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From Rebuke to Blessing

The highest level of blessing is sometimes concealed within stern rebuke

In Parashat Vayechi, Jacob gathers his sons together to bless them before his death. Yet, his opening words do not sound like a blessing at all. In fact, the first three tribes suffer Jacob’s stern rebuke: he tells Reuben, “Reckless like water, you shall not be privileged,” i.e., because of your impetuous sin, you have lost all of the privileges that you were entitled to as a firstborn son. Jacob then addresses Shimon and Levi, saying, “Stolen instruments are their weapons. Let my soul not enter their counsel… Cursed be their wrath for it is mighty, and their anger, because it is harsh. I will separate them throughout Jacob, and I will scatter them throughout Israel.”

Hearing how his father chose to address his older brothers, it is understandable why Judah, Jacob’s fourth son, was hesitant to approach his father to receive his piece of Jacob’s mind. He was fully aware that there was good reason for Jacob to rebuke him like his brothers. As Rashi interprets, “Because [Jacob] reprimanded the first ones with his rebuke, Judah began to retreat until Jacob called him back with words of appeasement, ‘Judah, you are not like them,’” implying that from here on there is no more rebuke, only blessing.

Nonetheless, the sages teach us that in fact, Jacob blessed all of his sons, as the final verse of the blessings demonstrates, “All these are the twelve tribes of Israel, and this is what their father spoke to them, and he blessed them; each man according to his own blessing did he bless them.”

Rashi too dwells on this point, “Could it be that he [Jacob] did not bless Reuben, Shimon and Levi?” he then replies, “The verse teaches us, ‘and he blessed them,’ implying all of them.” This is also apparent from Jacob’s special style of speech to all of his sons. From Reuben down to Benjamin his style is poetically celebratory. Jacob’s opening words to Reuben are words of praise, “Reuben, you are my firstborn, my strength and the first of my might; superior in rank and superior in power,” which, would the next verse not follow, would be a great blessing. When Jacob turns to Shimon and Levi, he refers to them as “brothers,” which is a positive point that signifies their fraternal love (which first came apparent when they rescued Dinah, “Shimon and Levi, Dinah’s brothers,” where Rashi explains, “Because they defended her they are called her brothers”).

What then is the blessing that these three sons received from their father?

One possible answer is that besides the rebuke that is explicitly mentioned in the text, Jacob added an undocumented blessing to the first three tribes. However, this explanation is somewhat implausible. A more likely scenario is that all of the blessings appear in the Torah verses. All we need to do is to read between the lines.

The Blessing of Rebuke

The truth is that the blessings are disguised within the rebuke itself. The inner motivation of true rebuke is “great love.” This is true of a loving father, and it is also true of the Almighty Himself, who rebukes us with love, as we find in Proverbs, “For he who God loves, He rebukes…” Malbim explains that “rebuke is a sign of love”; loving parents know that they must sometimes rebuke their child for his or her own benefit, in order to educate them and refine their ways. This means that rebuke is an expression of love, as in one literal rendering of the verse, “Better is revealed rebuke [when it comes] from hidden love.”[1] By contrast, parents who do not rebuke their children at all only cause them harm, as we see from King David’s negligence in rebuking his son, Adoniyah, “His father never upset him by saying, ‘Why did you do that?’” A certain measure of chastisement lends the personality a more solid “shape.” The sages similarly describe how God chastised the world to make it stand.

From a more profound perspective, Chassidut teaches us that there are two levels of blessing. Normal blessings are explicit and are communicated openly, but there are special blessings that must remain concealed, even within harsh words of criticism.

The source of a hidden blessing is higher than that of revealed blessings. What appears to us as an affliction is the result of abundance that emanates from the concealed world that cannot be revealed in our world in the form of a blessing. As such, any hardship is an even deeper expression of God’s closeness to us, “Happy is the man whom God afflicts.” When the Almighty afflicts an individual with difficulties, he should therefore accept it with equanimity. This idea is certainly not easy to swallow for the suffering individual, but from an objective point of view, the rebuke itself is a blessing, like a father who says, “I love this disobedient child so much that I have to scold him for his actions.” Rebuke has the power to sweeten the harsh judgments at their source, thus bringing down infinite blessing.

The Talmud relates that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai once sent his son, Elazar, to ask for a blessing from two sages. Elazar was shocked to hear their words, which sounded to him like the opposite of blessings. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai explained to him that their intention was to bless him profusely (for example: when they blessed him “You shall sow but not reap” their intention was, “you will have children and not see them die”). Similarly, chassidim know that if the Rebbe chastises you, it is a joyful occasion. There are many stories that relate how a chassid was saved from some evil because of such a rebuke from his rebbe.

In this context, it is appropriate to relate an extreme case about the righteous Rebbe Baruch of Mezhibuzh, the Ba'al Shem Tov’s oldest grandson, who was renowned for his severity:

It was Rebbe Baruch of Mezhbizh’s holy custom to make his students’ life a misery and to angrily scold anyone who came to learn Torah from him. He would interpret the phrase, “And the souls who he made in Charan” to refer to “those souls who one rectifies in one’s rage (charon af)… Once, as he sat down to a meal, a rich man entered his home and Rebbe Baruch began to rant and rave at him, and even commanded his helpers to push him out of the house. Rebbe Baruch’s son-in-law, Rebbe Abraham Dov of Chmelinik, who was present at the time, asked Rebbe Baruch how he justified such behavior in the light of the injunction, “Anyone who embarrasses his friend in public…” Rebbe Baruch retorted, “Why don’t you complete the sentence? – ‘…he has no portion in the World to Come’? I saw that there were harsh judgments heading towards that man and by humiliating him I annulled all the judgments that were on him. How could I not forfeit my portion in the World to Come in order to save another Jew?”

Such a severe method can only be adopted by a choice few, and we simple folk cannot replicate it. But, we learn that chastisement and stern rebuke can stem from a profound form of love. When Rebbe Baruch passed away, they found the Zohar open at the page that states, “There is anger and there is anger. There is anger that is blessed above and below and it is called blessed” – teaching us that Rebbe Baruch, whose name means “Blessed” was true to his name, he was blessed and also gave blessing. His anger and rebuke were merely garments for the great blessing he bestowed upon the world.

This can be illustrated with a numerical allusion; the sum of the two words, “blessing” (בְּרָכָה) and “rebuke” (תּוֹכֵחָה) is 666, which equals 3 times the numerical value of the 3-letter root form of “blessing” (ב-ר-ך), which appears three times in the final verse of Jacob’s blessings to his sons: “and he blessed them; each man according to his own blessing he blessed them.” The sum of the numerical values of the three verbs that appear in the verse, “[their father] spoke… and he blessed them… he blessed them” (דִּבֶּר… וַיְבָרֶךְ… בֵּרַךְ) also equals 666, teaching us that it was all a blessing. The sum of the numerical values of the names of Reuben (רְאוּבֵן), Shimon (שִׁמְעוֹן) and Levi (לֵוִי), the three sons who merited a hidden blessing, is 777, which excedes 666 in all its integers. The average value of their names is 259, which is the numerical value of Reuben (רְאוּבֵן).

Judah, Dan and Asher

With reference to Jacob’s blessings of his sons, the Zohar relates:

One day, Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Yossi were sitting at the gates of Lod. Rabbi Yossi said to Rabbi Yehudah: “We have seen that Jacob blessed his sons from the words, ‘And he blessed them’, but where is their blessing? He [Rabbi Yehudah] replied: All these are the blessings that he blessed them, such as ‘Judah, now your brothers will acknowledge you,’ ‘Dan will judge his people,’ ‘From Asher rich bread,’ and so on with them all…”

The Zohar continues to explain the great blessing in Jacob’s words to Reuben, Shimon and Levi, as we have explained that the blessing is actually present in the words of rebuke, if we only know how to read the verses correctly.

Yet, we need to understand why Rabbi Yehudah chose the blessings of these three tribes in particular to illustrate that they are all blessings. He could have mentioned any of the other tribes who also received exceptional blessings.

We can explain Rabbi Yehudah’s choice simply according by noting the location of these three tribes on the stones of the High Priest’s breastplate. The breastplate consisted of four rows, each of which contained three gemstones, corresponding to the twelve tribes. The first row of three gems corresponded to Reuben, Shimon and Levi, the second row to Judah, Issachar and Zebulun, the third row, Dan, Naphtali and Gad, and the fourth row, Asher, Joseph and Benjamin. The reasoning behind this order follows the birthing order of Jacob’s four wives: first Leah’s sons according to their order of birth, followed by the maidservants’ sons according to their order of birth and lastly, Rachel’s sons who were born last.

We can now see that the three tribes who Rabbi Yehudah mentioned, Judah, Dan and Asher, are the first tribes in each of the last three rows of the breastplate representig all of the tribes who received Jacob’s explicit blessings from Jacob. Since the tribes in the first row did not receive explicit blessings, Rabbi Yehudah offered no example of an explicit blessing from those three tribes.

The Blessing Concealed in Atzilut (the World of Emanation)

This correspondence to the stones of the breastplate reveals another way of understanding the profound significance of blessings and rebukes. The four rows of the breastplate correspond to the four spiritual “Worlds”:  Atzilut (Emanation), Beriyah (Creation), Yetzirah (Formation) and Asiyah (Action). The three lower Worlds of Beriyah, Yetzirah and Asiyah manifest blessing in a revealed way that is tangible to our intelligence and our senses. But, the highest World of Atzilut (the World of Emanation) is a Divine World of absolute goodness and unity. For that very reason, it is beyond our comprehension. The top row of the breastplate, representing Reuben, Shimon and Levi, is the row that corresponds to Atzilut. Those tribes who correspond to Atzilut are replete with such extraordinary blessing that when it descends to reach our level of physical reality, the blessing becomes manifests as harsh rebuke.

The goal is that all blessing should manifest in a way that is tangible to us and there should be no need to conceal it in a façade of rebuke. This objective will be realized at the final redemption, which Jacob wished to reveal to his sons as he said, “Gather and I will tell you what will happen to you at the end of days.” Rashi explains Jacob’s words to mean, “He desired to reveal them the course of the final redemption, but the Divine Presence left him and he began to say other things.” Had Jacob revealed the final redemption, there would have been no need to rebuke his three oldest sons. But, since the Divine Presence left him and the final redemption was hidden, we return to our present situation in which it is impossible to reveal the great blessing bestowed upon those souls from Atzilut. As long as we are in a state of exile, like in Egypt, which was the source of all exiles – the rebuke is revealed and the blessing is hidden. Indeed, the numerical value of “exile” (גָלוּת) is equal to the value of “rebuke” (תּוֹכֵחָה).

Once the redemption arrives, rebuke is completely sweetened and the hidden blessing becomes revealed. Reuben is the firstborn, Shimon and Levi are brothers and all of the brothers are blessed together with them, “Each man according to his own blessing, he blessed them.”

From Rabbi Ginsburgh’s class, 7th Tevet 5772

[1]     In fact, this idea is alluded to in the word “rebuke” (תּוֹכָחָה), the first syllable means “within” (תּוֹךְ) and whose the second syllable (חָה) has a numerical value of 13, the same as “love” (אַהֲבָה).

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