David Walk
David Walk

A blessing on your head

This week’s Torah reading is famous for the blessings bestowed by Ya’akov Avinu upon his sons, the future Tribes of Israel. But these aren’t like the blessings we expect parents to confer on their beloved children. There’s a lot of tough love going on in these ‘blessings’. What kind of ‘blessing’ includes the phrase ‘cursed be their anger’ (Breishit 49:7)? Usually, the Torah clearly separates blessings from curses. This phrase, I believe, convinced the Ibn Ezra to aver that ‘those who call these blessings are mistaken’. Well, I will join the ranks of the ‘mistaken’, and try to convince you that these are indeed blessings. 

The greatest counter proof to the Ibn Ezra is that the words VAYEVARECH and BIRCHATO appear in the first verse right after Ya’akov’s charge to the sons. However, the JPS cleverly translates the whole phrase: addressing to each a parting word appropriate to him (verse 28). Notice the word ‘blessing’ is avoided. There must have been discomfort among the translators calling this farewell ‘blessings’. BTW on the Bible Gateway web site all but two of the 54 English translations include the word ‘blessing’. 

So, what is a BRACHA (not the ones we say on food, but the ones we give our most beloved)? It’s a little prayer, but of a special nature. It’s a hope and an aspiration for the recipient. A truly meaningful BRACHA is based upon intimate knowledge of the recipient and their true needs. 

Let’s look at the offending BRACHA. Ya’akov says: Shimon and Levi are a pair (ACHIM, brothers), instruments of crime are their trade…Cursed be their fury (APAM, anger of their nose) and their rage for it is relentless. I will disperse them in Ya’akov and scatter them in Yisrael (5 &7).  

That’s harsh. I believe strongly that the critical word is APAM, ‘their anger’ which is as plain as the nose on one’s face. This is critical because of the continuation of these BRACHOT as declared by Moshe Rabbeinu at the end of his life, and of the Torah, Zot HaBracha. In those statements to the nation, two things stand out. First, Shimon gets no BRACHA at all. Second, a crucial part of the BRACHA for Levi is: They shall teach Your justice to Ya’akov, Your Law to Yisrael; they shall place the incense into Your nose (APECHA, Devarim 33:10).  

This is very clever. The same word which describes Shimon and Levi’s anger in Breishit becomes the word for the beautiful Temple service of the Kohanic descendants of Levi. Also, the warning/prediction of dispersal comes true for both tribes. For Shimon, the tribe is absorbed by Yehuda and ceases to exist as a separate entity. For Levi, they get no tribal land, and live dispersed in Levitical cities around the country. But this is a good thing, because they ‘teach justice and Torah’ to the nation. Their dispersal is an educational boon to the entire nation. 

This is a bit embarrassing, but this situation reminds me of a famous holiday story by Charles Dicken, which shall remain nameless. The nasty Scrooge is shown his future, which is bleak. However, he is informed by his friendly ghost that it doesn’t have to turn out that way. There’s room for adjustments to his destiny.  L’HAVDIL oh so many HAVDALOT, Levi and Shimon are similarly being warned. Levi gets it and changes his AF (‘nose anger’ to sweet smelling incense) and his dispersion into very positive situations. Shimon doesn’t get it, and is doomed to oblivion. 

We can actually pinpoint the moment when Levi’s descendants move to the righteous side, and Shimon’s continue their slide towards the ‘dark side’ (SITRA ACHRA, this one isn’t a non-Jewish cultural reference). It’s the story of Pinchas and Zimri (Bamidbar 25:6-15). Zimri, a leader from the tribe of Shimon, follows his negative instincts and is publicly lewd with Cozbi a pagan woman. On the other hand, Pinchas, a Cohen and leader from Levi, initiates zealotry protocols, and executes them both. 

Ya’akov informed us that Levi and Shimon had similar tendencies, but tendencies aren’t destiny. We can sublimate our proclivities and morph them into positive attributes. The Talmud assumed that red heads had violent dispositions, so suggested that they become SHOCHTIM. As a former red head, I’m not sure about the prognosis, I hate the sight of blood, but I love the advice. Every tendency can become a talent to be utilized in amazing ways. 

There’s another translation for verse 28 which said that Ya’akov was blessing the sons, which I think expresses the idea I really like: He prayed for each of them to receive the good they should have (New Life Version). I would have ended that sentence: that is appropriate to them. Our BRACHOT for loved ones are our prayers for them based upon our familiarity with their strengths and weaknesses. 

According to this approach to the BRACHOT, I would like to nominate my candidate for best BRACHA: Dan. Ya’akov concludes his BRACHA: L’SHUATICHA KIVITI, HASHEM (verse 18). Many authorities translate that as ‘I await Your deliverance, God’. The ‘deliverance’ is God’s. I’d prefer to translate it, “I await your success.’ Ya’akov is telling Dan he expects him to achieve his own version of success, and is praying to God to help Dan be the best Dan that he can be. 

Ya’akov Avinu is such an amazing role model for us as parents. We must pray for our children to be the best that they can be, according to their unique skill set. May all our blessings be inspired ones. 

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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