Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Walk Article-Vayechi



Rabbi David Walk


            The subject of this week's Torah reading is blessings.  The way it is presented clearly rejects the tabula rasa theory of human potential.  The Torah, through Ya'akov, is expressing the opinion that we are born with innate, perhaps unique, talents which much be cultivated.  Quite often when we think about the issue of granting our best wishes upon others we concern ourselves with how to give blessings; we want to comprehend the act of bestowing blessings. We ponder:  What's the best method of effectively blessing my loved ones.  However, quite often the greatest challenge is how to accept the blessings which we receive.  I think Mark Twain understood this when he quipped that humor is the greatest blessing.  That was indeed true for him, perhaps America's foremost humorist.  Everyone must look at themselves and recognize what is their blessing.  Sadly, many err and see what has come their way as something other than a blessing.  Golda Meir said that not being beautiful was her blessing because she developed other charms and talents.  Paulo Coelho, the Brazilian novelist, remarked that the definition of a curse is a blessing ignored.  This lesson is the greatest message of this week's Torah reading.

            In our parsha, Ya'akov blesses all of his sons before he dies.  After the blessings have been conferred, the verse attests:  All these are the twelve tribes of Israel, and this is what their father spoke to them and blessed them; each man, according to his blessing, he blessed them (Genesis 49:28).  Grandfather Ya'akov calculated the perfect blessing for each of the twelve sons.  This doesn't mean that each received what he wanted or expected.  Ya'akov's calibration of the blessings to fit the needs of the recipient was also a teaching opportunity for the son who would pay attention.  The best example of that is the joint blessing bestowed upon Shimon and Levi.  Ya'akov reprimanded them as follows:  Let my soul not enter their counsel; my honor, you shall not join their assembly, for in their wrath they killed a man, and with their will they hamstrung a bull.  Cursed be their wrath for it is mighty, and their anger because it is harsh. I will separate them throughout Jacob, and I will scatter them throughout Israel (Genesis 49:6-7).  What makes this combination blessing and rebuke so effective is that it teaches them to slough off the anger and violence and turn their zeal towards service of God.  Levi humbly accepts the reprimand and his descendants become God's soldiers on earth as the Cohanim and Levi'im.  Generations later Moshe notes this growth and repentance in a glowing blessing before his death (Deuteronomy 33:8-11).  Shimon, on the other hand ignores the reproach, and receives no blessing from Moshe.

            Ya'akov, after seeming quite oblivious to the needs of his sons, carefully lays out the strengths and weaknesses of each tribal founder.  His mixture of blessing and prediction, as we've shown only works when the recipient accepts the accuracy of the portrayal.  The Rashbam (Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, 1085-1158) points out that the last phrase in every blessing refers to the future destiny of that brother and tribe.  This explains the introduction to the chapter, 'Gather and I will tell you what will happen to you at the end of days (Genesis 49:1).'  Ignoring the opinion that Ya'akov wanted to reveal the final redemption and Messianic Era, he is letting them in on important information.  But he admonishes in the very next verse:  Gather and listen, sons of Jacob, and listen to Israel, your father.  This process includes the belief that Ya'akov/Yisrael has some special insights, and these will only work if they listen carefully, and act accordingly.

            To my thinking there are two caveats in this arrangement.  The first is the position that things are determined by factors beyond our control.  A person could foolishly believe that there is a destiny which can't be altered.  Ya'akov didn't mean that at all. I believe that he is instructing that they each have talents and predilections but that the fulfillment of their role is totally up to them and their efforts in the area that they seem to have some aptitude.   The blessings must be appropriate to the individual and not be based on some wishful thinking on the part of parent or teacher, but the individual still has much to add to the initial raw material through effort and exertion.  No potential ever came to fruition without great energy being applied.

            The other danger is the feeling that one's contributions are unique and discrete.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The future success of the Jewish nation depends on each person's abilities being applied in a joint effort towards a communal goal.  Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein of Yeshivat har Etziyon makes the clever observation that the blessings should be seen as, 'an orchestra made up of violinists, pianists, a percussion section, etc., if all the musicians had chosen the same path for themselves and all ended up, for instance, in the strings section, the strength of the orchestra would be greatly diminished.'  He further explains that the special qualities that Ya'akov sees, both in actuality and potential, in each of the tribes, he also transmits to all of them in some degree. While each son has his own strengths and special abilities, he must also strive to attain the values and positive attributes of his fellows. Two factors combine to form a person's character. On the one hand, "All these are the tribes of Israel, twelve of them" - the individual must see himself as part of the community. On the other hand, "each according to his blessing he blessed them," each individual has his own destiny, his own personality. There is no standard model that applies to everyone.  

            This is the challenge.  We must all discover our unique talents, our special gift, but then carefully analyze how best to deploy it for the betterment of society.  We must embrace our blessings and then see them as a trust to be shared with all.