“Come! Everybody gather ’round and I will tell you what is going to happen to you and 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 in the middle of our parsha Vayichi, at the start of chapter 49. Bet you want to know what the great prophet revealed next!
Not what we expected – no Yakov suddenly proceeds to bless each of his sons, in order of their ages. Well, the end of the chapter refers to them as such, but they don’t look like your typical blessings, at least not the kind you or I would be excited to get. For instance, he starts out on Reuven, his firstborn, and boy did he not know what hit him! “You interfered in your fathers marital affairs, and you desecrated G-d’. And the next in line, Shimon and Levi don’t get any prettier a fate: “Violence and stolen tools are their trade. May my soul not enter their plans, and my honour not join in their company, for in their rage they killed a man, and willfully hamstrung an ox. Accursed is their rage…I will divide them in Jacob and scatter them in Israel..” You can imagine that Yehuda was not so thrilled when it was his turn to step up to the plate and bat clean-up!
We must simply ask – What in heavens is going on here? Why does Yakov seem to totally switch gears from his outspoken intention to reveal the secrets of messianic times, armageddon, and the like, and then give his sons fiery rebukes and praises to others? And How can these rightfully be called blessings?
With your permission, we will avert the advice of the sages that a wise man answers the first question first, and we’ll commence with the second. And thus let us ask a basic question ‘ what is a blessing?
True blessings come in many forms, but their is a common denominator underlying the function of a bracha, and that is to assist in realizing one’s potential. The Hebrew word bracha, helps us understand the meaning of the word, fo one of the unique qualities of the holy tongue, is that since it was the language by which the world was created, the Hebrew word for a thing will always define its essence. Not unlike atoms synthesizing to form matter, the word of Hashem takes the atomic letters of the Herew Alphabet (AlefBet) and creates our world (As Genesis begins – and HAshem SAID “let there be X – and so it was”)
The word Bracha, also means a spring, a source of living waters which nurture and increase both itself, and that which it overflows to. The letters are also unique, in that all of Beis, Reish, and Chaf, have numerical equivalents of 2, 200, and 20 – all revolving around the number 2, which signifies increase, multiplication. Thus, we see that the function of a blessing is to expand and nurture its recipient.
How do we nurture people? To a flower or animal, to feed it according to its needs will generally fulfill this. However, a beloved saying of my father comes to mind, when referring to the raising of people : Give a man a fish, he eats for a day; Teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime> Human Beings are not a simple thing, and therefore neither is helping them realize their potential.
We could offer a fundamental tenet which is a foundation and guiding light in acquiring platitudes in personal potential, and that is to fully and honestly be cognizant of who we are. Knowing ourselves and others is a multifarious subject, however we can propose a simple categorization, of our mature and nice parts, and on the other side, our unrefined, troublesome aspects. Once we know where our greatness lies we can focus on developing them, conversely when we realize where the weeds lie we can get to work on uprooting them and clearing away the mines which obstruct our potentially splendid characters.
This elucidation can now shed light on the first three blessings which are really rebukes. For Yakov saw that in spite of the extraordinary greatness of Reuven, Shimon and Levi, their potential was in danger of not being realized as a result of their particular faults which had already caused them to stumble while he was yet alive. Therefore the most precious blessing he could give them was to steer them away from trouble and onto the straight and narrow, where the rest of their natural greatness would then prosper.
(The Rambam, in fact, categorizes the mitzvah of rebuking ones fellow, as one of love and interpersonal compassion not to see a fellow Jew stumble and diminish himself in this world and the next.)
To those who wish to dare a step further now, let us revisit our first question, namely – what happened that Yakov was going to reveal to them the end of days, then proceeded to bless them instead?
There is a tradition that there is a fixed time for the end of days, and that is the beginning of the messianic era will start no later than 6000 years from Creation. (for as it says in Psalms, 1000 years is as one day to Hashem, thus the seventh is Shabbos, a culmination and cessation of darkness and concealment.) The same tradition, based on a verse in the prophets, also tells that if we merit, we can bring in the ‘Sabbath’ any time earlier. (In fact this is one of the Rambam’s 13 Principles of faith, namely, that at any moment in History, the messianic age could begin, for although we may not see how all the pieces fit together, when the time comes, and the lights are turned on, the unity and harmony of the world will be revealed in perfect vivid splendor)
When Yakov was about to reveal the secrets of history, until the divine spirit departed from him. He feared that his sons were unworthy of such a revelation. But when, in unison, they responded to their father : Hear O’ Israel (his name) Hashem is G-d, Hashem is One’ , Yakov realized that the reason he was prevented from telling them was not for their unworthiness, but quite the opposite, that is he saw that his descendants were so great that they had the ability to preempt the ultimate redemption. —And so do we, especially in our challenging times, after so many generations in exile, how precious our deeds are, and how powerful are our prayers. —
And so Yakov sought to assist them in their path for greatness by blessing each of them to maximize his unique potential to fulfill their purpose and the purpose of this world. May we all be blessed to discover our great and not yet great parts of ourselves, and go on to our life’s endeavors of developing that greatness and utilizing it for what it was originally created. Then we can merit to be called after the title of our parsha ‘Vayichi’ – ‘And he LIVED!
Good Shabbos y’all
Wishing you a lovely shabbos,
-Beth Shifra Crew