How often have we heard a child complain that something is not “fair” because he or she didn’t get what his or her sibling got? As if “sameness” equals fairness! True fairness demands we recognize the uniqueness of each individual and treat him accordingly. Yaakov expressed that understanding when he bestowed upon his sons his blessings. Each bracha was unique; each tailored for the son receiving it.
The great ba’al mussar and pedagogue Rav Shlomo Wolbe suggested that these blessings did not always seem to be blessings. One could argue that Reuven, Shimon and Levi received a chastisement rather than a bracha. Rav Wolbe was clear that they were, in fact, blessings. He taught that in blessing his sons, Jacob, “…revealed their bad characteristics to them so that they would know to steer clear of them, and this is considered a blessing. If someone is told about bad features he should avoid, it would put him on the right path for the rest of his life. After all, a person’s characteristics are his innermost self. If you know your shortcomings, then you know what to avoid. A person can go through his entire life without ever knowing his good and bad points. Yaakov gave his sons an immeasurable blessing by revealing to each one their characteristics, by telling each tribe what its essence, the source of its soul, is.”
In this lesson, Rav Wolbe touches on the powerful talent that wonderful parents and great teachers have – to be able to identify weakness without judgment, to praise those worthy of praise and to identify faults in those whose faults would hold them back.
If parents treat their children the same, they treat them without judgment and, consequently, without sound guidance. By treating them the same, he treats them unfairly. Rav Dr. Abraham J. Twerski tells us that Jacob truly understood his children. He instructed each to fulfill his unique potential, maximizing the particular talents, skills and character strengths with which he was created. “The true blessing is for a person to become everything he can be. This is an important teaching for parents. Sometimes parents set their minds on what they would like their child to be, not taking into consideration the child’s interests and abilities.”
This last point is key. We know in the frum world that so many parents have the same goals and same expectation for each and every one of their children – every boy must be a lamdan, a learner, a gaon! Everyone must go to the best yeshiva, learn the most… We do this without thought that it is not every child’s gift or destiny to be such a thing. Even among Yaakov’s sons only Yissachar was foreseen as the great scholar. The lesson? There’s nothing wrong or shameful in being a fine, moral, sensitive, observant plumber, or carpenter, or electrician, or doctor.
Intellectually we appreciate that everyone is different. But in our daily interactions we lump our children, our students, even entire communities together as if they are monolithic, a single entity. What’s more, we impose identical goals and aspirations upon each and every one. Such behavior is counterproductive and foolish. Yet, we pursue this sameness with daunting vigor. In some communities where appearance is strictly controlled, there seems to be the sense that if we control the “outside” we control the “inside.” These communities seek to create a sameness that renders each soul as indistinguishable from the next as possible. Same hat. Same clothes. Same curriculum. Same Jew. Same, same, same!
Pity the poor outcast in such a community.
Our modern, observant communities are graced with many blessings. Those blessings reside side by side with any number of painful, difficult challenges. Our communities see too many broken engagements, unhappy marriages and early divorces, not to mention OTD adolescents, people struggling with addictive behaviors, and so much more. We are often blind to the fact that there is a profound commonality in these disparate challenges – the desperation of individuals to be seen as, recognized for and dignified by their uniqueness and individuality, even as they are embraced as members of the community.
Of course, there are those who disagree – not with the problems but with their cause. They see the dangers of the “outside world” and deem even more sameness to be the urgent and necessary response. They see the mission of the Jewish community – individually and collectively – as one of goodness, learning and holiness in a world where there is perilously little, if any, of these qualities. In their view, a singular response is exactly what’s called for.
They are correct that the individual and collective mission of the Jew is of goodness, learning and holiness, but they draw the wrong lessons from this understanding. It is our shared mission that motivates Yaakov to bless his individual sons with unique blessings, knowing that by doing so it would create Jewish communities that would support and reinforce each of their individual members.
Yaakov’s sons and their tribes share a common destiny, a destiny that relies on each and every one of them. They need each other, not only because they share an historical destiny but also because realizing that destiny depends on their unique, individual traits. As Rav Soloveitchik explains, “Zebulun excelled in commerce. Yissachar was engaged in the study of Torah and had an analytical mind. Joseph had a magnetic personality. Benjamin, courage.” Yaakov’s prayer and aspirations were that each fulfill his own potential. His wisdom made clear that no two people are the same, and no two possess the same talents and abilities.
Yaakov knew that G-d’s promise would be fulfilled so long as individuals through the generations would form not a bland singularity but a brilliant mosaic in which each special, beautiful “tile” is part of a brilliant whole.
We must learn from Yaakov’s example and encourage our children and students to develop and pursue their unique strengths and gifts. Sadly, in too many of our communities, the mere idea that each student has a “real you” to be explored and realized is demeaned. As a consequence, rather than realizing their gifts, individuals are afraid to discover who G-d fully intends them to be.
Judaism has thrived because of Jews’ determination to ask hard questions – of themselves and of G-d. No one should ever be made to feel afraid to discover who they are, and what their gifts truly are. Faith in G-d presumes that all genuine gifts will benefit the Jewish community if they are allowed to be realized.
This is the true meaning of conferring blessings. We bless our children and students with the same love and commitment to G-d and His Torah, but not to be indistinguishable from one another. G-d has graced each of us with the crown of holiness; we must each pursue what that means in our lives.
Yaakov did not gather his sons and bless them all with a single, universal blessing. He didn’t simply tell them, Zeit ge’bentscht. In tailoring his blessings to the characteristic and ability of each, he taught us that to bless is to first and foremost recognize the uniqueness and gifts of the one (one!) being blessed, and then to support and guide the one being blessed to fulfill the potential of his or her uniqueness and gifts.
Imagine how powerful our communities would be if each parent and each teacher were to bless this way! If each were to follow the model of our Avos! Let us allow our young boys in particular to develop their natural gifts and talents. Art, music, writing, science, medicine. If we insist that they turn away from who they truly are, and the gifts G-d has blessed them with, they will turn away from us!
After Yaakov concluded his blessings, the Torah tells us, “…and this is what their father spoke to them…each according to his appropriate blessing” (49:28). Ramban notes that the future would prove the prophetic veracity of his blessings. Yet some were reprimanded. Reuven, for his impulsivity, Shimon and Levi for their violent responses.
What kind of blessings are these?
The words are not blessings but there is blessing in the words. Telling the child what not to be, so that he can become what he is meant to be… that’s a blessing too!
Let us bless our children and our students with the gift of themselves, nurtured by those who love them and care about them, so that they will become everything that they are capable of being, strengthening themselves, the community and the Jewish people.