The Curse Within The Blessing
By Rabbi Yoseph Kahanov Jax, FL
A winner rebukes and forgives; a loser is too timid to rebuke and too petty to forgive.
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“Come! Everybody gather ’round and I will tell you what is going to happen to you when the end of days will be;” quite a catchy sound byte. Well this is the enticing ‘hook’ which our forefather said to his twelve great sons. Bet you want to know what the great prophet revealed next! Not what you expected.
This week’s Torah portion, Vayechi, which completes the book of Bereishis, finds Yaakov on his death bed surrounded by his children. Sensing the approach of his final time in this world, Yaakov secures Yosef’s commitment to execute his wishes not to be buried in Egypt, but rather in the land of Israel. Yaakov then summons his twelve sons and prepares to convey his final words:
“Gather yourselves, that I may tell you that which shall befall you in the end of days. Assemble yourselves and hear, sons of Yaakov and listen unto Israel your father.” (49:1-2). He proceeds to recite 27 verses of what is known as “The Blessings of Yaakov.”
Yaakov proceeds to bless each of his sons, in order of their ages. It is not hard to imagine a father’s desire to bless his children and leave them with parting words of love and encouragement in his final stage, but these did not look like your typical blessings, at least not the kind you or I would be excited to get. What Yaakov shared was more than words of love and praise. His final words to his sons were remarkably blunt and brutally honest.
Even as he praised them for their success, he held nothing back in identifying their weakness and depicting their shortcomings. He starts out with Reuven, his firstborn, and boy did he not know what hit him! “Unstable as water,” is how he describes Reuven.
Shimon and Levi don’t fare any better. He indicts Shimon and Levi with intense, excessive rage – of being comrades who joined together in conspiracy and violence. Yissachar is characterized as a “Strong boned donkey” and Dan, a “Serpent on the highway.” Benyamin, his youngest son he labels a “Ravenous wolf.”
These sentiments do not sound like blessings. Yaakov should have wished his children success for the future; he should have prayed for their health, that they should carry on the tradition he has transmitted to them. Yet we read words of recrimination about the bad traits and wrongdoings of the tribal leaders.
According to the Spanish commentator, Abarbanel, the term “Blessing” may be somewhat misleading, since some of these remarks appear to be admonishing in nature. Abarbanel maintains that the nature of Yaakov’s words were, for the most part, not that of blessing, but rather of prophecy. He prophesied over the future of each of the sons.
The blessings, says Abarbanel, come only at the end of the monologue, where it is explicitly stated that Yaakov blessed “Each according to his own blessing.” The indication that there is both prophecy and blessing can be found in the redundancy of the words “Hear sons of Yaakov” and “Listen unto Israel your father.”
Yaakov implored them to take heed of his words, not only because they were children of their father “Yaakov” – children who are bound to honor their father – but even more so because they were sons of “Israel” – children of the man who wrestled with Angel of G-d. Rashi, verse 28 seems to agree that, in addition to the rebuke given to three of the sons, Yaakov blessed the others, but these blessings were not recorded in the Torah.
Abraham Ibn Ezra similarly states: “They have erred – those who say they are blessings.” The words of Yaakov, he adds, should be understood as prophetic statements, while verse 28 refers to unrecorded blessings: “And this is what their father [Yaakov] spoke to them and he blessed them; he blessed each [of his sons] according to his appropriate blessing.” (46:28)
But why was it so important for them to hear the criticism; their past mistakes? One may be left wondering: with blessings like these …
There is in fact an interesting Midrash, cited by Rashi, that underscores the barb in Yaakov’s words: “Because he [Yaakov] reproved the first brothers with harsh words, Yehuda began retreating backwards (so that he not reprove him for the incident with Tamar) whereupon Yaakov called him with comforting words: ‘Yehuda, you are different.”’
The inevitable question is why would a great man like Yaakov include harsh words of reproach in his final message to his children? Would it not have been wiser to leave his offspring with words of praise and blessings? It would certainly make him more popular.
Furthermore, despite the Abarbanel’s contention that only a small part of Yaakov’s monologue contained blessings, and that the majority was rebuke and prophecy, this parting encounter between Yaakov and his sons is referred to, in its entirety, as “Birchas Yaakov,” Yaakov’s blessings. Why would words of admonition be called blessings? It doesn’t take a genius to tell a reprimand from a blessing.
The keen reader, however, will conclude that even though it does not seem so, a deeper analysis of Yaakov’s words would indeed prove that all of his remarks contain blessings, even those which appear to be critical.
One need not look all that far to encounter this notion. The foremost commentator; Rashi, is quick to point out that “Even while reprimanding them he [Yaakov] cursed only their anger.
Perhaps the greatest lesson to be taken from Yaakov’s harsh words of reprimand, and “specifically” from his words of reprimand, is that even in the heat of rebuke, it is only their anger, not they who are cursed. Yaakov herein teaches how to criticize. It is only the behavior of a fellow Jew that may be criticized, not the person. There may be Jews with bad behavior – but there is hardly a bad Jew.
This observation was made by none other than Bilam, when he said: “How can I curse one whom G-d has not cursed? It should be noted that Bilam did not make this discovery on his own, albeit he learned the hard way, the fact of the matter is that G-d told it to him from the very get go.
When the delegation from Midyan arrived, requesting him to curse the Israelites, Bilam made them stay overnight, at which time he sought G-d’s permission to go and curse the Children of Israel, G-d’s reply was unequivocal as it was concise: “Do not go with them; you shall not curse the people, for they are blessed.” (Bamidbar 22:12).
We live in a world where yesterday’s knowledge is out of date and last year’s computer is obsolete. What pearls of wisdom can we glean from the elderly? To bless people may seem easy: we just wish them what we feel they need, or what they want to hear. But we are in fact warned that gifts from G-d must be deserved if they are to endure.
We must redefine our understanding of a blessing. If somebody is sick but doesn’t realize it, or perhaps knows that he is sick but is unable to diagnose his illness, a doctor who diagnoses the illness and clarifies its treatment is offering him a tremendous gift. Similarly, if someone has a large pot with a hole in the side, giving him items to put in the pot which will likely fall out will leave him with nothing. A better ‘gift’ would be to bring the hole to his attention so that he may fix it and retain his future acquisitions.
Yaakov believed that the most appropriate “blessing” he could offer his sons was to point out the characteristics which needed improvement (Reuven’s impulsiveness and Shimon and Levi’s anger). Calling their spiritual illnesses to their attention would allow them to “plug the holes,” become whole, and ready for future blessings.
When Yaakov revealed to his sons their hidden strengths and weaknesses, he provided them with the greatest blessing of all — being told the truth about themselves. By reprimanding his sons — because of his genuine love for them — Yaakov was directing them on a path toward success. He gave them the blessing that G-d should meet their requirements and desires so long as they corrected their faults.
Now, after their father’s testimony, they were faced with the stark reality of their personalities. That truth, revealed to them by the beloved father from his deathbed, would surely remain with them as a guiding force for the rest of their lives.
The lesson of Yaakov’s final words wasn’t limited to his immediate children. It is relevant to everyone. Yaakov teaches us that it is not a person’s sins or what lot in life a person receives that is critical, but rather what he makes of the ‘deck he is dealt.’ Yaakov left this world by teaching us that if a person acknowledges and learns from his flaws and difficulties, he can turn even his biggest mistakes into the greatest of blessings.
Let us take to heart the message of Yaakov’s rebuke/blessings and be opened to self improvement and perfection. By doing so, we will make a dwelling place for G-d within ourselves and then the world at large with the coming of the righteous Moshiach BBA.