​Yaakov’s Deathbed Rebuke

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

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Dedicated by Aaron and Tzipora Ross and family
in memory of our grandparents
Shmuel Nachamu ben Shlomo Moshe HaKohen, Chaya bat Yitzchak Dovid, and Shimon ben Moshe,
whose yahrzeits are this week.

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The VBM and the Yeshiva wish a very warm mazal tov to

Rav Ezra and Dr. Etta Bick

on the marriage of their daughter Batsheva to Ro’i Stern. 

Yehi ratzon she-yizku livnot bayit ne’eman be-Yisrael!

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Summarized by Aryeh Dienstag

 

 

The central portion of our parasha deals with Yaakov’s blessings to his children, the most familiar of which are those to Yehuda and Yosef.  However, the first blessings, given to Reuven, Shimon and Levi, though critical of the sons, are also saturated with meaning.  Yaakov Avinu, before his death, gathers his children and reprimands them, offering reproof that difficult to read, and perhaps even cruel. 

 

Two points turn these blessings into especially harsh reproofs.  First, Yaakov had never before critiqued his sons for their actions.  These actions had been committed in the past, and only now are the sons receiving criticism for them.  Second, the reproof occurs right before his death, with the entire family standing together intimately with Yaakov. It is in this setting that Yaakov decides to reprove his sons Reuven, Shimon and Levi.  Yaakov, lying on his deathbed, takes his departure from his sons with these blessings. Are these truly the blessings that Yaakov planned to bestow upon his sons? 

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 Yaakov criticizes Reuven for the incident with Bilha, and Shimon and Levi for their actions at Shechem.  There are many similarities between the two events.  The story of Reuven appears in the second half of Parashat Vayishlach, where Yaakov’s parental authority begins to dissolve: “And it came to pass, while Yisrael dwelt in that land, that Reuven went and lay with Bilha his father's concubine” (Bereishit 35:22).  Chazal explain (Shabbat 55b) that Reuven sinned in mixing up the beds of his father, not that he actually lay with Bilha (as the literal text says).  On a personal level, this was damaging to Yaakov and impaired Yaakov’s trust in Reuven.  However, the harm existed not only on the personal level; it also was an ethical attack on the trait of truth that symbolizes Yaakov.  Furthermore, the injury occurred in the most personal area of family life.  Reuven interfered in Yaakov’s most intimate decisions – which wife he would lie with, and in which order.  With this action, Reuven damaged Yaakov’s standing as the father of the family and its leader. 

 

Shimon and Levi also damaged Yaakov’s authority.  They slew all the men of Shekhem on account of the crime committed against their sister Dina.  The Rishonim disagree in their evaluation of this incident.  The Rambam (Hilkhot Melakhim 9:14) explains that Shimon and Levi judged the residents of Shekhem in a field court and decided that the law demanded that they be killed.  However, the simple reading of our parasha is closer to the Ramban’s understanding (34:13) that Shimon and Levi acted unethically.  Yaakov was upset by this behavior, but at the time he condemned them only for their rashness in endangering the entire family by attacking the local inhabitants, who were numerically far superior.  To this, Shimon and Levi replied, “Should our sister be treated as a harlot?”  You, Yaakov, are frightened of the inhabitants of this land – but agree with us that our sister will then be like a harlot, and not just our sister but all the women in the land.  Our position, they say, is the moral one.  We are the idealists, we are the strong ones, and we will not allow such a moral travesty to happen to our sister; you, Yaakov Avinu, are obsequious. 

 

These two actions are injurious to Yaakov Avinu on a personal level, damaging family relations and his authority, and these actions are also damaging to those moral traits that Yaakov yearned to pass on to his sons. 

 

However, Yaakov was silent at the time.  Why?

 

If we return to the actions of Reuven, we see there are two extra words in the verse: “And Yisrael heard.”  The Rashbam (35:22) explains that these extra words explain why Yaakov reprimands Reuven in our parasha.  Yaakov heard about the actions of Reuven and specifically decided to be quiet.  Similarly, in the story of Shekhem Yaakov does not complain about the actions of Shimon and Levi per se; all that is mentioned is that they put Yaakov and the whole family in danger.  However, Yaakov doesn’t condemn the moral difficulty inherent in their action.

 

After so many years of silence, Yaakov decided to speak.  Yaakov Avinu now lay on his deathbed.  He knew that his sons were to become heads of the tribes; the tribes would be called by their names, and through them the land would be inherited.  Therefore, before his departure, he wanted to teach his sons.  The Sifrei in Devarim explains that Moshe learned from Yaakov to give reproof only before his death.  Yaakov rebuked Reuven only before his death because Yaakov feared that if he would rebuke Reuven at the time of the offense, Reuven would leave him and go to over to Esav’s side.

 

Yaakov Avinu now told Shimon and Levi, “With your anger you killed a man and with your will you killed an ox...” Yaakov is telling his sons that they killed in anger, and anger is a horribly dangerous thing.  Furthermore, the Gemara (Berakhot 33a) says that the God’s revenge on the wicked is a good thing – but who were Shimon and Levi to take revenge?  Shimon and Levi were upset over the moral injury done to their sister, and this was correct; however, to kill the entire city of Shekhem as retribution was immoral. 

 

In antiquity, it was normal to retaliate for any damage done to the honor of the family; in the ancient world, any small damage was returned with serious retribution.  However, in the modern world we don’t retaliate as such.  Perhaps this is due not so much to our greater self-control, as to the fact that we are more ambivalent about what happens around us. 

 

At this point, when Yaakov is on his deathbed, he would like to impart a number of lasting lessons to his children. He speaks both as a father to his children, in light of what he envisions will happen to his children in the future, and also as the progenitor of a nation, who wishes to convey a message to be passed on for generations. 

 

[This sicha was delivered on leil Shabbat Parashat Vayechi 5766 (2006).]