Parshat Vayehi: Directing our character – the route to success

This Shabbat, as we listen to the Torah portion, we will hear about the sons standing around Yaakov Avinu’s bed.

Torah scroll (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Torah scroll
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
This Shabbat, as we listen to the Torah portion, we will hear about the sons standing around Yaakov Avinu’s bed; we will listen to the blessings and the directives he gives his sons before his passing from the world.
Jacob dedicates a few short sentences to each son that describe his personality and that of the tribe he is about to establish in Am Yisrael. The 12 sons merit 12 blessings and messages; each one receiving the blessing and the message that suit him and his future.
Two of Jacob’s sons, Shimon and Levi, received harsh admonitions from Jacob. Jacob raises the incident we read about a few weeks ago, the story of their sister Dina, and claims that his sons behaved wrongly. This was after Jacob and his family arrived in the city of Shechem where Dina was caught and raped by Shechem, the son of the president of the land. Jacob’s sons heard about the horrific event, gathered to decide how to handle the situation, and then, Shimon and Levi took the initiative. Using a conniving scheme, they conquered the city, killed all the men within it, and brought their sister back home.
Jacob, who had already then expressed his displeasure over Shimon’s and Levi’s actions, found the hour when his sons were gathered to part from him before his death as the right time to admonish Shimon and Levi with harsh words for their behavior. This is what he said: “Simeon and Levi are brothers; stolen instruments are their weapons... Cursed be their wrath for it is mighty, and their anger because it is harsh. I will separate them throughout Jacob, and I will scatter them throughout Israel.” (Genesis 49:5-7) These harsh words of admonition and reproof were delivered by Jacob to Shimon and Levi during his last moments. But we must understand his words in a wider sense: First, why does this admonition fall under the category of “Jacob’s blessings of his sons”? Second, why did Jacob conclude his words saying “I will separate them throughout Jacob and I will scatter them throughout Israel”? How is this promise connected to Shimon’s and Levi’s characters? It seems that Jacob’s words contain significant insight. Jacob recognizes in Shimon’s and Levi’s characters a trait that could cause problems and difficulties in the future. Shimon and Levi will establish tribes and bequeath to them those same character traits of anger and revenge, and this is what Jacob wanted to prevent.
On the other hand, these traits are not entirely negative.
A nation sometimes has to fight enemies, and war cannot happen peacefully and calmly. There is a need for people who are suitable also for war. Shimon and Levi with their specific characteristics are neither negative nor unnecessary. How, therefore, is one supposed to deal with this paradox? Jacob found a solution: “I will separate them throughout Jacob and I will scatter them throughout Israel.” When Am Yisrael entered the Land of Israel, the Land was divided into Twelve Tribes, Jacob’s sons’ descendants. Each tribe received land suitable to its needs and roles. But from among the Twelve Tribes, there were two that received scattered parcels of land that were not concentrated in territorial contiguity as were the other tribes’. These were the tribes of Shimon and Levi. In his great wisdom, Jacob understood that there was no way to change their basic personalities, but there was a way to navigate their characters and learn how to use them in the right way at the right time. Jacob’s solution, scattering the tribes of Shimon and Levi so that they are not concentrated in one area, would minimize the effect of their dangerous traits but would still leave these two tribes able to use their special traits properly when needed.
Navigating and directing one’s character is indeed a blessing, and this is the reason that Jacob found it appropriate to say this during his last moments of life.
His words are not only admonition, but also a directive on the right way to find a solution.
This concept – directing one’s character rather than erasing it – is the only way for man to move forward.
This is particularly necessary when dealing with the education of children or students. Many mistakenly think that there is a way to change someone’s character – their own or their children’s. But this mistake becomes evident pretty quickly and the damage of trying to change someone’s character becomes evident quickly as well. However, as Yaakov Avinu teaches us, the right path is not changing our character or erasing it, but rather learning to direct it in the right direction. We must learn to use that same problematic character trait that we discover in ourselves or our children in the right manner that can ultimately lead us to success.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.