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Posts Tagged ‘Finding unity’

What does a blessing actually mean?  If we offer a blessing to another person, are we simply wishing them well or are we trying to get them to contemplate a perspective unlike they way they have thought and acted?  In this week’s Torah portion Vayachi, Jacob delivers blessings for his sons.  Yet, when we read them, we wonder if these are truly blessings.  Here is the beginning from Genesis 49:1 – 9.  I am showing the Hebrew in the first two verses.                                                                                                                            וַיִּקְרָ֥א יַעֲקֹ֖ב אֶל־בָּנָ֑יו וַיֹּ֗אמֶר הֵאָֽסְפוּ֙ וְאַגִּ֣ידָה לָכֶ֔ם אֵ֛ת אֲשֶׁר־יִקְרָ֥א אֶתְכֶ֖ם בְּאַחֲרִ֥ית הַיָּמִֽים׃

Vayikra Ya’akov el-banav vayomer ha’asfu v’agidah lachem et asher-yikra etchem ba’acharit hayamim.

1)  And Jacob called his sons and said, “Come together that I may tell you what is to befall you in days to come.                                                                                       הִקָּבְצ֥וּ וְשִׁמְע֖וּ בְּנֵ֣י יַעֲקֹ֑ב וְשִׁמְע֖וּ אֶל־יִשְׂרָאֵ֥ל אֲבִיכֶֽם׃

Hikavtzu v’shim’u b’nai Ya’akov v’shim’u el-Yisra’el avichem.

2) Assemble and hearken, O sons of Jacob; Hearken to Israel your father:

3)  Rueben, you are my firstborn, my might, and the beginning of my strength, the excellency of dignity, and the excellence of power;

4)  Unstable as water, you shall not excel; because you went up to your father’s bed; then you defiled it, mounting my bed.

5)  Simeon and Levi are brothers; instruments of cruelty are their swords.

6) Oh my soul, do not come into their council; to their assembly, let my honor not be united; for in their anger, they slew a man, and in their wanton lamed an ox.

7) Cursed be their anger, for it was fierce; and they wrath, for it was cruel; I will divide the in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel.

8)  Judah, you are he whom your brothers shall praise; your hand shall be in the neck of your enemies; yourfather’s children shall bow down in your presence.

9)  Judah is a lion’s cub, from the prey, my son, you are gone up; he stooped down, he couched as a lion, and as an old lion; who shall rouse him up?

We can see from the beginning of Jacob’s “blessings” for his sons, the diversity in content, reproving for bad actions, praise for some sons, and predictions to their future. However, the predictions are not for their individual futures, but for the tribes who will descend from each of them. Indeed, we can read this as Jacob’s teaching on the developent from being an individual to a tribe, a society, even a nation.  One hint is the use of two names, Jacob and Israel.  It is Jacob who is calling his sons together for their blessings and followed by the name Israel, when they are told to listen to their father’s words of analysis and prophesy of the future.  We will expand on this, but first let’s review the improper deeds done by the sons receiving their reproofs.

Reuben, Jacob’s first born, laid with his father’s concubine, Bilhah, who was the mother of a number of Reuben’s brothers.  What is worse, he did this just after Jacob’s wife Rachel had died.  Simeon and Levi reacted violently to the incident with their sister Dinah, who was raped by Shechem, but was in love with her and wanted to marry her.  While Jacob agreed to the marriage if everyone in the town of Shechem would be dedicated to God (and the men were to be circumcised to officially proclaim that), Simeon and Levi slaughtered all the men while they were recovering from their circumcisions.  Jacob’s reproof of Simeon and Levi is a condemnation of their excessive anger, cruelty, and violence.

A key question is how will Jacob’s sons, and their descendents, properly direct their lives as they move from individuals to a nation, the nation of Israel?  In midrash Genesis Rabbah 98:2 3 three rabbis, Juden, Pinchas, and Abun, all interpret the Hebrew word el(look at the first two verses in Hebrew) to actually mean “God,” as Elnot only means “to” but also is a Hebrew word for “God.”  Rabbi Juden interprets the beginning of verse 49:1 to mean “And Jacob called God to be with his sons.”

In Genesis Rabbah 98:3 Rabbis Juden and Pinchas have a slightly different interpretation of who is being referred to by “God.”  Juden says it is the God of Jacob (their individual father) who should be the God of Israel (the eventual nation).  Pinchas teaches the sons must be honoring their father, and his teachings, at the same level they would honor God.  In either case we can draw a significant lesson very applicable to us.

Judaism is not only about the respectability of individuality, but the necessity to place our desires and thoughts behind what is necessary to create a successful society, community, nation.  Reuben’s action is seen as simply selfish, the desire to have sex with a woman despite her relationship with his own father.  While Simeon and Levi were justified in having anger over what happened to their sister, their reaction was a violent punishment way beyond the guilty person, but victimizing all the men of the town of Shechem.  They did not accept the attempt of Shechem to correct things and create a way to cooperate.

You can see the parallel in this world through entries in social media.   So many people refuse to consider a different point of view.  I have read so many nasty comments on FaceBook by people whose only interest is to condemn those who have a different perspective than them.  I never see a post of forgiveness for a wrongdoing, or apologies for demeaning others. It is also clear that so many of today’s problems can be traced to personal, political desires and egos as opposed to what is best for the community.  The assumption is that the personal belief opinion is best and NOT true listening to the approach of those who think differently, even friends.

How does God’s presence (as depicted by Genesis Rabbah midrash) impact these problems?  First, acknowledging God forces us to realize we are part of something much bigger and beyond ourselves.  Second, if we see God as a parent/creator, we know we must respect what exists and work to improve our larger family – the nation of our Jewish people and thus, the world. Are our actions creating conflicts or attempting to create understanding?  Judaism allows disagreement on topics but makes it clear that ALL perspectives are acknowledged by God.  We can stand up to defend ourselves but must balance our aggressiveness with kindness.

What was the response of Jacob’s sons according to these midrashim?  It is taught they recited the words of the Sh’ma, “Adonai our God, Adonai is one.”  Despite the diverse “blessings” each brother received from their father, they acknowledged a need to come together in a divine way.  The Hebrew of the Sh’ma uses two different names of God, which shows in its own way that diversity should not prevent unity.  Jacob’s response is, “Baruch shem k’vod malchuto l’olam va’ed,” “Blessed is the name of the glorious majesty forever and ever.

What is a blessing? It is a direction away from sin to a hope that we will find a moral and divine path in our future.

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