Vayechi: Core connection

Jacob's words to his eldesr Reuven seem to be more of a rebuke and a punishment than a blessing. What had Reuven done to warrant this rebuke?

Rabbanit Shira Smiles

Judaism Torah reading
Torah reading
Flash 90

Adapted by Channie Koplowitz Stein

           Arguably, the most memorable parts of Parshat Veyechi are Yaakov Avinu’s blessings to his grandchildren and then to his sons who would form the twelve tribes. Yet, as Yaakov Avinu calls to his eldest son Reuven (followed by Shimon and Levi), he seems not to be blessing him, but to be recalling past infractions and meting out punishment: “Reuven, you are my firstborn, my strength and my initial vigor, foremost in rank and foremost in power. Water-like impetuosity – you cannot be foremost, because you mounted your father’s bed...” Reuven should have been recognized as firstborn, and was also meant to receive the priesthood and the monarchy, both of which he lost to other tribes. How is this a blessing, asks Rabbi Weissblum in Heorat Derech? This seems to be more of a rebuke and a punishment than a blessing. What had Reuven done to warrant this rebuke?

           After Rachel Imenu died, and everyone knew that Rachel Imenu was the main wife in the household, Yaakov Avinu moved his bed into Bilha’s tent. Bilha, before becoming Yaakov Avinu’s wife, was Rachel Imenu’s maidservant. Reuven felt this was a slight and a dishonor to his own mother, Leah Imenu, and he moved his father’s bed to Leah Imenu’s tent. Was this such a terrible sin that it should warrant Reuven’s losing all the rights of the firstborn?   Further, we know that Reuven spent years doing Teshuva for this act; surely he was forgive for this misdeed! What was the real problem, and how could Yaakov Avinu’s words constitute a blessing?

           Rabbi Leff sheds light on this question. The greatest blessing in the world, he reminds us, is self knowledge and self awareness. Only with this insight into one’s self can one hope to achieve one’s full potential.

            Rabbi Friedlande z”lr, the Sifsei Chaim, clarifies this idea for us. Every brachah/blessing is really a tool with which to serve Hashem, he writes. The more gifts we have, the greater is our responsibility to use them correctly. In the silent prayer, we ask for many blessings - wisdom, health, sustenance, and so much more. The question remains, are we asking for these blessings only for ourselves personally, or so we can serve Hashem better.

           One can live one’s entire life without knowing his own strengths and weaknesses. Rabbi Wolbe z”l cites a medrash that tells us that when a man dies, he will be asked what his name is. He may be overwhelmed and, never having given it much thought, not remember. Then the angel will beat him, breaking every bone in his body. (It is for this reason that many have the custom of inserting a verse recalling their name toward the end of Shemoneh Esreh, the silent prayer we just cited.*) Why does the angel ask your name? Because your name is not just an abstract idea or sounds pretty, (as in some cultures, lehavdil) but your name contains the essence of who you are. It reflects the qualities of the person you are named after, or the particular characteristics that embody who you are, either by translation or through an anagram of the letters of your name. [Consider the many characteristics the names our patriarchs were given, especially the multiple ideas in the name Yisroel.] After 70, 80, or 100 years, if you have not been able to identify your strengths and weaknesses, perhaps you deserve the beating.

           So, continues Rabbi Wolbe z”l, you should cherish the one who tells you what defines you, because knowing that gives you a base upon which to build. It is more likely that a parent, teacher, mentor or friend will have this insight than will you yourself. Therefore, Yaakov  Avinu revealed their essence to his sons so that they would be able to perfect themselves. Perhaps if someone had told Lot how susceptible he was to the lure of riches and to improper relationships, he would not have been drawn to Sodom. If you are aware of your weaknesses, you learn to guard against them.

           We are often under the mistaken belief that by asking a great Rav for a brachah, those blessings will automatically be bestowed upon us, writes Rabbi Weissblum. One must be aware that there are two partners in this blessing, the giver and the receiver. You must be willing to accept the knowledge and the responsibilities associated with the blessing. This is why Yaakov Avinu crossed his hands when blessing Menashe and Ephraim, giving the greater blessing to the younger brother, for he had the greater potential and therefore the greater responsibility, while the younger brother accepted this and his own mission.

           Rabbi Weissblum gives us a wonderful analogy that helps us understand the importance of knowing oneself, especially ones flaws. You are like a beautiful, large vessel waiting to be filled, perhaps a pitcher that you would like to fill with cool, thirst quenching water. But you are unaware that along the side of the pitcher, near the bottom, is a slight crack. As you keep pouring water in, the water is slowly seeping out, so you can never adequately fill the pitcher. Then someone points out the crack. Only now that you are aware of the problem are you in a position to repair it and actually fill the pitcher properly.

           If you are that pitcher, you may be performing many mitzvoth and doing much chesed, but if you’ve got a character flaw, all that good may be flowing out, as you may be doing it for the wrong reasons. Are you a philanthropist because you like the recognition? Do you help others get a job because you can show that you are influential or powerful? Do you come to shul very early so people will talk about how dedicated you are to davening? Are you motivated by true service to Hashem, or is there a character flaw that motivates you?

           We live in a generation that does not accept criticism easily, even constructive criticism conveyed sensitively. But Yaakov Avinu, in his criticism was giving his sons the tools each one needed to recognize in order to achieve his potential.

           It is along these lines that The Shem MiShmuel explains Yaakov Avinu’s message to Reuven. Yaakov Avinu was not punishing Reuven for moving his bed to Leah Imenu’s tent after Rachel Imenu’s death. Yaakov Avinu was upset with the rashness and impetuousness of the act done without deliberation. While Reuven, the firstborn, was meant to also be the tribe of the monarchy and of priesthood, because of his impetuous nature, he proved himself unsuitable for these roles.

           The Shem MiShmuel explains that each of these roles, firstborn, king and priest, is meant to act as a conduit and unifying factor, a role someone who is prone to anger cannot play. The firstborn is the conduit between the father’s intellect and the other children; the kohein/priest is tasked with connecting the spiritual with the physical, while the king must unify so many different individuals into one cohesive nation. Anger is the very essence of disharmony and disunity When Reuven exhibited this characteristic, he disqualified himself from these positions. Losing these gifts was not a punishment but a consequence of his own actions.

The Sifsei Chaim notes, Yaakov Avinu was not punishing him for his action, but for the character trait that led him to act so impulsively. If, after proper contemplation and thought, perhaps even after voicing his concern about his mother’s honor to Yaakov Avinu, Reuven had decided that this was the best course of action, the act itself would not have produced such consequences, surmises Rabbi Elyah Lopian z”l. But, additionally, being the firstborn, Reuven’s behavior carried greater import than it would have otherwise, and his impetuosity was more problematic.

           Water moves quickly and can cause much damage if not controlled.  So too is man’s impetuosity, writes Rabbi Pliskin citing Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz z”l.

           Reuven spent the rest of his life repenting for this action, so losing the priesthood and monarchy were not punishments. The Sifsei Chaim presents another facet to explain why Reuven’s behavior made him unsuitable for these two functions. What is required of the priest as he offers the sacrifices is a clear mind and a calm spirit, for he needs to concentrate on so many intentions during the service. Impetuosity will keep him from being clear headed and calm enough to serve properly. Similarly, a king must maintain a state of equilibrium and not allow personal feelings to cloud his judgment as king. Again, allowing his personal feelings, albeit they were to preserve his mother’s honor, to cloud his judgment and act rashly made Reuven unfit to be king.

           The lessons of the Torah, especially as they come from our forebears, are meant to have an impact on us. What are we to learn from the blessing Yaakov Avinu gave to Reuven? Rabbi Schwadron z”l turns to the first mishneh in Pirkei Avos. The very first thing our Sages tell us is to be deliberate in judgment. Before one acts, one needs to ask himself three things: What am I about to do, what do I want to accomplish, what is motivating me? This advice is relevant not just for actual judges, but for every action each of us does. If we remain calm, we can think through every action we are about to take and prevent many errors. By reframing many activities, we may not only take away negative feelings toward performing them, but we may actually want to do them, not just need to do them. So many chores can be reframed as acts of chesed and become mitzvoth thereby, rather than rote and mundane chores.

           Rabbi Wolbe z”l then asks, isn’t calmness the opposite of the alacrity we are urged in performing mitzvoth? Actually, says Rav Wolbe z”l citing Rav Avraham Grodzinsky z”l, zerizus/alacrity/alertness/quickness is not so much a matter for the hands and feet to do things without thinking, but for the mind to be eager and fastidious in the mitzvah performance. In fact, Rabbi Sternbach suggests that whenever one needs to make an important decision, one should “sleep on it” overnight to give it proper thought, to anticipate the repercussions of the decision and gain clarity.

           When one seriously considers one’s actions, not only in mundane matters, but also in the performance of acts of chesed, one often comes to better solutions, suggests Rabbi Beyfus in Yalkut Lekach Tov, citing Rabbi Broide z”l. For example, if you prepare meals for a friend recovering from illness or childbirth, do you have one standard dish, or do you consider the recipient’s tastes, and perhaps those of her children. The recipient may have plenty of food, after all, everyone brought over food, but she could use someone to do a load of laundry, or take the children out for an hour or two. Acting on your first impulse may even be counterproductive. (Where will I put all this food?)

           The more we are able to move away from the impetuosity of swift moving waters,, the more we are able to incorporate mindfulness into our lives, the better we will connect both to our selves and to God, the Sifsei Chaim writes encouragingly.

           There is an antidote for this impetuosity. It is menuchat hanefesh – “Learning to acquire the ability to coordinate all the powers that Hashem has granted us toward achieving our life mission,” writes Rabbi Ostrow. It is a skill that must be worked on and developed, so that all our body, intellectual and emotional parts work together to achieve our higher purpose, much like the different departments of a government or corporation must work within their own parameters but for the total goal. This “synergistic blending of emotional, physical and spiritual forces within us gives us a sense of profound security and well being… which contribute toward achieving the goal at hand.”

           Unfortunately, the world we live is stacked against our achieving this calm, secure and reflective state. We are constantly bombarded with social media that deflect and scatter our focus. It becomes addictive until we feel it is our life, when in fact it is not who we are or who we were meant to be. Our scattered brains now develop so many different kinds of problems, from addictions, to depression, to anxiety, and so many more. Our attention span is almost non - existent, and we have difficulty acting effectively.

           The Ner Uziel gets us back to Reuven and the blessing. Yaakov Avinu understood that without the ability to concentrate and create a vision for others to follow, Reuven was not fit for a leadership position. Yaakov Avinu therefore gave the leadership to Yosef, Yehudah and Levi.

           By pointing out the flaw in Reuven’s character, Yaakov Avinu was showing him the crack in his vessel, and indicating where Reuven would need to focus his energy. May we each learn to recognize both our assets and our flaws so we can work on achieving focus in our service to Hashem, and thereby gain menuchat hanefesh.

Note:*It is also the custom of some chevra kadishas to remind the meis/meisah of his/her name by repeating it three times, again so he/she will remember it when coming before the Divine Throne.