(To see an earlier blog post on this parasha, please click here.)
Genesis 49: The entire family gathered around the death bed, straining to hear the last wheezy whisperings of the Old Man. "Gather around and pay heed, my children, as I shall tell of what will be in the end." They crushed in closer, eager to hear the secrets of a history yet to be written.
And then...nothing. No mystical healing secrets. No Nostradamus-like quatrains, no delphic riddles. Bubkis. Instead, Father Jacob gets his Aretha Franklin on and proceeds to tell his sons all about themselves. He draws character portraits of each of his twelve sons, and pretty much nails it, right between the eyeballs. Some of those characterizations are quite unflattering, insulting even. For example:
Reuben: my big disappointment.
Shimon & Levi: their stock-in-trade is violence.
I guess we have to cut 147 year-olds a lot of slack; they've earned the right to call it as they see it.
And then, as icing on the cake, the Torah sums up the event by saying, "thus did Jacob bless his sons, each according to his blessing did he bless them." What kind of blessing is a withering critique your own kids?
There is a dispute among the commentators on this very point. One opinion says that after he finished critiquing them, he did, in fact, bless them. But the other opinion says that the smackdown itself was some sort of "blessing." How can an insult be a blessing?
There are insults and there are insults. We grew up in a household with a very angry stepfather, where nothing was right, nothing was good enough. Any achievement was criticized because it could have been better; every accomplishment was marred by some flaw, and he could be relied upon to find the flaw in every good thing. He was such an expert in misery that he could find trouble where none existed. He was never happy unless he made everyone around him as miserable, bitter and frustrated as he was.
But unlike our stepdad, a critique can also be a kind of blessing. If the intent of the critic is to provide insight, to help improve, instruct and inform the object criticized, then that critique is constructive, not destructive.
Rare is the person that can objectively evaluate their own strengths and weaknesses. We all tend to focus on our strengths and gloss over our weaknesses. It's just human nature. The way in which we see ourselves is often not at all the way others see us. To put it another way, everybody thinks their own BO smells okay. (Thank you George Carlin.)
We need an objective eye, someone we can trust who has our best interest at heart, yes, to highlight our strengths, but also show us the areas in our life where we need work, maybe a lot of work. A trusted friend. A parent. A grandparent. A spouse. A rabbi/life coach.
Jacob was, in fact, revealing the secrets of the future to his children. He was saying, "Look: if you want to succeed on your path, Reuben, here are the challenges you must overcome. Shimon & Levi, if you want to make it to the fourth quarter of History, you guys are going to have to get a handle on your anger and tendencies to violence." And so on.
The blessing Jacob conferred on his children was providing them the tools they would need to fix themselves and their progeny, in order that the Jewish People should survive.
We are all works in progress. No one is perfect, no one is infallible, no one is sinless. The key point is to surround ourselves, not with sycophants, but with people in whose counsel we trust, to spur us on, to challenge us, to expect the best from us; who continually help raise the bar in our spiritual, mental and intellectual growth.
A few verses later, when Jacob dies, he doesn't actually die. Unlike Abraham and Isaac, where the Torah says, "he expired and died, and was gathered up unto his ancestors," by Jacob the verse says, "and he expired - and was gathered up unto his ancestors."
Jacob's (Israel's) sons took his counsel to heart; they rectified the character flaws that were impeding their spiritual development. The proof is that they were able to survive the 210 years of Egyptian slavery and oppression.
And so Israel lived on through his children, through their deeds. And he continues to live on through us today, the Children of Israel, because we are faithful to the Jewish world view and value system.
Israel lives, Am Yisrael Chai.
May we be humble enough to accept genuine constructive criticism; to break out of our comfort zones, and to achieve greatness - for ourselves, for our communities, for the entire House of Israel, and by extension, for the entire world.