02 Jan 2015

Vayhi 5775: Worthiness

“Let me never fall into the vulgar mistake of dreaming that I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

As we close the book of Bereshit this week, we come to the end of the life of Yaakob our forefather. From his deathbed, he blesses his twelve sons for the future. Most of his departing words to his children are encouraging remarks about their individual talents and capabilities. Curiously, though, Yaakob’s remarks to his sons Shimon and Levi are critical and cutting.

‘Shimon and Levi — brothers, their weapons are tools of lawlessness! To their council may my being never come, in their assembly may my person never unite! For in their anger they kill men, in their self-will they maim bulls. Cursed be their anger that it is so fierce! Their fury that it is so harsh! I will split them up in Yaakob, I will scatter them in Yisrael.’ (48:5-7)

 Yaakov took this solemn moment to admonish his sons for murdering the men of Shekhem over twenty years earlier[1], and warned that their raw passion and zeal should be checked and carefully examined.

It is challenging for most of us to hear criticism even when it is offered in a constructive and positive manner, which, one could argue, is how Yaakob meant it. When it is given as bluntly as Yaakob did here, however, it is all the more difficult. Shimon and Levi received the very same criticism from their father, but they each dealt with it in radically different ways. Levi hears it and grows, Shimon hears it and crumbles. By the end of the Torah, Levi fathers a tribe that becomes one of the most prominent and faithful tribes of Israel. The priestly family of Kohanim stems from his tribe and the members of Levi are honoured with the responsibility of managing the Bet Hamikdash (Holy Temple) and they hold a special, privileged relationship with G-d. Moshe has a glowing blessing for Levi by the book’s end:

To Levi he said: …Let them teach your laws to Yaakob, your instruction to Yisrael…

Bless, O G-d, his wherewithal, and the works of his hands, accept with favour…. (Deut., 32:8,10-11)

Shimon on the other hand, does not fare so well. Shimon fathers the poorest performing tribe in the nation. In numbers alone, over the forty years spent traveling the desert between leaving Egypt and entering Canaan, Shimon’s tribe lost 31,700 people — over 62% of its original population. (Next in line was the tribe of Ephraim with a distant 19% loss.) The most glaring indication of Shimon’s effacement is the lack of as much of a mention by Moshe at the end of the book. Shimon is the only tribe not to receive a blessing from Moshe before he dies. The contrast between Levi’s developments and Shimon’s regressions after their father’s admonition is staggering.

There are better and worse ways to criticise, but perhaps more important, there are better and worse ways to hear criticisms and act on them. Levi heard his father’s sharp, pointed words and took them to heart. He chose not to see the rebuke as a personal condemnation, but rather as a warning against falling into a pattern of inferior choices. He, therefore, committed to channeling his raw passion to uphold justice and fight for value in a way that preserved the vitality and honour of the nation. He grew to father a tribe of noblemen, educators and kohanim. Shimon heard his father’s words as a castigation against his self-worth rather than advice about future action. As a result, he lost a positive sense of self and, with it, hope for his future. Shimon retreated into the background and in the end, did not stand tall to be counted with a blessing.

We will all receive many types of reproach in our lives from many different people. Some will be more painful for us to hear than others. We must never allow it to affect the value of our existence and the beauty of our being, no matter how harsh the disapproval, and how extreme the failure. The preciousness of one’s life stands pristine, an “image of G-d”[2]. But it is not indestructible. When we become convinced that we, rather than our choices, are flawed, we begin to cut away at our souls and we cover up our presence in the world.  As with Shimon, its effects can extend far into the future. We create a diminished persona and the resulting, poor self-image affects our capacity to flourish and thrive. But when we hear criticism and separate the dignity of our being from the flaw of our actions, we open the door for astonishing possibilities for ourselves as well as our future generations.

[1] 33:25

[2] 1:27, 5:1