Vayechi: From rebuke to blessing

In Parashat Vayechi, Jacob gathers his sons to speak to them before his death. Although Jacob’s address is usually referred to as the blessings he gave his sons before his passing, 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 the privileges 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 throughoutIsrael.”

Hearing how his father chose to begin his address to his older brothers,  it is understandable that Yehudah, Jacob’s fourth son, is hesitant to approach Jacob and receive his piece of Jacob’s mind; Yehudah is fully aware that there is good reason for Jacob to rebuke him like his brothers. As Rashi comments, “Because [Jacob] reprimanded the first ones with his rebuke, Judah began to retreat until Jacob called him back with words of appeasement, ‘Yehudah, 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 twelve of his sons, as the final verse stresses, “All these are the twelve tribes of Israel, and this is what their father spoke to them, and he blessed them; each according to his own blessing he blessed them.” Rashi too dwells on this point, “Could it be that he [Jacob] did not bless Reuben, Shimon and Levi? The verse teaches us that, ‘he blessed them,’ implying all of them.” What then was the blessing that Jacob blessed Reuben, Shimon, and Levi?

One could explain that besides the rebuke documented in the Torah text, Jacob added an undocumented blessing to the first three tribes. However, this explanation is somewhat implausible, and it is more likely that Rashi means to say that all of the blessings are in fact written right there in the Torah. All we need to do is read between the lines, and we can find the blessing in the verses themselves.

The blessing within the rebuke

The truth is that the blessing is hidden within the rebuke itself. Firstly, the inner motivation of a true rebuke is “great love.” This is true of a loving father, and is also true of the Almighty Himself, who rebukes us with love, as we find in Proverbs, “For he who God loves, He rebukes, like a father who cherishes his son.” The Malbim explains that “rebuke is a sign of love.” Loving parents know that they must rebuke their children for their own benefit, in order to educate them and refine their ways. This means that rebuke is the external expression of love, as in one literal rendering of the verse, “Better is revealed rebuke [when it comes] from hidden love.” This idea is alluded to in the word “rebuke” (תּוֹכָחָה), whose first syllable means “within” (תּוֹךְ) and whose second syllable (חָה) has a numerical value of 13, the same as “love” (אַהֲבָה), implying that well-intentioned rebuke is filled with love. In 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?’”

From a more profound perspective, Chassidut teaches us that there are two levels of blessing. Normal blessings are visible and are spoken of openly in public, but there are special blessings that must remain concealed, even hidden within the harsh words of criticism. A hidden blessing actually emanates from a higher source than the revealed and open blessing. This is why when the Almighty afflicts an individual with suffering, he should accept it with joy, with the understanding that in fact the affliction caused by abundance that emanates from a very high spiritual source; from the concealed world that cannot be revealed in our world in the form of a blessing. As such, the affliction is an even deeper expression of God’s closeness to us, “Happy is the man whom God afflicts.” This idea is certainly not easy to swallow for the suffering individual, but from an objective point of view, we can understand how the rebuke itself is a blessing, like a father who says, “I love this disobedient child so much, but I have to scold him for his actions.” Rebuke has the power to sweeten the harsh judgments from where it emanates, thus bringing down infinite blessing.

Once again, this can be illustrated with a numerical allusion. The sum of “blessing” (בְּרָכָה) and “rebuke” (תּוֹכֵחָה) is 666, which is 3 times the numerical value of the 3-letter root form of “blessing” (ברך). In the final verse of Jacob’s blessings to his sons, the root “to bless” appears exactly three times: “and he blessed them; each according to his own blessing he blessed them.” Incredibly, the sum of the three verbs in this verse, “[their father] spoke… and he blessed them… he blessed them” (דִּבֶּר… וַיְבָרֶךְ… בֵּרַךְ) also equals 666.

Judah, Dan and Asher

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

Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Yossi were sitting one day 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 “Yehudah, now your brothers will acknowledge you,” “Dan will judge his people,” “From Asher rich bread,” and so it is 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 in a straightforward manner by noting the location of these three tribes on the High Priest’s breastplate. The breastplate consisted of four rows, each with 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 Rabbi Yehudah mentioned—Yehudah, Dan and Asher—are the first in each of the last three rows of the breastplate and are therefore representative of all the tribes who received Jacob’s explicit blessings. Obviously, since the tribes appearing in the breastplates first row did not receive explicit blessings, Rabbi Yehudah skips over the first row.

The concealed blessing of the World of Emanation

This correspondence to the stones of the breastplate reveals another way of understanding the profound significance of blessings and rebukes. Kabbalistically speaking, the breastplate’s four rows correspond to the four spiritual Worlds: Emanation (אֲצִילוּת), Creation (בְּרִיאָה), Formation (יְצִירָה) and Action (עֲשִׂיָּה). The breastplate’s top row, representing Reuben, Shimon and Levi, corresponds to the World of Emanation. We can now better understand why these tribes were not blessed explicitly. The World of Emanation is a Divine World of absolute goodness and for that very reason it lies completely beyond our perception. Those tribes corresponding with the World of Emanation are full of such extraordinary blessing, at their highest source, that when it descends into our physical reality, the blessing inevitably becomes intangible and instead, is experienced as a harsh rebuke. Only the three lower worlds, Creation, Formation and Action can manifest blessing in a revealed way.

Obviously, 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. But this objective can only be completed with the final redemption, that very same end that 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 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 of those souls from the World of Emanation. Nonetheless, the final verse reveals that, in fact, we are all blessed, “Each according to his own blessing, he blessed them,” a hidden blessing to Reuben, Shimon and Levi and a tangible blessing to all the other tribes.

From Rabbi Ginsburgh’s class, 7th Tevet 5772

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lorie December 28, 2012 at 1:51 pm

thank you for the blessing, it shined all the way through the worlds and keeps shining
shalom shabbos

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