As Yaakov’s life draws to a close, he calls his children to his bedside and blesses them. In twenty-six verses of beautiful poetry he addresses each son in turn, tailoring his words to what is most appropriate for that particular son. These poetic utterances are not initially described as blessings but as a form of prophecy: “Gather and I will tell you what will occur to you in the End of Days” (Breishit, 49:1). Nevertheless, their content makes it clear that they are indeed blessings, and the Torah describes them as such at the conclusion of this section: “and this is what their father spoke to them, and he blessed them, each person according to his blessing did he bless them” (Breishit, 49:28).
So each son was blessed. But is this really true? It seems that at least two sons – Shimon and Levi – were not blessed but cursed:
“Cursed be their wrath, so fierce, and their fury, so cruel! I will scatter them in Jacob and disperse them in Israel” (Breishit, 49:7).
What type of blessing is this? Can it be, somehow, that this curse is actually a blessing?
Yes, it can. When someone points out our faults or even calls us to task for our sins and misdeeds, this can indeed feel like a curse. But if this is done by someone who loves us, if that someone is doing it for us and not for them, then it can truly be a blessing. This is indeed what true parenting is about. Loving our children means caring about their moral development, about what type of people they will grow up to be. If we yell at them because they have made a mess before a big dinner party, we are venting our own anger; we are not – in this yelling – parenting them. But if our response is tailored to their concerns and not ours, and if we call them to task so that they can learn moral and social responsibility, then we have done true parenting, and they will be all the better for it.
The first step is to make sure that this is coming from a place of love and out of concern for the one who has to hear this criticism. Let us remember that Yaakov’s initial response to Shimon and Levi’s destruction of Shechem was an angry outburst, an outburst which focused not on their moral education or on even the immorality of their acts but on how their actions would endanger him: “And Yaakov said to Shimon and Levi, ‘You have accursed me, to make me odious among those who dwell in the land… and they will gather against me and smite me, and I and my household will be annihilated'” (34:30). Notice the recurrence of the personal pronoun: me, me, I, my. It is all about him, so his yelling falls on deaf ears: “And they said, will our sister be treated like a prostitute?!” (34:31). Now, however, it is the end of his life. It is no longer about him; his life is over. It is about them, what they need to hear so that they can improve, so that they can be better.
But coming from a place of love and caring is not enough. Criticism can be devastating regardless. So what needs to be paired with caring is faith: faith in the other person, in his or her innate goodness, in their ability to divorce themselves from these actions: “Even at the moment of rebuke, he did not curse them, but only their wrath” (Rashi, 49:7, quoting Breishit Rabbah). “You are better than that,” is the message. “This isn’t you. You can rise above this.” When our children misbehave, we know not to say, “Bad boy!” or “Bad girl!” We know, rather, to say, “That was a bad thing that you did.” (Whether we always remember this at a moment of anger is a different question.)
A true friend can tell you things you need to hear, things that no one else will tell you, and he can tell you in a way that you can hear it. When the person on the receiving end knows that the words are coming from a place of love, and when she feels that others believe in her, she will be able to believe in herself and hear what is being said.
But it is not just how the message is delivered; it is also how it is heard. And we are not in control of how someone will hear what we have said. Some people have the ability to hear the one negative, slightly critical comment in an effusion of praise and to zero in on that, to find the one thing they can feel bad about and to beat themselves up over it. Indeed, some studies have shown that it takes ten positive comments to counter the effect of one negative one. But a person does himself no service by just focusing on the negative. The result will be feeling bad, feeling guilty, with no productive outcome. And it can lead to reinforcing the negative, to defining oneself by past behavior: “I’m no good. I’m always doing the wrong thing. I’m a bad person.” This type of thinking can even serve as an excuse for future misconduct: “What else could be expected of me? This is who I am.”
A person who instead believes that he or she was created in God’s image, in our ultimate freedom as human beings, a person who believes in bechira chafshit, will know that his or her past behavior need not define who he or she is and can be.
Now, this is not to deny that people are made differently. People have different character traits and different personalities. But biology is not destiny, and character, even if it cannot easily be changed, can surely be redirected. As the Gemara in Niddah (16b) states, it may be determined at the moment of conception – genetically, we would say – whether a person will be smart or stupid, strong or weak, but what is not determined is whether the person will be good or bad. Even destructive character traits can be directed towards a constructive purpose. A person with bloodlust, says Rav Ashi in Shabbat (157a), may turn out to be a murderer, but he may also turn out to be a shochet or a surgeon.
How we hear loving critique, and what we do with it, is in our hands. The same character trait that was the source of a curse can now become the source of a blessing. It is all about what message we choose to hear. So it was with Shimon and Levi. One of them heard only the curse and defined himself by it. And one extrapolated the blessing and lived up to it and its promise.
Shimon heard the curse. His destructive anger never changed, was never redirected, and so the words of Yaakov became a curse. The tribe of Shimon was scattered in Israel, and they had no inheritance of their own when Joshua divided the land.
And Levi heard the blessing. Levi – his descendants, the tribe of Levi – took their anger, their passion, and directed it to the service of God, to defending God’s honor, to zealously protecting the Sanctuary. They brought their zeal to the service of God. They were scattered in Israel, but this was so that they could serve the people, teach Torah, and give religious guidance to one and all. And the cities in which they dwelt were cities of refuge, one of which was Shechem itself. These cities provided safety and protection to those who had unintentionally killed someone so that they would not be murdered in the violent bloodlust of others seeking to avenge the death of a brother or sister, protecting them so that the sin of Shechem would not be repeated. Truly, their curse became their blessing, a blessing that they shared with the entire Jewish people.
Did Yaakov bless Shimon and Levi, or did he curse them? His words, delivered with love, with concern for their betterment, with belief in their potential to change and rise above, had the potential to truly be words of blessing. Yaakov did his part; the rest was up to his sons. If his words were heard as a curse, then they would be a curse. But if they were heard as they were delivered, if they were heard as a blessing, then they became a blessing indeed. Let us always have the ability to deliver our words as blessings and to hear the words of others – even the critical words – as blessings as well.
Reprinted from 2012