Weekly Torah portion: Vayechi

What is a Blessing?

By Rabbi Yaakov Marks

Rabbi Yaakov Marks

SAN DIEGO — After a deeply spiritual life, Yaakov is now ready to charge and bless the next generation as they prepare to carry on the mission of teaching the world the greatness of G-d. The angelic glory which emanated from Yaakov must have surely generated an awe-inspiring atmosphere in the room. Yaakov summoned his sons who gathered around his death bed, waiting for the counsel and directives of their father. As Yaakov began to speak, each of his sons waited anxiously for the final words of wisdom their father would transmit to each of them.

Yaakov first spoke to Reuven stating, “You are unstable like water.” (Genesis 49:4) He then turned to Shimon and Levi stating, “Cursed is your rage.” (Genesis 49:7) Yehuda was told that he will be mighty and the king. Subsequently, each brother received a blessing. After the individual blessings, all the brothers received a second collective blessing. The commentaries state that each brother received two blessings, first an individual blessing and then a group blessing. But how could they say this when Reuven, Shimon, and Levi only received harsh words? Where are their individual blessings? Can these rebukes be considered a blessing? Would you stand by and be “blessed” like Reuven, Shimon, and Levi while the rest of your brothers received such positive blessings?

After Yaakov blessed his twelve sons the Torah says, “These are the tribes of Israel, twelve, this is what their father said to them and blessed them. He blessed them with the proper blessing.” (Genesis 49:28) Many questions are asked about the phrasing of this sentence. One question was why does twelve have to be mentioned; we can count how many people were blessed?

To understand the words of Yaakov, we need to understand his and his sons’ missions in life. They were not trying to gather material possessions; nor were they trying to get people to praise them. They were not trying to win awards or to become great. Their goals were focused on reaching their personal spiritual perfection, and with that, they would become a role model for future generations.
The word ‘gather’, according to Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, means ‘to take from a place it should not be and bring it to a place where it should be’. When the Torah says, “Yaakov gathered his sons,” it means that he [Yaakov] was going to use his astute and penetrating insight to guide each of his sons to his specific, personal greatness. By pointing out to them certain emotions that they might not be using entirely for good, Yaakov gave his sons the greatest blessing they could receive: the opportunity to attain perfection. At the end of a person’s life, what could be better than fulfilling his mission and reaching his potential of doing the ultimate good? What could be a greater blessing than this?

It is not always easy to admit we have behaved wrongfully. Reuven, Shimon, and Levi, however, were great men, seeking only truth and perfection. To them, Yaakov’s words were not a rebuke; they were a loving endorsement and a blessing.
Many people take offense when they are told they are wrong. Many refuse to admit they need help. Worse than these people are those people who think they know the best way to do something while negating anyone who tries to advise them. If a person has any of these attitudes he will never reach his full potential. In many cases, he will fail or even make things worse.

Reuven, Shimon, and Levi had a choice: they could be coachable and teachable, grow from their mistakes, and become greater people or they could think they know everything, continue to do wrong things, and lose the right to be part of the twelve tribes. They were bestowed with the greatest blessing a person could receive. By saying ‘twelve’ we are being told that there was a possibility there might not have been twelve. They had the challenge to choose to be humble and learn from their mistakes and not to be haughty know-it-alls. They humbled themselves and accepted Yaakov’s guidance.

This can challenge can happen in any endeavor. When someone wants to work on their health, if they are coachable and teachable and listens to advice, they will most likely reach their goal. However, many people get upset when people try to help them. Many people won’t admit they are doing something wrong, and many make up their own system and negate that of other people. With this attitude, they will surely fall short of reaching their goal.

May we have the strength to see corrections not as ridicule but as a chance to shape ourselves into greater people. May we have the humility to admit our shortcomings and graciously accept guidance from others. May we merit to use the help of others to reach our goals. What could be a greater blessing in life?

Rabbi Marks is a life and health coach, who may be contacted via [email protected]

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