When the Time is Ripe: Rebuke & Blessing in Yaakov's Life

  • Harav Yehuda Amital


This shiur is dedicated in memory of Chaya Shira Aberman z”l.
May the Aberman/Citron family be comforted among the mourners of Tzion veYerushalayim.



Translated by Kaeren Fish



In Parashat Vayishlach, on his return journey to his father's house, our patriarch Ya'akov faces many challenges.  We have much to learn from the way Ya'akov deals with each situation, but his reaction in the episode concerning Dina (Bereishit 34) is very strange, on a number of levels.  The first peculiarity is his lack of involvement in the whole story: after all, he is the father of Shimon and Levi (and of Dina, too); why does he not intervene and prevent the wholesale slaughter of the men of the city of Shekhem, who are innocent?  Furthermore, after witnessing his sons' rampage, he reproaches them with the words (34:30): "You have sullied me, to make me look bad before the inhabitants of the land…"  Why does he respond only to the practical effect of their actions, rather than addressing the moral issue?  Why does Ya'akov postpone this rebuke until he is on his deathbed, at which point he finally declares, "Shimon and Levi are brothers; instruments of cruelty are their swords… for in their anger they killed a man, and willfully they lamed an ox" (49:5-6).  Why are these harsh words not uttered right away? 


With regard to the first question, we see that when the Torah introduces the brothers' sin, it says: "The sons of Ya'akov answered Shekhem and Chamor his father with guile, and they spoke" (34:13).  It seems that when Ya'akov sees that they are trying to trick Shekhem, he feels that he has no right to interfere; if he were to do so, his sons might respond that Ya'akov himself deceived his father; why should they not do the same?  (Yitzchak even uses the same term, "with guile," "be-mirma," in 27:35, when he discovers Ya'akov's subterfuge.)  For this reason, Ya'akov is unable even to attempt to dissuade the brothers from their scheme.


When they carry out their plan, Ya'akov is terrified, and we can understand what it is that he fears if we examine the account of his encounter with Esav.  Upon hearing that his brother is approaching with four hundred men, "Ya'akov was very afraid, and it distressed him" (32:8).  Rashi explains, based on the words of Rabbi Yehuda bar Ila'i in Bereishit Rabba 76:2, that he is "'afraid' lest he will be killed, 'distressed' lest he will kill others."  Despite God's promise to protect him (28:15), Ya'akov is scared that he may die because he has spent twenty years with Lavan, during which time he was unable to honor his father, while Esav has had this opportunity all along.  Perhaps now Esav's merits will be greater than his own, and consequently God will not save Ya'akov from Esav!


Likewise, in the case of Dina, Ya'akov is afraid of the historical consequences even more than the moral ramifications of what has happened.  He fears that in light of this act, God may reject him and his descendants; He may discontinue Ya'akov's line and not create Am Yisra'el, the Jewish nation, from his descendants!  For this reason he says, "You have sullied me" – in the eyes of God; they have added their sins to the calculation.  Only just before Ya'akov dies, when he knows that this mistake has not caused God to abandon him or the promises that He made to him – only then does he give expression to his moral outrage; only then is the time ripe.


            The question of timing has a further application in Parashat Vayishlach.  After the story of Dina, the Torah relates (35:6-10):


Ya'akov came to Luz — which is in the Land of Kena'an and known as Beit El — he and all the people that were with him.  There he built an altar, calling the place El Beit El, for there God had appeared to him when he fled before Esav his brother.  Devora, the nurse of Rivka, died, and she was buried below Beit El, under the oak (allon), and he named the place Alon Bakhut (Weeping Oak).

God appeared again to Ya'akov, when he came  from Paddan Aram, and He blessed him.  God said to him: "Your name, Ya'akov — you will no longer be called by the name Ya'akov; rather, Yisra'el will be your name." 



Why is Devora's death noted in between the building of the altar and God's revelation, with a full paragraph break separating them?  God's appearance and blessing are usually right next to the construction of an altar!  In Bereishit Rabba 81:5, Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachman teaches that this verse telling us about the death of Devora is actually hinting at the death of Rivka; Beit El is where Ya'akov found out about his mother's passing. 


If we examine God's blessing here, we see that it is now that Ya'akov's name is officially changed to Yisra'el.  Why is this necessary?  God knows that Ya'akov is afraid on account of his sins: the deception of his father, as well as his absence and failure to honor him for twenty-two years.  Ya'akov is afraid that God has abandoned him.  Therefore, God changes his name to Yisra'el, as if to tell him: I have changed your name, so now you may start afresh.  I do not hold you accountable for all of your previous sins. 


Until Rivka dies, however, God cannot tell Ya'akov that his past has been effectively erased, because part of that past is Rivka's role in the sin – and Ya'akov cannot erase his mother's participation in his life!  For this reason, it is only after Rivka's passing that God can tell Ya'akov to forget the past and to begin anew.  Hence, prior to God's blessing and the changing of Ya'akov's name to Yisra'el, the Torah notes the passing of Rivka and her nurse.  We see clearly that whether it is rebuke or blessing, the timing can often be as important as the message. 



(This sicha was delivered at Se'uda Shelishit, Shabbat Parashat Vayishlach 5762 [2001].)