Parshas Vayechi: The Mysterious Brachos Of Yaakov

In Parshas Vayechi the Torah relates the famous story of Yaakov on his deathbed, and his giving of brachos to all his children. The brachos, however, are most dubious. The fact that we consider them to be brachos at all is interesting, considering that many of them seem to be anything but.

Shimon & Levi

We begin our exploration of these “brachos” with Shimon and Levi:

Bereishis 49:5-7:

שִׁמְע֥וֹן וְלֵוִ֖י אַחִ֑ים כְּלֵ֥י חָמָ֖ס מְכֵרֹתֵיהֶֽם׃ בְּסֹדָם֙ אַל־תָּבֹ֣א נַפְשִׁ֔י בִּקְהָלָ֖ם אַל־תֵּחַ֣ד כְּבֹדִ֑י כִּ֤י בְאַפָּם֙ הָ֣רְגוּ אִ֔ישׁ וּבִרְצֹנָ֖ם עִקְּרוּ־שֽׁוֹר׃ אָר֤וּר אַפָּם֙ כִּ֣י עָ֔ז וְעֶבְרָתָ֖ם כִּ֣י קָשָׁ֑תָה אֲחַלְּקֵ֣ם בְּיַעֲקֹ֔ב וַאֲפִיצֵ֖ם בְּיִשְׂרָאֵֽל

Simeon and Levi are brethren; Weapons of violence their kinship. Let my soul not come into their council; Unto their assembly let my glory not be not united; For in their anger they slew men, And in their self-will they houghed oxen. Cursed be their anger, for it was fierce, And their wrath, for it was cruel; I will divide them in Jacob, And scatter them in Israel

This is not very good closure at all. Far from being a blessing, this appears to be more of a curse. (Many Rishonim suggest that, upon closer inspection, even the negative sounding brachos are, in fact, not quite as bad as one would think. Yaakov here, for instance, hates the sin, not the sinners. Others suggest that these sorts of negatively inclined brachos are actually the best variety, as they point out something meaningful that can be improved upon — the ultimate blessing — and are not just pandering to how great the recipient is.) However, while the bracha for Shimon and Levi does indeed include words like “cursed” it also begins with the words “Shimon and Levi, brothers…” On the one hand, this is the sort of thing that is so obvious that it is utterly unnecessary to stipulate. On the other hand, if one was to suggest that such a stipulation was necessary, Yaakov should have repeated this refrain again by all of the other brothers, but such is not the case. Thus, we must conclude that the inclusion of this point in the bracha means that Shimon and Levi were defined by their brotherhood. (Indeed, all the brachos seem too be some sort of expression of their recipients’ essences.)

More than being brothers to each other, though, Shimon and Levi were characterized by how they were brothers to Dina who, at that point, had just been raped and gruesomely avenged by Shimon and Levi. Thus, Yaakov, despite absolutely being angry with them, was defending Shimon and Levi in a way. He is describing a situation of great complexity and nuance. He disagrees with their actions of retaliation, no doubt, but he understood their perspectives of brotherhood and love. In short, things aren’t always black and white, and Yaakov layered such nuance into his blessing of Shimon and Levi.

Reuvein’s Blessing

We now turn our attention to the first blessing of the set, that of Reuvein. The words are difficult to translate, but we shall endeavor to do so nonetheless:

Bereishis 49:3-4:

רְאוּבֵן֙ בְּכֹ֣רִי אַ֔תָּה כֹּחִ֖י וְרֵאשִׁ֣ית אוֹנִ֑י יֶ֥תֶר שְׂאֵ֖ת וְיֶ֥תֶר עָֽז׃ פַּ֤חַז כַּמַּ֙יִם֙ אַל־תּוֹתַ֔ר כִּ֥י עָלִ֖יתָ מִשְׁכְּבֵ֣י אָבִ֑יךָ אָ֥ז חִלַּ֖לְתָּ יְצוּעִ֥י עָלָֽה

Reuvein, you are my firstborn. My strength and the first of my power. Exceedingly uplifted and you are exceedingly strong. You flow like water and have no abundance because you went up to the bed of your father and defiled his exalted bed.

Once more, this bracha is most peculiar. Of course, the second part of the blessing is a reference to the sin that Reuvein committed with Bilhah, by moving the bed from Bilhah's tent to Leah's after Rachel died. (From the text itself, it seems like he actually sleeps with Bilhah, although the Gemara indicates otherwise. Either way, it was not appropriate behavior.)

The bracha here as a whole can be divided into two sections. It seems to shift rapidly from the good, in the first section, to the bad, in the second section. It also shifts from the past to the present. The essence of the bracha is undoubtedly the second half, so what are we to make of the first part?

For one thing, Yaakov could have been heightening the intensity of the blessing in showing Reuvein his squandered potential: Reuvein could have been “abundance,” but is instead now nothing. A second possibility, mutually exclusive to the first, is that Yaakov wanted to include some good along with the bad. After all, if one is going to absolutely devastate someone else, best to include something positive along with the devastation as well so as to cushion the blow.

Dan & Reuvein

There is a third possible approach to Reuvein’s bracha, but before we address it, we must first contrast Dan’s bracha with Reuvein’s.

Bereishis 49:16-17:

דָּ֖ן יָדִ֣ין עַמּ֑וֹ כְּאַחַ֖ד שִׁבְטֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃ יְהִי־דָן֙ נָחָ֣שׁ עֲלֵי־דֶ֔רֶךְ שְׁפִיפֹ֖ן עֲלֵי־אֹ֑רַח הַנֹּשֵׁךְ֙ עִקְּבֵי־ס֔וּס וַיִּפֹּ֥ל רֹכְב֖וֹ אָחֽוֹר

Dan shall judge his people, As one of the tribes of Israel. Dan shall be a serpent in the way, A horned snake in the path, That biteth the horse’s heels, So that his rider falleth backward.

Dan’s blessing is objective and detached. Yaakov is in no way connected to or associated with the bracha. He is not mentioned nor even alluded to in the posuk. Dan is a uniter, a judge, a snake, but it has nothing to do with Yaakov.

Throughout all 27 posukim of brachos, there is but one possessive pronoun. In Yehudah’s bracha Yaakov uses the word "beni” (my son). Otherwise, Reuvein’s blessing aside, all other brachos are completely without mention of Yaakov.

“My Strength & First Power”

A critical part of Reuvein's personality was that he was the firstborn. Yaakov calls him “bechori", meaning “my firstborn”, and “my strength and my first power.” Rav Moshe Benovitz suggests that the connection between a firstborn and his or her parents is, in a way, different than the connection with all subsequent children. The firstborn is the child that makes his or her parents parents. Before other children are born, there is a time when it is just that single, firstborn child and his or her parents. There is no one else in the home, and a unique connection is then established.

In Yaakov’s bracha to Reuvein he is confessing to a crime. Rav Benzion Mutzafi points out that parents often put a certain subliminal, or maybe even far less covert, pressure on a firstborn. They see a firstborn child as an extension of themselves. Parents project hopes and dreams onto the firstborn, specifically. Rav Mutzafi makes the adamant point, however, that parents do not get to mold children. The more they try, the more things fail or go wrong. And it was this that Yaakov was guilty of.

The Third Approach

Bereishis 49:3-4:

רְאוּבֵן֙ בְּכֹ֣רִי אַ֔תָּה כֹּחִ֖י וְרֵאשִׁ֣ית אוֹנִ֑י יֶ֥תֶר שְׂאֵ֖ת וְיֶ֥תֶר עָֽז׃ פַּ֤חַז כַּמַּ֙יִם֙ אַל־תּוֹתַ֔ר כִּ֥י עָלִ֖יתָ מִשְׁכְּבֵ֣י אָבִ֑יךָ אָ֥ז חִלַּ֖לְתָּ יְצוּעִ֥י עָלָֽה

Reuvein, you are my firstborn. My strength and the first of my power. Exceedingly uplifted and you are exceedingly strong. You flow like water and have no abundance because you went up to the bed of your father and defiled his exalted bed.

Rav Benovitz continues that the connection between the two parts of Reuvein’s bracha was “identity leading to sin.” The two segments of the bracha were not opposites or contrasting, but deeply connected. In fact, they mirrored each other. The bond that Yaakov was trying to impose on Reuvein — “my firstborn and strength” — was too much. As soon as Reuvein became simply an extension of Yaakov things turned south. Reuvein needed to be his own person; instead, his identity fizzled out like water flowing from a bottle. He had potential, but it was lost because of his over-imposing father. Reuvein's sin was in him trying to be his father.

Then, after 27 posukim of very personal brachos from Yaakov to his children, by the time he gets to Binyamin, it's like there is almost no Yaakov left. The posuk simply says “their father”. Indeed, as is often the case, the youngest children have fare fewer details of their life controlled by their parents. The problems of Reuvein were not shared at all by his younger brothers.

When one reads the bracha with these ideas in mind, the true intention becomes beautifully apparent.

Menasheh & Ephraim

A few moments after Yaakov blesses Menasheh and Ephraim they are brought back to him once more and Yaakov asks “who are these?” (Bereishis 48:8). The possibility of Yaakov suddenly going senile aside, how could Yaakov not recognize the very grandchildren he had just blessed mere moments before?

Rashi suggests something most interesting:

Rashi on Bereishis 48:8:

וירא ישראל את בני יוסף בִּקֵּשׁ לְבָרֲכֵם, וְנִסְתַּלְּקָה שְׁכִינָה מִמֶּנּוּ, לְפִי שֶׁעָתִיד יָרָבְעָם וְאַחְאָב לָצֵאת מֵאֶפְרַיִם וְיֵהוּא וּבָנָיו מִמְּנַשֶּׁה: ויאמר מי אלה מֵהֵיכָן יָצְאוּ אֵלּוּ, שֶׁאֵינָן רְאוּיִן לִבְרָכָה:

He wished to bless them but the Divine Presence departed from him because he saw that from Ephraim would be born the wicked kings Jeroboam and Ahab, and from Manasseh Jehu and his sons (Tanchuma). Whence come these who are unfitted for blessing?

According to Rashi, Yaakov perceived the evil that would descend from Ephraim and Menasheh many years into the future and thought that he was mistaken about them — as if he wanted to retract his blessing.

The Ohr HaChaim (Commentary on Bereishis 48:8) explains this to be a critical error here on the part of Yaakov. At that moment he should not have been looking at their offspring, nor years into the future! Before him were simply Ephraim and Menasheh, his grandchildren, precisely as Yosef answers Yaakov in the following posuk:

Bereishis 48:9:

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יוֹסֵף֙ אֶל־אָבִ֔יו בָּנַ֣י הֵ֔ם אֲשֶׁר־נָֽתַן־לִ֥י אֱלֹהִ֖ים בָּזֶ֑ה וַיֹּאמַ֕ר קָֽחֶם־נָ֥א אֵלַ֖י וַאֲבָרֲכֵֽם

And Joseph said unto his father: ‘They are my sons, whom God hath given me here.’ And he said: ‘Bring them, I pray thee, unto me, and I will bless them.’

As Yaakov immediately then realized, what was needed at that moment was simply unconditional love — not the imposing of ideas not yet even in existence, nor the creation of hopes and dreams for them. He was to simply love the children Menasheh and Ephraim as they were then, and good things might just happen.

What beauty, nuance, and emotion we find now as we approach this story once more with these ideas in mind. Every word is rich with meaning and feeling as this most epic of dramas unfolds, and the book of Bereishis comes to a close.

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