If I were to assign a title to the Torah portion this week – Veyechi (Genesis 47:28 – 50:26) - it might be “blessing as critiquing our children.” The seeds of the traditional Shabbat evening blessing said by parents to their sons derives from Jacob’s blessing of his grandsons, Ephraim and Menassah. Following this blessing, and just before his death, Jacob calls his 12 sons and addresses each of one of them in front of the rest.
These latter “blessings” are not quite “blessings.” They are more “critique” than “blessing.” They are blunt and mostly negative. For example, to Simeon and Levi, he says, “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.” To Reuben, Jacob says ”unstable as water, you shall excel no longer.”
I read and reread this parasha, and tried to imagine being Joseph – thinking about what was to become of each of my children. Had I failed them, or was their fate sealed and I had no impact on these outcomes. Was Dan destined to “be a serpent who bites the horse’s heels throwing their riders” no matter what I did? Did Jacob choose to make these statements on his deathbed, to teach them to be better people (as the contemporary commentator Pinchas Peli argues) or to make clear to them that only one (Judah) had the qualities of true leadership while the rest fell short. (as Abravanel believes).
I tried to imagine being one of those children. If I were Joseph or Judah, or Zebulun or Naphtali, I might be pleased with my evaluation. If I were Simeon, Levi, or Benjamin, would I be angry, would I have felt that “I always knew that’s what you thought of me”? Would I have felt misunderstood?
At the end, the personal connection that I made to the text was that of thinking about how the Jewish tradition talks about “critiquing.” These so-called blessings appear to be critiques. The traditional literature speaks about critique as“rebuke” (in Hebrew the word is tochecha). There is a significant literature in the Talmud about how and when to convey negative messages to others about their behavior.
We are expected to rebuke our neighbor when they do something improper. The rabbis believed that rebuke leads to peace. They understood that honest communication builds the trust necessary to sustain a peaceful society. Yet the Rabbis were also pragmatists and noted that we should not rebuke a scornful person for they are incapable of accepting it. Rabbi Tarfon wondered if anyone in his generation was able to accept rebuke and Rabbi Azariah questioned whether anyone would be capable of giving rebuke.
I think that the intricacies of these arguments – suggesting when, to whom, and how to rebuke - provide an important framework for us to share with our students. Knowing the protocols of critiquing means that we understand that our value is so great that we must always strive to improve and to grow. Careful critiquing also sends the message that not only is the world in need of repair (tikkun olam) but so too is each of us. Careful, thoughtful critiquing is a sign of caring and of blessing.