By Batya Hefter
Ya’akov Avinu, on his deathbed, calls out to gather his children in order to bless them but
in truth, Ya’akov’s first three sons receive anything but blessings! Reuven loses his status as first born due to his impulsivity “Because you were unstable as water, you will no longer be first” (Bereishit 49:4), Shimon and Levi’s anger is cursed “Cursed be their rage, for it is fierce, and their fury, for it is cruel.” (Bereishit 49:7) It is only at the end of his blessings that it becomes clear to Ya’kov that his words to his children are in fact blessings.
Why is it that Ya’akov is unable to open with blessings and what happens to Ya’akov to make him change course midway and bestow blessings?
I wish to offer the following reading in order to answer this question.
Ya’akov Avinu, on his deathbed, calls out to gather his children in order to bless them; this is his moment of closure after a long and complicated life. Having been bestowed with the blessing of Jewish destiny, the “birkhat Avraham”, by Yitzchak (Bereishit 28:4), and later by God Himself, and having established the twelve tribes of Israel you might think that he would finally enjoy a sense of serenity regarding his life and confidence in the future. But as he approaches the fateful moment just prior to his death, he is seized by anxiety and uncertainty.
“And Ya’akov called (‘vayikra’) for his sons”. The midrash (Tanhuma Vayechi 10) reads the word ‘vayikra’ “calls” as a ‘calling out in anguish’ to God for help based on the verse in Tehilim 57:4 “I will cry to God most high: to God who performs all things for me.”
Commenting on this midrash the Mei HaShiloach says that Ya’akov is anxiety ridden because he desires to bless his sons, but he was uncertain whether he should, given their terrible behavior regarding the selling of Yosef into slavery. For this reason Ya’akov Avinu “cried out” ‘vayikra’ to God, turning his heart to God in surrender and asking that He place words in his mouth, for he himself is at a loss. Ya’akov beseeches God to help him complete his fateful task.
But when Ya’akov looked upon Yehuda, the one who was actually responsible for the sale of Yosef , his harsh words of rebuke leave him and he is aroused to bless; “Yehudah, your brothers shall submit to you…your father’s sons shall bow to you…The scepter will not depart from Yehuda…”. (Bereishit 49:8)
What it is about Yehuda that evokes this shift of temperament within Ya’akov? Two episodes will suffice to help us understand what about Yehuda transformed Ya’akov’s words of wrath to blessing.
The episode when Yehuda is confronted by Tamar’s charge, at that moment he chose the uncompromising righteous path, he cast aside all self- interest, acknowledged his sin, and endured humiliation in order to repent; hence his name Yehuda – the root of his name is lehodot, which means to acknowledge and take responsibility. When Yehuda unconditionally offers himself in place of Binyamin we see similar selfless behavior.
Forgiveness is stirred in Ya’akov’s heart when he looks upon and comprehends Yehuda who openly acknowledges his shortcomings, and transforms them into a virtue using them to serve God. It is not perfection but rather Yehuda’s exceptional capacity for empathy and compassion (selfless mesirut nefesh) which arouses Ya’akov’s compassion and transforms his words to his children from rebuke to blessing.
Most of us experience failure at some time in our lives. Yehudah is a model for us to have the courage to acknowledge our imperfections and turn them into instruments of avodat Hashem. This is the key to securing true blessing in our lives.