Barbara Pfeffer Billauer
integrating law, policy, religion and science

Parshiot Shemot and VaYechi: The Power to Create Our Future

Last Shabbat, in Parshat Vayechi we read that, on his deathbed, Yaakov wanted to impart prophetic wisdom of his descendants’ future. According to Rashi, he is precluded by the Almighty. (“[Yaakov] wanted to reveal the end [the future], and the Sh’china [the ability to prophesize] left him, and he began to say other things.”)  (49:1-2)

Instead, Yaakov either blesses them – or calls them out (Shimon and Levi). Yaakov’s words vis a vis Levi and Shimon can be viewed as a curse: Because of their uncontrollable anger which manifested in the genocide of the people of Shechem, Yaakov leaves Levi and Shimon with these words ringing in his ears:

Simeon and Levi are a pair; Their weapons are tools of lawlessness. Let not my person be included in their council, Let not my being be counted in their assembly. For when angry they slay men, And when pleased they maim oxen. Cursed be their anger so fierce, And their wrath so relentless.

One phrase is quite conspicuously wrong: “Let not my person be included in their council. Let not my being be counted in their assembly.” (49: 5-7)  Instead, one might say that just the opposite occurred. The tribe of Levi were the ones davka selected to host the Countenance of the Holy One, to attend to His home on Earth.

So, why did the Almighty stop Yaakov from imparting this wonderful future to the descendants of Levi? Why does Yaakov leave with the scalding curse ringing in Levi’s ears? Wouldn’t any parent want to leave this world with their children associating them with good tidings – and if a fabulous future lies in wait for Levi (and a not so terrible one for Shimon, interspersed as he was within the tribe of Judah) – wouldn’t a parent want their children to know it? Why leave this world with a rebuke?

It appears the key message of Vayechi only becomes clear in Parshat Shemot. It is an awesome and powerful one: that we have the power to create our own future. The future may be preordained, but we can change it by virtue of our actions. But knowing in advance what that future might hold could prevent us from taking the steps needed to get there. Such foreknowledge might preclude us from actualizing our best gifts and transforming our weaknesses in order to enable the attainment of the highest heights. If we think we know what will happen, either we succumb to undeserved feelings of grandiosity, or we fall victim to the specter of the self-fulfilling prophecy, demoralized from reaching our true potential.

Just look what happens in the scant 170 years from Yaakov’s death. Here, in Chapter 2 of Parshat Shemot we meet Moshe for the first time as a grown man, after he has killed the Egyptian tormenting one of the Hebrews – demonstrating that he has channeled any personal and vengeful anger into righteous indignation on behalf of his people. Another forty years later, in chapter 4, we meet Aaron as an adult  – and Aaron – specifically referred to as the Levite (“Is there not Aaron your brother, the Levite?”) has subsumed his anger entirely.  As Rashi says in ch 4. V 27: Because of this [Aaron’s goodness and humility], Aaron merited the ornament of the breastplate, which is placed over the heart (Exod. 28:29). — [from Exod. Rabbah 3:17]

The tribe of Levi became the priests of the Lord. Aaron became the High Priest. But – Aharon has totally conquered his anger- he has heeded the message his great-grandfather (on his mother’s side- Yocheved being Levi’s daughter) left him – he becomes the most peaceful of men (Ohav Shalom v’Rodef Shalom, lover, and pursuer of Peace). Would he have been entrusted as Spiritual Sovereign if he was Levi-like in uncontrolled anger? Would he have self-actualized himself if he wasn’t taught that his grandfather’s behavior was reprehensible to his great-grandfather?

Moses was also able to overcome the Levitic curse of egotistical anger (at least until he twice smites the rock near the end of his life).  Would Moses have been designated God’s liaison and shepherd of the Jewish people if he harbored even residual vengefulness? Recall that Moses was the author of our Yom Kippur prayer, composed on behalf of his people – precisely to remind God of the counter-productive attribute of vengeance.  Only someone who had known, but truly conquered, his own urge toward rage and revenge could produce such words: “The LORD, the LORD, God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth” which we recite unto this very day. Instead of using anger as a tool of lawlessness as did Levi, his grandfather (on his mother’s side), Moses, the lawgiver, becomes the quintessence of the wielder of the tools of lawfulness –

There are several instances in the Tanach where prophecies, even those uttered by “true” prophets, did not come true – because of the actions of those targeted changed their fore-ordained future. None other than the prophet Isaiah prophesied that King Hezekiah would die:

“In those days Hezekiah was sick unto death. And Isaiah the prophet the son of Amoz came to him, and said unto him: ‘Thus saith the LORD: Set thy house in order; for thou shalt die, and not live. ‘ 2 Kings:”

But Hezekiah prayed and wept- and lived, rendering Isaiah’s prophecy null, void – and false.

And Jonah told the people of Ninevah their lives were about to be turned upside down. Rather than being destroyed – they chose to turn their own lives upside down, repented, and lived.

Huldah gave a positive prophesy that Josiah would die in his bed- (and by implication, not in battle). Relying on a sense of invincibility that he believed the prophecy conferred on him, Josiah made an insane and disastrous political decision to engage a powerful neighboring country in battle, creating an unneeded enemy – and died, as a result of battle, if not on the battlefield.

Had Yaakov given Levi the prophecy that his descendants would become the spiritual leaders – would they have done the work needed to rectify their personal short-comings and overcome their anger? It is hardly likely. They would have gloried in their state of development- as it was then- and not resolved to repent, as did Hezekiah, and change their ways as did the people of Ninevah. It is quite clear that the future which ultimately was afforded them would not have actualized- if they knew it in advance.

Even Shimon figured out how to improve his station, transforming the curse that I will divide them in Jacob, Scatter them in Israel. (49:5-7) into a blessing.  (Poor Shimon, we forget he was the one held hostage by Joseph as ransom in case Jacob didn’t return with Benjamin. Imagine Shimon speaking to his brothers on the re-uniting and asking: “Did my father ask of me?” And getting the response – “Nah, he didn’t even mention you at all — all he cared about was the well-being of his baby (the then 30-year-old), Benjamin.”) Well, Shimon might have lost his personal identity, but he chose to identify himself with positive leadership, to put himself in company with the “good-guys” thereby gaining the best of blessings- by sheer nexus- if not directly. Merging into the tribe of Judah, Shimon’s descendants may have lost their individuality, but they did not lose their connection with God. Presumably, they are still within Klal Yisroel. We can also assume that the Shimonites would not have been accepted by the Judaeans if they were still prone to uncontrolled rage. (Who wants to live with an unpredictable anger-explosive type?).

Knowing our short-comings and being forced to face up to them along with being endowed with blessings to encourage our gifts is perhaps a far greater gift than knowing a future- one that can be changed by an act of grace or hubris – or be demoralized by knowledge of an evil decree that can be avoided by repentance.

About the Author
Grew up on Long Island, attended Cornell University (BS Hons.)and Hofstra ULaw School, MA in Occupational Health from NYU, Ph.D,. in Law and Science from Uof Haifa. Practiced trial law in New York City, Taught at NYU, University of Md Law School, Stony Brook School of Medicine. Currently Research Professor of Scientific Statecraft, Institute of World Politics, Washington, DC, Professor, International Program in Bioethics, University of Porto, Portugal. Editor Prof. Amnon Carmi's Casebook on Bioethics for Judges, Member of Advisory Board, UNESCO Committee on Bioethics. Currently residing in Netanya, Israel.
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