask you, which one of his children is your favorite? Most would probably say Joseph. After all, the Torah devotes more pages to his story than to any of the others. And it’s a fascinating story. Joseph not only goes from rags to riches but from narcissism to generosity of spirit. And yet, Joseph is not my choice.
Some of you might choose Judah. After all, he comes through in the pinch, and stands up to the Egyptian Prime Minister in order to save his brother, Benjamin. And he deserves much credit for that. And yet, Judah is not my choice.
My favorite among the children of Jacob is Naftali. Why? It’s because he and I have one characteristic in common. Can you guess what it is? In Father Jacob’s blessings to his children he delineates each one’s defining qualities—good or bad. When he gets to Naftali, he says: Naftali ayala sh’lucha, hanoteyn imrey shafer (Naphtali is a running deer, he delivers words of praise). Jacob describes Naftali as a running deer—as someone who is capable of running fast. Jewish tradition picks up on this and tells legends about what a fast runner Naftali was.
This is why I identify with Naftali. In high school I was a pretty fast runner and any of you who have ever driven with me know that I sometimes drive faster than I should. In fact, I have a friend who says that he davens more fervently when he’s in my car than when he’s in shul. And so you can understand why I identify with Naftali.
I picture Naftali as Israel’s representative at the Olympics, if there had been Olympics in his time. I imagine him as a long distance runner doing the 3000 meter steeplechase or the marathon. And so, if there are any people here today who love running or jogging, I invite them to identify with Naftali as well.
Let me share 3 legends from the Midrash about Naftali that teach us when it’s a mitzvah to move quickly. Do you recall the story in the Torah of when the brothers beat up Joseph, threw him in the pit and left him there to die? The Midrash (Midrash Aggadah 49:21) tells us that Naftali was too young to stand up to his brothers so he ran as fast as he could to get Judah—the leader of the brothers—figuring they would surely listen to him. I picture him running, as fast as he could, his heart beating, his cheeks red with anxiety and with exhaustion trying to reach Judah before it was too late. Judah then saved Joseph’s life by suggesting the brothers not kill him but sell him instead as a slave.
What do we learn from this? That you must go as fast as you can to save a life. I think of the people who drive ambulances with their alarms on full blast, warning people to get out of the way, so that they can get there on time to save a life. These ambulance drivers are the children of Naftali today. And if you should ever see them, or hear them, pull over to the side at once and let them go by. And, as you do, bless them for the sacred work they do for there is no greater mitzvah than to save a life.
The 2nd Midrash (Tagum Yonatan 49:21) tells us that Naftali was the bearer of good tidings. Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and sends them back home to get Father Jacob and their families and bring them to Egypt because the famine was still raging. According to the Midrash, while the other brothers traveled at a much slower pace, Naftali ran. Jacob had been inconsolable all these years and now Naftali has the unbelievable news that Joseph is alive and Prime Minister of Egypt, and so he ran to deliver it as fast as he could.
What does this Midrash say to us? That, if you can bring joy to someone, you should not take your time doing it, as the other brothers did. After all, Jacob was an old man. Who knew how long he had to live? Would it not be a tragedy to have such marvelous news arrive a day too late? If you can shorten a person’s grief by just one day, is it not important to do so? The other brothers took their time. Naftali couldn’t wait and so he ran.
And so should we. If you can bring joy to someone who needs it—whether by bringing that person good news or by bringing yourself to someone who is lonely—do it and do it fast! Most of us mean well—but when it comes to doing a mitzvah, we tend to be too patient. We say: “I’ll do it, but not today.” We say: “It’s too cold outside,” or, “It’s too hot,” or, “There’s a good game on today”…“so I’ll do it tomorrow.” But tomorrow may be too late. And so the lesson we learn from Naftali is that if you have the power to bring good news or to do a good deed—do it now! Do it fast for tomorrow may be too late!
The 3rd story is based on Jacob’s blessing to Naftali in today’s parsha (Gen. 49:21): Naftali ayala shlucha hanoteyn imrey shafer (Naphtali is a running deer, he delivers words of praise). Rabbi Abahu in the Talmud (Sota 13a) suggests: “Don’t read it as imrey shafer (words of praise), but as imrey seyfer (words of a document like a bill of sale or deed).” The Talmud there tells us that when Joseph and the brothers came back to Canaan to bury their father in Hebron at the M’arat Hamachpeyla, the special cave Abraham had bought years earlier from Efron the Hittite—the cave where Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca and Leah were buried—much to their surprise, they found uncle Esav waiting for them, blocking the entrance to the cave.
Esav said to them: “Excuse me, gentlemen, but this cave is now mine. There’s no way I’m going to permit the body of your father, Jacob, to be buried here. Do you know what he did to me? Do you know how he conned me into selling him my birthright? Do you know how he disguised himself as me, and got our father to give him my Blessing? Yes, I forgave him, but I never gave up my right to be buried here in the only one remaining plot.”
Esav asked to see the bill of sale or deed. Somehow, in the confusion when they were leaving Egypt, they forgot to take it with them. Naftali then said: “I’ll go back and get it!” And quick as a flash, before anyone could argue with him that the trip might be dangerous or take too long, Naftali made sure his Nikes were properly tied and was off and running. When Esav was soon presented with the deed he had to step aside and allow the burial.
What does this Midrash teach us? 2 things: the 1st is that we better have our papers in order and make sure our children or attorney or someone knows where they are. No one likes to think about these things, but death comes to everyone—ready or not—and so we ought to prepare for it. And we ought to make sure that our children know our desires so they don’t have to guess when the time comes.
The 2nd lesson is that we Jews have a deed to the Land of Israel. We may not be able to occupy it all. There may be another people also living there now. We may have to divide the land to live in peace. But know that the Jewish people have a deed to the Land of Israel. No, it’s not in a safe deposit box somewhere in Egypt, but it is recorded in every Bible.
I’m concerned when I read the surveys that show that young Jews today do not seem to feel the same intense connection to the land of Israel that our generation feels. This is why I think projects like Birthright Israel that bring young Jewish adults to Israel are so important. Naftali had to run all the way back to Egypt and rummage through a safe deposit box in order to find the deed to his father’s heritage. We don’t have to do that, for we have the Torah and our shul and a hundred different educational programs available to us through which to make the connection between us and the land of Israel real to our kids.
So of all the children of Jacob, Naftali is my favorite because he taught us these 3 lessons: when someone needs help, you should run, not walk, to bring him help; when you have good news or the opportunity to do a good deed, run as fast as you can in order to bring it or do it; and #3, there is a claim and a link between us and the land of Israel that must never get lost.
And so if you ever drive with me and you see me put my foot to the pedal a little bit more firmly than I should, remember that I’m a descendent of Naftali, and do not fear. Amen!