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RABBI ASHER BRANDER Vayechi-Chazak
11 Teves 5772 

By: Rabbi Asher Brander, rabbi@kehilla.org

 

A Real Blessing 

TEACHINGS: IN DEPTH REFLECTIONS ON THE PARSHA - BY RABBI ASHER BRANDERIf you are interested in purchasing Teachings:  In Depth Reflections on the Parsha Email rabbibrander@linkla.org 

Yaakov is going to die and the exile begins. 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 one wonders? 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 calls them blessings - and thus blessings they must; the keen reader must conclude that a deep analysis of Yaakov's words must indeed yield blessing. We seek to find it.

We commence with Rashi's words regarding Shimon & Levi:

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 who are cursed. The skilled parent knows to criticize the behavior, not the kid. Bad behavior - not bad boy! For the one who is a bad boy, when facing a good/bad choice might subconsciously reason: well if I am a bad boy then.. Yaakov thus teaches us an artful form of critique - one that elevates person even as it critiques behavior.

But there is more here. Let us focus on Shimon/Levi through the prism of three 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 that Shimon/Levi [and ourselves] are bestowed with. For Seforno/Rashi/Ibn Ezra, it is in figuring out a strategy to 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.

Consider the converse - a life of evasiveness, blind to one's imperfections and a slave to desire. Is that not an accursed life? Nobody ever said that blessing is easy!


A deeper problem remains: When it happened, 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. Yaakov did not principally object to their killing of the Shechem men[1] - his problem is existential [it may be right , but can we survive it?] That objection however, eventually fades away: [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.

Given that Yaakov [and Bnei Yisrael]'s survival is no longer a question - shouldn't Yaakov have been silent? Yet, now in his Shechem retrospective, Yaakov's criticism of Shimon and Levi grows ever-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 (circumcisionand perhaps they will return to Hashem and be part of the house f Avraham.. and he was also angry so that 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 a. you blew a big kiruv opportunity and b. 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 resolution might be a matter of timing. Not every critical thought need be expressed, period. And when absolutely necessary, it can and [often] should wait. The art of appropriate critique can be found in the timing as much as 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 and thus 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

But many commentaries look beyond timing and posit that something in the interim happened that reframes Yaakov's perspective - for even as the Shechem story was complete, Yaakov's perspective was dynamic. Listen to Yaakov's enigmatic words to Shimon/Levi

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

Rashi: they wished to exterminate Yosef who is called "ox," as it is said: "His glory is like a first-born ox"

Yosef's downfall and sale is spearheaded by Shimon/Levi. Ok. But somehow, Yaakov links the Shechem episode with sale of Yosef [2] , making for a puzzling equation? In piercing the enigma, the commentaries emerge with something very deep.

For Yaakov first considered his children as pure and pristine zealots - motivated only by their sister's dishonor. As such, his only critique was a technical one.

Subsequent events demonstrate otherwise. Shimon and Levi spearhead Yosef's downfall. Certainly we are talking about people of great piety and subtle argumentation; nevertheless, Yaakov's new critique is: if you were really as sincere as you claim regarding your sibling [sister] Dinah, how could you have sold your sibling [brother] Yosef? Your subsequent actions belie your articulated righteous motivations! Yaakov now proceeds to express his substantive problems with Shimon and Levi's actions - reminding us of a

Complex man might articulate and advocate passionately for self-righteousness. Indeed he might convince others (and e even himself); but the question that one must always ask [away from the mic/camera] is: what's my real emes - the truth of truths. Beyond what I say, what motivates me- nobility, self interest or something in between?

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.

Good Shabbos [from Los Angeles],
Asher Brander 

[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.

 


 
   
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