Vayechi: A Real Blessing

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30 Dec 2009

Yaakov is going to die. The exile is to begin. Before he departs, he delivers parting blessings – at least that is what the text says [49:28].

All these are tribes of Israel, twelve [of them]; and this is what their father spoke to them and he blessed them. He blessed them each with his own unique blessing.

But is that really so? Consider some choice excerpts from the first three blessing recipients: Reuven Shimon and Levi:

Reuven, you are my firstborn….Unstable as water, you shall no longer be superior, for you have gone up your father’s bed. You profaned my couch by going up. Shimon and Levi are brothers. Instruments of violence are their wares. My soul will not enter their secret council, let my honor not be identified with their assembly….Cursed be their anger for it is powerful, and their fury for it is cruel. I will disperse them throughout Yaakov and scatter them throughout [the land of] Israel.

Leaving one to wonder with blessings like these….Given Yehuda’s history, it is no wonder that a famous midrash (cited by Rashi) relates Yehuda’s predictable angst when approaching father Yaakov for his blessing:

Because he [Yaakov] reproved the first brothers with harsh words, Yehudah began retreating backwards (so that he not reprove him for the incident with Tamar;) whereupon Yaakov called him with comforting words: “Yehudah, you are not like them.”

The Torah however does call them blessings; the keen reader must conclude that, even though it does not seem so, a deep analysis of Yaakov’s words must indeed yield blessing. The question is: Where is it?

First, Rashi is quick to point out:

Even while reprimanding them he cursed only their anger. This is what Bilam meant when he said: “How can I curse one whom G-d has not cursed?

Even in the heat of rebuke, Yaakov knows how to criticize. It is their anger, not they, that is cursed. The skilled parent knows to criticize the behavior, not the kid. Bad behavior – not bad boy! For one who is a bad boy, when facing a choice between good and bad, might subconsciously reason: Well, if I am a bad boy, then…

Yaakov thus teaches us an artful form of critique; we are still in hot pursuit of the blessing. We shall focus on Shimon and Levi. Three samplers from the meforshim:

  1. Seforno: Their anger shall be diminished because of their humble state and search for sustenance [caused by their division and being spread out].
  2. Rashi/Ibn Ezra: Divide and Conquer – I will separate them from one another …, they [Levi and Shimon] will be divided.
  3. Akeidat Yitzchak: Anger and temper, although undesirable qualities, may sometimes prove useful in arousing the heroic in man. Soldiers in battle are spurred to bravery and courage by anger and indignation. Yaakov had the same idea in mind. It was advisable that the qualities of anger and passion that had been concentrated in Shimon and Levi should be dispersed among all the tribes of Israel. All of them would share some of it. A little spread everywhere would prove useful, but if concentrated in one place would be dangerous.

Diminish, Divide or Sublimate . Notice that no one says “vent.” Dealing with anger by punching a bag or ripping a garment might yield a short-term good feel but does not deal with the essential problem. To the contrary, it strengthens the bad attribute.

And where is the blessing to be found? For Akeidas Yitchak, the answer is in the proper channeling of the God-given anger with which we and Shimon/Levi are bestowed. For Seforno/Rashi/Ibn Ezra, it is in figuring out a strategy to peck away and dilute the anger. For both, the blessing is to be found in dealing with the issues. And that precisely is Yaakov’s blessing. Simply consider the converse; a life of evasiveness, blind to one’s imperfections and subservient to one’s desires. Is that not an accursed life? Nobody ever said that blessing is easy!

But there still remains a deeper problem here: The Torah describes Yaakov’s response to Shimon/Levi’s bloody behavior [Bereishis, 34:30-31]:

Yaakov said to Shimon and Levi, “You have made trouble for me, making me obnoxious to the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites and the Perizzites. [Since] I am few in number, they will gather together and attack me. I and my house [family] will be destroyed. They said, “Should he make our sister into a harlot?”

Yaakov’s critique of Shimon/Levi’s behavior is a [significant] technical problem. In principle, it would seem that Yaakov did not object to their killing of the Shechem men. 1 The problem is an existential one – can the Jewish nation survive it? At some point, however, that objection subsides [Bereishis, 35:1-4]:

Elokim said to Yaakov, “Arise, go up to Beis Eil and live there; make an altar there to the Almighty….Yaakov [then] said to his household, and to everyone…”Get rid of the foreign gods in your midst. Purify yourselves and change your garments….They gave Yaakov all the foreign gods that were in their hands….Yaakov buried them under the oak [tree] which was near Shechem….The terror of Elokim was upon the cities that were around them, and they did not pursue the sons of Yaakov.

Yaakov transcends the threat and is no longer existentially challenged. Yaakov should now simply say it all worked out and that, on some level, all’s well that ends well. Nothing however is further from the truth for, in his Shechem retrospective, Yaakov’s criticism of Shimon and Levi grows more harsh.

My soul will not enter their secret council, let my honor not be identified with their assembly. .. Cursed be their anger for it is powerful, and their fury for it is cruel.

Ramban expounds:

For they, the men of Shechem, did not sin against them at all; they entered the covenant (circumcision) and perhaps they will return to Hashem and be part of the house of Avraham…and he was also angry so no one should say that it was Yaakov’s counsel that this matter was done and it will be a great profaning of God’s name that from a prophet of Hashem such a massacre could happen.

Yaakov’s critique is no longer technical; his essential critique is that “you blew a big kiruv opportunity and exposed us to a potentially massive chillul Hashem!” – leaving us to wonder: Why did Yaakov wait for so long to register that critique all along the way, withholding his true feelings from his children?

One reasonable resolution: timing. Not every critical thought need be expressed, period. And when necessary, it can and often should wait. The art of critique is as much in the timing as it is in the form. Right after the Shechem episode, the brothers were not in mekabel mode and would simply be unable to hear real rebuke. They might be able to hear the danger argument. Yaakov knew when to say what. He waited for many years [and for his impending demise] to bare his soul. In our myriad web of relationships, the notion of appropriate timing and form is one that, as spouses, children, employers, employees, friends, rabbis and parents, we might want to consider.

The commentaries go deeper. They posit that something in the interim happened that reframed Yaakov’s perspective. Even as the Shechem story was complete, Yaakov’s perspective was dynamic. Listen to Yaakov’s enigmatic words:

For in their anger they killed a man [Shechem] and through their willfulness they maimed an ox.

As expounded by Rashi:

They wished to exterminate Yosef, who is called “ox,” as it is said: “His glory is like a firstborn ox.”

Yosef’s downfall and ultimate sale is spearheaded by Shimon/Levi. Yaakov links the Shechem episode with sale of Yosef2. Why the equation? Here it all comes together.

For Yaakov first thought his children were pure and pristine zealots, motivated only by the their sister’s dishonor. Thus, the only critique he could have leveled was a technical one. However, subsequent events proved to Yaakov that there was an admixture of motivations. Shimon and Levi were the brothers that spearheaded Yosef’s downfall, ultimately selling him out. Granted, we are talking about people of great piety and subtle argumentation but, at the end of the day, Yaakov’s new critique is: If you were really as sincere as you claim regarding sister Dinah, how could you have sold brother Yosef? Your subsequent actions belie the righteousness of your stated motivations!

It was only then that Yaakov proceeded to express his substantive problems with Shimon and Levi’s actions.

Complex man might articulate and advocate passionately for his self-righteousness. Indeed he might convince others (and maybe even himself); but the question that he (and we) must always ask, [away from the mike and the camera] is: What’s the real emes, the truth of truths? Leaving aside our articulations, as we deal with the vexing gray areas that occupy much of our lives – whither our motivations – do they come from nobility, self-interest or a troubling mixture?

As Yaakov departs from this world his demand for all his children – to Shimon and Levi and you and I is to be really real with ourselves. When we achieve this, it shall surely be a blessed life.


1 Cf. Ramban/Rambam Bereishis 34 for an explanation of the halachic justification – an issue that is beyond our scope.

2 Did Yaakov know that the brothers’ sold Yosef? Ramban says explicitly:No! Rashi, in several places, indicates that Yaakov had serious suspicions. This Rashi would indicate that there was minimally suspicion and perhaps at some point even had definite knowledge.

Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.