Last weeks torah portion or parasha was extremely important to me because of my aging mother. We had an argument over my direction. Why are we arguing now? It hurts that we argue, at all, nowadays. Why can't life always be sunny?
In this week’s parsha, we find the last of the three patriarchs, Jacob (who has already adopted the name of Israel), on his deathbed. As he readies himself for his passing, he calls upon his sons to ‘bless’ each of them in order to prepare them to carry on leading what is to become the holy nation of Israel.
Several of these ‘blessings’, however, can hardly be considered blessings at all. In fact, Jacob takes this opportunity to reproach some of his sons for their past wrongdoings (most notably, his rebuke of Shimon and Levi for their vengeful massacre of the city of Shechem (Gen. 49:7)). Others, that he does not rebuke directly, receive ‘blessings’ that merely state parts of their character – who they were or what they did. Are we to consider statements of character and criticism of past actions blessings at all? Furthermore, how do Jacob’s final words to his sons prepare them to lead and shape the nation?
Shprintza Herskovitz, through her use of the Ohr HaChaim commentary on this week’s parsha, gives insight to these questions:
“The commentary Ohr HaChaim (R. Chaim Atter) explains why Yaakov rebuked his sons for the negative things that they did. Ohr HaChaim says that by mentioning their deeds, Yaakov was telling his sons that had had to take responsibility for them. R. Attar goes even further to say that sometimes the rebuke itself is a blessing because it makes a person aware of his or her responsibility. Once a person is aware of his responsibility he can then correct or improve his actions, which can then result in increased blessing” (Rays of the Sun, p. 106).
This is to say that the blessing inherent in the criticism offered to each of his sons exists in that it gives each the ability to examine himself and choose to take responsibility for his actions. The ability to choose ‘good’ and to shape a better world that the awareness presents is held in such high regard that it is, in itself, considered the blessing and, therefore, divine.
Further, the blessing of the choice to create a more ideal world is in itself what helps to shape Israel as a holy nation. Through the classic literature, we do not find that our forefathers were inherently good people. Rather, we find that many of them were regular people with evil inclinations who were continuously presented with the choice to take responsibility for their actions and for the world around them.
The German-Jewish Sociologist Erich Fromm elaborated on this point in his own interpretation of the Old Testament:
“That the Bible does not refrain from acknowledging the evil in man becomes quite clear in its descriptions of even its most important personalities. Adam is a coward; Cain is irresponsible; Noah is a weakling; Abraham allows his wife to be violated because of his fear; Jacob participates in the fraud against his brother Esau; Joseph is an ambitious manipulator; and the greatest of Hebrew heroes, King David, commits unforgivable crimes.
Does all this not imply that the biblical view of man is that his essence is evil, that man is essentially corrupt? This interpretation cannot stand against the fact that, while the Bible acknowledges the fact of man’s ‘evil imaginings,’ it also believes in his inherent capacity for good… Man, in the biblical and post-biblical view, is given the choice between his ‘good and evil drives.’”
On his deathbed, Jacob attempts to give his sons the choice of responsibility towards good and thereby develop the foundation for Israel as a holy nation. The holiness is to stem from the ability to self-examine and self-criticize as a nation – and the subsequent choice to shape the world for the better.
Today, we must examine the extent to which the nation of Israel has lived up to its classification as a holy nation. Are we aware enough of the impact that our actions have on the world and people around us? We live in a world where the individualist mentality rules and only small minorities are brave and willing enough to pay attention to their affects on others – brave and willing enough to strive towards a better world. Is Israel a part of those few or are we merely another of the world’s nations acting in the interest of the elites without regard or even awareness of others? If we are, as a nation, to strive towards holiness and good, then we must examine these questions, self-criticize, and develop our ability to choose our responsibility in the world. Through this self-examination, we would be blessed.