December 14, 2010
Curses and Blessings
Parashat Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26)
“Gather, assemble yourselves and let me tell you what will become of you in the end of days,” Jacob says to his sons. These are the closing moments of the book of Bereshit (Genesis), and of all the portions in Bereshit, none is more poetic and none more opaque than Vayechi.
“And Israel’s dying days came closer,” says the text, and Jacob, perhaps propelled by this awareness, seems to muster all his creative energies and pours forth a series of perplexing blessings and curses that haunt our collective imaginations until this very day. Perhaps Jacob recognizes that this is his last chance to breathe some fire into this world, to leave his mark; to make the ascending angels of his youth take notice one last time of the dying dreamer they had visited two lifetimes ago at the bottom of the ladder.
What does Jacob mean by his stream-of-consciousness outpouring of poetic prophecy? From whence the passion and the decisiveness that had eluded him his entire life? How much do Jacob’s words to his sons affect us today? What is the difference between a blessing and a curse?
One could spend years poring over Jacob’s “blessings.” I’d like to touch on two of them.
The first blessing is personal: It is the blessing received by my namesake. “Dan Yaddin Amo. …” (“And Dan shall judge his people. …”) There are names one receives at birth that serve as guides, as gentle guardians throughout one’s life; names like Noam, pleasantness, or Zohar, radiant brilliance. Dan’s name is more a burden than a guide, more a hurdle than a gift. The name literally means “judgmental,” and it is given as a command: Go out and judge; be true to your name.
Samson, the most famous Danite, would rather do anything but. He spends his entire career running away from his vocation. He becomes Nad, a wanderer, instead of Dan, a judge. His ending, while spectacular, is not a good one, and it teaches us that one can no more escape one’s essence than a nightingale can escape its sweet voice. I have struggled with my name and its dangerous attributes my entire life. I consider my name a great blessing precisely for the warning it carries with it: Judge, when and if you must, but do so with mercy and compassion. Be careful, be kind, be sweet.
The second blessing I’d like to visit is Levi’s. The power of the words Jacob visits upon Levi is stunning. The “blessing,” it would appear, is really a curse. Levi, along with his brother, Shimon, is berated for the murderous rampage the brothers embarked upon after the rape of their sister, Dina.
Jacob’s words are harsh and unforgiving. He appears to doom Levi to the life of an eternal outsider. He and his descendants are to be scattered among the children of Israel.
Later on, after the Exodus from Egypt, the Levites are chosen by God to be eternal servants in the house of the Lord. Where’s the curse? Why the Levites, of all tribes? The action God takes is not unlike the wise teacher who picks on the most troubled child in class to be the teacher’s aid; to sit closer to the teacher than any other child in class. It is neither a reward nor a punishment. It is the exact tikkun (repair) that child requires. The most violent of tribes is chosen for holy work precisely because it is the tribe that needs holiness more than any other. The Levites are still scattered, landless, outsiders, but now they are doing so for the sake of holiness. Perhaps, those who are in service of God, those whose lives are spent in religious leadership, to this very day, are doing so because they are the ones who are most in need of it.
“Gather, assemble yourselves and let me tell you what will become of you in the end of days,” Jacob says to his sons, and his words to them are the blueprint of the Jewish people’s destiny. They are the markers of our lives: personally, according to our Hebrew names; collectively, according to the tribes of our ancestors. Family history does matter. Names matter. Words matter. To us, as Jews, words are the DNA of our history, our culture, our souls. Jacob’s words are curses embedded in blessings and blessings embedded in curses, and whether they serve us for good or for bad, for holiness or profanity, is still, and always will be, entirely up to each one of us.
Chazak! Chazak! Venitchazek! Be strong! Be strong! And we shall be strengthened!
Danny Maseng is chazzan and music director at Temple Israel of Hollywood (tioh.org), a Reform congregation.