This week’s portion is titled as is usual, after one of the first few words of the Torah portion, vayechi Yaakov, “and Jacob lived.” This is an interesting juxtaposition to the portion which contains both the death of Jacob, and of his beloved son Josef, and is, as well, the closing portion of the book of Beresheit.
The overwhelming focus of this portion is the blessings with which Jacob bestows his sons. The connection here is perhaps a bit obvious:
As the Talmud explains, (Taanit 5b) Rav Nachman said to Rav Yitzchak: "So said Rabbi Jochanan: Our father Jacob did not die."Asked Rav Yitzchak: "Was it for no reason that the eulogizers eulogized, the embalmers embalmed and the buriers buried?"Responded Rav Nachman: "I am only citing a verse. It is written, 'And you, my servant Jacob, fear not, says the Lord, and do not tremble, O Israel. For behold, I shall save you from afar, and your descendants from the land of their captivity' (Jeremiah 30:10). The verse equates Jacob with his descendants: just as his descendants are alive, he, too, is alive."
In other words, all that you are lives on through our children. It is thus no great surprise that Jacob spends what time he has left blessing his children.
But when we read the actual things that Jacob says, except for his words to Yosef, and Yosef’s offspring, his words seem far from what we might consider a blessing. Consider his words to his eldest son, Reuven, “Unstable as water, you shall not excel.”
The Talmud reminds us of an earlier event, (Shabbat 55b): After Rachel, Yaakov’s beloved wife, died, Reuven, the oldest son of Yaakov's first wife, Leah, took his bed and moved it to Leah's tent. Because Reuven interfered with his father’s relationship with his wife, the Torah considers him as if he had committed adultery. The midrash goes on to explain that Reuven is the first person who acted “l’shem shamayim” for the sake of heaven, thinking he was doing God’s will, and then doing tshuvah when he discovered it was not , in fact God’s will. The sages understood Yaakov’s words to his son to be a rebuke against his impulsivity. He didn’t stop to think through his impulsivity and so he acted rashly.
Rav Elya Lopian, in Lev Eliyahu, says, “Truth to tell, Reuven's act itself was not so utterly immoral. What established it as eternally infamous was the fact that he acted out of anger. He was impetuous. …”
The midrash Tanchuma, (Tanchuma, Korach, 12), teaches
אמרו רבותינו זכרונם לברכה, בשלשה דברים אדם ניכר, בכיסו, ובכוסו, ובכעסו
“The sages teach, “through three things a man is known, by his pocket ( how he spends his money, whether he gives to charity, whether he is generous), by his cup(how much does he indulge in alcohol) and by his anger.”
What kind of blessing is that? What Yaakov offers to his sons is not just a simple outpouring of affection at the end of his life. Rather it is something more complicated: Yaakov offers his sons an assessment of their characters. This isn’t simply to get a last word in at the end of his life – Yaakov introduces his blessings to them by saying, “Gather yourselves together that I may tell you that which will befall you in the last days (Ber. 49:1).
Yaakov’s words to his sons are not either something so simple as a blessing, nor are the a literal forecast of the future. Rather he is giving them the tools with which to measure themselves and so affect their destinies. An example of this is Yaakov’s words to Shimon and Levi.
The impulsive anger that drove Reuven to move his father’s bed was a sort of impulsive anger, but Reuven was not an angry person. In Shechem, Shimon and Levi enraged, simply acted on their own, and indeed against their father’s desires. Shimon and Levi are not men who occasionally have an impulse in anger; rather, they plotted out an entire strategy. Their anger was anything but impulsive.
To Shimon and Levi, Yaakov has harsh words. "Instruments of cruelty are their swords. For in their rage they murdered people... Accursed is their rage for it is intense, and their wrath for it is cruel.... (Bereishit 49:6-7)."
Shimon and Levi went after the people of Shechem and slaughtered them after their sister Dina was raped by the son of the prince there. Later, in the parasha Zot ha-Berakha, at the end of the Torah, Levi is blessed by Moses, but not Shimon . This seems to reflect a trait in the personalities of these two individuals which are later reflected by their descendants – the tribes. Yaakov’s blessing is a warning to them about their flaws, and they can use that warning to choose how they will go. And the midrash tells us that in fact, they do diverge in their actions. Shimon never repents of his action, but Levi is understood to take that anger within him and turned it into passion, which he uses for God’s ends, instead of his own. In Sifri Devarim (349), there is a maasei, a story:
It is like the story of two people who borrowed from the king. One paid back his debt to the king, and even lent him money. The other not only failed to pay back his debt - he borrowed even more from the king. So it was with Shimon and Levi who borrowed at Shechem, as it says, two of Jacob's sons, Shimon and Levi, took each his sword and went stealthily to the city and killed all the males (Bereishit 34:25). In the desert [during the sin of the golden calf), Levi paid back his debt, for it is said, and Moses stood at the gate of the camp and said, "Thus says the Lord: Let each man place his sword on his thigh,' and the Levites did what God had said (Shemot 32:27-8), and he [Levi] went on and lent it to God at Shittim, for it is said, Pinhas son of Elazar son of Aaron the Priest took back my anger against the Israelites, by being zealous for my jealousy among them, and so I did not destroy the Israelites in my jealousy. (Bamidbar 25:11).
The midrash understands that the actions of the tribe of Levi, responding to Moshe’s call after the golden calf, and the violent act of Pinchas –he kills a tribal chieftan of Shimon, in fact- to end the plague that was killing the Israelites at Shittim, were both expressions of a basic personality trait that Levi turned towards the good.
In Judaism, we have a long tradition of ethical wills, statements of values from one generation to another – the most famous is possibly Gluckl of Hameln, whose words make a book, and who is well worth reading to see what a Jewish woman’s life in the middle ages was like. We tend to think today of these ethical wills as an opportunity to say some nice things to our children so that they will feel our love, but Yakov’s example shows that the potential is much greater if we offer not simply love without stint, but words of criticism as well.
The Talmud (Tamid 28a): notes, “Which is the right way that a person should choose? Let him love rebuke, since as long as there is reproof in the world, ease of mind comes to the world, good and blessing come to the world, and evil departs from the world.”
No one really likes rebuke, but it is a gift to be able to tell our children who they are, warts and all. Not only does that honesty, offer them the reassurance that we love them, warts and all, but it is also a gift, in that it allows them to understand our values clearly, and finally, also to recognize within themselves the capacity to use whatever traits they have for their own purposes. Like many other traits, anger can be either righteous or destructive. When we tell our children what they are made of, we also offer them the chance to use themselves fully for the glory of God.
Vayechi, brings us perhaps the first instance we know of an ethical will. The best way to pass our values on, of course, is to live them. But Yaakov, like many of us, was a flawed man. He often didn’t succeed in living out the best of his own traits, and he passed on many of his worst ones to his children. But if he was not perfect, he was Yisra’el, the man who struggled with El, God, and won from him a blessing. And in his final words to his children, in his last gift, he passed that struggle on to them as well, with the tolls for them, too, to win a blessing from God.