Vayevarech osam ish asher k’virchaso berach osam (Bereishis 49:28)
Just before his death, Yaakov gathered his sons together one last time to charge them with continuing his spiritual legacy. In addition to addressing them collectively, he also blessed and spoke to each son individually. At first glance, Yaakov’s comments to his three eldest children do not appear to be blessings. Reuven was rebuked and told that because of his hastiness in moving his father’s bed, he forfeited kingship and priesthood, which should have rightfully belonged to him as the firstborn.
Similarly, Yaakov cursed Shimon and Levi’s anger and said that because of their tempers they would be spread throughout Eretz Yisrael. Rashi explains that the tribe of Shimon became teachers of young children who were forced to wander from city to city in search of students, while the tribe of Levi did not receive a portion in the land and were dispersed throughout the country. However, at the conclusion of Yaakov’s remarks, the Torah seems to say that all of his children received a brachah. In what way was Yaakov’s harsh criticism of Reuven, Shimon, and Levi considered blessings?
Harav Yehuda Wagshal of Yeshivas Mir in Yerushalayim explains that Yaakov’s message to his eldest three sons was indeed a blessing for them. Although at first glance Reuven’s loss of kingship and priesthood seems like a curse, it was actually a tremendous brachah for him, as Yaakov noted that his nature was to be rash and impulsive. If a person with this trait became ruler over an entire country, his rush to make decisions without thoroughly analyzing their consequences would be disastrous. Similarly, Kohanim had to be vigilant and cautious while serving in the Beis Hamikdash, for there are many details of their jobs that are punishable by death if done incorrectly. If this position were given to people who are predisposed to acting impetuously, it would likely cost them their lives. From this perspective, Yaakov’s “curse” of Reuven was in reality a life-saving blessing.
Similarly, after Yaakov pointed out Shimon and Levi’s anger, he explained that to help them control this negative trait they would be placed in situations in which they would be dependent on others for their livelihoods. Because the tribe of Levi did not receive their own portion of land to work, they had to rely on other Jews to give them tithes. This arrangement compelled the Levites to suppress their anger, for people on the receiving end of their wrath would be unlikely to give them any tithes.
For the same reason, the tribe of Shimon worked as teachers of children, which required them to contain their anger if they wished to remain employed. Although Yaakov appeared to be cursing Shimon and Levi, he actually was giving them a tremendous brachah by creating conditions that would force them to overcome their predisposition to anger.
Rav Wagshal adds that when life presents us with the types of “blessings” received by Reuven, Shimon, and Levi, we often respond by trying to run away from them. People generally don’t seek out or enjoy challenging situations. However, Yaakov was teaching his children — and us — that difficult circumstances that force us to grow are in reality tremendous brachos, if only we recognize and take advantage of the opportunity.
Q: Four different people were buried in Parashas Vayechi. How many of them can you identify?
A: The Torah records (50:13) that Yaakov was buried in Chevron. The Midrash (Pirkei d’Rav Eliezer 38) teaches that Esav attempted to prevent Yaakov’s children from burying him in Me’aras Hamachpelah, at which point Chushim ben Dan cut off his head, which rolled into the cave and was buried there. Parashas Vayechi ends with Yosef being placed in a coffin (50:26), which was buried in the Nile river (Sotah 13a). Lastly, the Torah says (50:14), “Yosef returned to Egypt, he and his brothers, and all who had gone up with him to bury his father, after he buried his father.”
The Rogatchover notes that the phrase “after he buried his father” appears to be superfluous. The Shulchan Aruch rules (Yoreh De’ah 242:17) that if three people are walking together, the most respected one should walk in the middle, the second most esteemed one on the right, and the least learned one on the left.
The Birkei Yosef (Ibid.) adds that if only two people are walking together, the more honored one should walk on the right and the less respected one on the left. The Yerushalmi (Taanis 4:2) teaches that the three Avos were also buried in this manner, with Avraham in the middle, Yitzchak on the right and Yaakov on the left. However, the Avos did not all die at the same time, and when there are only two, the more esteemed one goes on the right, in which case Yitzchak was initially buried on Avraham’s left. Thus, the Rogatchover explains that when Yaakov’s children arrived at Me’aras Hamachpelah, they first exhumed Yitzchak from his place on Avraham’s left and reinterred him on Avraham’s right side, at which point they buried Yaakov in the plot that was previously occupied by Yitzchak. The repeated reference to “burying his father” alludes to this double burial, which means that Yitzchak was also buried in Parashas Vayechi.
Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Ozer Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently-published 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.