Blessings, Curses, and More
In this week’s parsha, after 17 years in Egypt, Yaakov knows his death is approaching and he summons his sons: “Gather, and I will tell you what will happen to you in the end of days” (Bereishit 49:1).
Typically, we refer to the ensuing verses as “Yaakov’s blessings” – often studied in comparison to the blessings Moshe offered before his death, as both Yaakov and Moshe address each of the sons/tribes individually. However, it is not so clear to even a casual reader that what Yaakov said to his sons constituted “blessings.” When it comes to Moshe, the Torah is very specific in introducing his speech: “This is the blessing which Moshe, man of God, blessed the children of Israel before he died” (Devarim 33:1) – but Yaakov’s statements to his sons are not introduced with such a definitive label, for good reason.
With Blessings Like These…
True, Yaakov starts on a positive note: “Reuven, my firstborn, my strength…!” But in the very next verse, Reuven is called unstable and reminded of his disgraceful behavior with regard to his father’s intimate life. Shimon and Levi are described as a violent pair with whom their father does not even wish to associate; he goes so far as to curse their anger and predict they will be scattered. Most of the sons do receive words of praise and blessings for the future; one notable example is Yehuda, who is told at length that his brothers will recognize him, his enemies will bow to him, the scepter will belong to him, etc. Yosef’s blessing actually contains the word “blessing,” more than once, and seems fairly effusively positive (whatever exactly it means) – but we already knew he was a favorite. Others seem a bit more mundane and/or brief, even negative, or too poetically obscure to characterize with ease (see: abundant exegetical comments on each, spanning the past thousands of years).
On the other hand, while Yaakov’s words are not introduced as blessings, they do seem to be summarized as such. Immediately after he addresses Binyamin, the Torah states:
All these were the tribes of Israel, twelve, and this is what their father spoke to them, and he blessed them; each according to his blessing, he blessed them. (Bereishit 49:28)
Three uses of the word “bless” in one sentence – seems pretty clear. But how are we to understand this characterization?
Perhaps simply by reading, and punctuating (outlining?), more carefully.
Where are the blessings?
Ibn Ezra comments on the initial verse:
“What will happen to you” – The prophet spoke of the future. And those who say these are blessings, because [of the verse at the end], err – for where are the blessings of Reuven and Shimon and Levi? [Rather,] “and this is what their father spoke to them” refers to what he said by way of prophecy, and afterwards he blessed them, and Scripture does not mention [what he said in] the blessings.
We may have assumed that verse 28 is a summary, but Ibn Ezra tells us there’s more to it: it is both a summary and new information. It notes that Yaakov said the above to his sons, to share the futures in store for them, and adds that he blessed them, individually, as well.
And you get a blessing! And you get a blessing!
Beyond the importance of taking care with syntax – as attentive readers, and also as writers aiming for clarity – I think there is more to glean from highlighting the distinction between Yaakov’s predictions and his blessings. For instance, consider the fact that both are presented: the truths, even the hard ones, of character and destiny – and also the giving of blessings, suited to each individual but not limited by character or destiny. Everyone does get a blessing, regardless of what else they need to hear.
And perhaps there is also significance in the fact that the Torah spells out the predictions but not the blessings. After all, these twelve are both the Tribes of Israel and Yaakov’s own sons. Blessing one’s child can be a very personal, loving moment, and while there are things about these twelve individuals – even some personal things – that we all need to hear, perhaps there were things Yaakov wanted to say to his children that are none of our business. All we need to know is that he blessed them, each of them.
And so should we, with our children, “each according to his blessing,” as we know and love them.