When I started reading the Torah portion Va-y’chi I wasn’t struck so much by the scene of Jacob’s deathbed with all of his sons gathered around receiving blessing. That sounds like an appropriate scene for one of the patriarchs. It’s fairly apparent that these weren’t blessings but predictions of the future. And Jacob (Israel) didn’t pull any punches in his prediction.
Reuben, you are my firstborn, my might, the beginning of my strength, the excellency of dignity, and the excellency of power; unstable as water, you shall not excel; because… (Genesis 49:3-4)
And on he continues, son by son, with frank predictions – some better, some worse – until he finishes up with Benjamin. Immediately thereafter the Torah declares that “all these are the twelve tribes of Israel.” These predictions will become symbols for each tribe that persist through the ages, outlasting the tribes themselves.
Most famously, the symbols of each tribe are focal points for Marc Chagall’s famous windows in the Abbell Synagogue at the Hadassah University Medical Center in Jerusalem.