You Call That a Blessing?

V’zos asher diber lahem avihem vay’varech osam ish asher k’virchaso beirach osam (Bereishis 49:28)

Just prior to his death, Yaakov gathered his sons together one last time to charge them with continuing his spiritual legacy. In addition to addressing them collectively, Yaakov also spoke to each son individually, and our verse seems to indicate that his message to each son was some form of blessing. This is difficult to understand, as Rashi explains Yaakov’s final words to Reuven, Shimon and Levi more like words of rebuke than of blessing. In what way was his harsh criticism considered a blessing?

Harav Uri Weissblum answers that 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 sickness 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 gifts to put in the pot which will only 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.

Therefore, Yaakov felt that the most appropriate “blessing” he could offer to his three eldest sons was to point out to them the characteristics which needed improvement (Reuven’s impetuosity and Shimon and Levi’s anger). Calling their spiritual illnesses to their attention would allow them to “plug the holes,” become whole, and be ready for future blessings.

Harav Yisrael Salanter points out that everybody has his own personal “holes” which need fixing. He suggests that this is the intent of the Mishnah in Avos (4:2) “u’borei’ach min ha’aveirah” — a person should flee from “the sin.” Rav Yisrael explains that every person has within himself one bad middah which constitutes the root of his personal struggles. The yetzer hara attempts to disguise this trait so as to prevent its identification and cure. By calling their personal weak spots to their attention, Yaakov was indeed giving his sons a tremendous blessing.

However, rebuke can only be considered a blessing if a person accepts and learns from it. Harav Shimon Schwab notes that although Yaakov referred to Shimon and Levi as “brothers” and seemed to equate them in all of their actions, Levi’s descendants became a tribe of Torah scholars while Shimon’s descendants included Zimri, who publicly committed a grave sin (Bamidbar 25:6). Rav Schwab posits that the difference between them was that unlike Shimon, Levi accepted Yaakov’s rebuke, internalized his father’s words, and uprooted his negative character traits, and indeed it was Levi’s descendant Pinchas who killed Shimon’s offspring Zimri for his sin.

The lesson of Yaakov’s final words wasn’t limited to his immediate children, as 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 them. 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.

 Q: Yaakov promised Yosef an extra part of the Land of Israel in addition to his regular inheritance (48:22). After he saw the jealousy which was caused by his earlier preferential treatment of Yosef and its catastrophic effects, why would Yaakov continue to favor him in this manner?

Q: Rashi writes (49:5) that Yaakov cursed the plans of Shimon and Levi to kill Yosef even though they never came to fruition. As the Gemara teaches (Kiddushin 40a) that Hashem doesn’t punish a person for evil plans and thoughts unless they actually come to fruition, why did Yaakov hold them accountable for a scheme that even Hashem wouldn’t punish them for?

 A: The Daas Z’keinim answers that the brothers became jealous of the extra gifts and attention received by Yosef when he was still a commoner, as they maintained that they were older and greater than him and he was unworthy of his status. At this point, he was now the viceroy of Egypt and they understood that royalty is deserving of greater honor, so they wouldn’t be jealous of any extra gifts that Yaakov promised him. Additionally, they saw that his dreams had been fulfilled and they were dependent upon him for sustenance, which also made them willing to accept that he deserved preferential treatment. Alternatively, Harav Aharon Leib Steinman suggests that because the gift that Yaakov was now promising Yosef wouldn’t be applicable until after he died, there was no room for concern.

 A: The Sifsei Chachamim suggests that the Gemara’s teaching only applies to a case in which a person thought about sinning, but subsequently changed his mind and voluntarily elected not to act on his original thoughts. In this case, Shimon and Levi never regretted their initial scheme to kill Yosef, but because Reuven and Yehudah disagreed with their plan, they were unable to carry it out. Under such circumstances, they are indeed held responsible for their sinful thoughts, as evidenced by Yaakov’s curse.


 

Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Ozer Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef in Brooklyn; he is the author of the sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his Divrei Torah weekly, please email oalport@Hamodia.com.