January 6, 2012

As he is about to die, Jacob calls his sons to his death bed.  His “comments” to them are a combination of blessing, criticism, and prediction.  The dying patriarch is bluntly honest in his evaluation.  He tells Reuben he is “unstable as water,” accuses Simeon and Levi of “lawlessness” and “fierce anger,” and assesses Issachar as a “strong-boned ass.”  He calls Dan a “serpent,” he tells Joseph that he is “a wild ass” and Benjamin that he is “a ravenous wolf.”  Why, we might ask, was Jacob so harshly critical?

Contemporary thinker and scholar, Rabbi Pinchas Peli believes that Jacob’s evaluation was meant to be helpful.  His honesty taught them important lessons about their strengths and weaknesses.  As their father, he could say things that on their face appear pernicious.  Peli argues that “our lives often become confused and entangled for lack of a precise definition of who and what we really are on.”  He claims that Jacob’s evaluation “was meant to help his children hone in their proper identity.  Criticism of them,” Peli comments, “would help them find their way towards the future, in which they were destined to assume their roles as heads of the tribes ofIsrael.”

Peli’s psychological approach has special appeal.  A parent’s role is to help children comprehend their strengths and weaknesses.  Constructive criticism may build character and it can deepen sensitivity to one’s self and to others and improve one’s social skills.  But parental criticism can also undermine confidence or mislead children about their real talents.  Perhaps, instead of being helpful, Jacob’s last words to his sons were detrimental.  How were they to feel about themselves when their father characterized them with such negative depictions?

Not all commentators agree that “improving character” was the reason for Jacob’s critical evaluation.  Don Isaac Abravanel, from 15th centuryPortugal, offers a different slant widely accepted by many Jewish thinkers.  Abravanel’s theory is when it came time for Jacob to die, he decided to pass on the leadership (or rule) of his family to the son most qualified.  He struggled with his decision and the realization the future of the Jewish people hinged on his choice.  He assessed carefully the strengths and weaknesses of each son.  When he reached his conclusion, he then gathered his sons and “told it like it is.”  Jacob wanted each of them to understand why they had been disqualified with specificity.

Whether or not Abravanel’s view of what motivated Jacob is correct, his discussion of what qualifies or disqualifies someone for leadership is salient.  The following summary sets out what Abravanel believes Jacob was saying about his sons and the relevant qualities he took into consideration when he assessed each of them:

  • Reuben was unstable as water.
  • Simeon and Levi used violence and force.
  • Zebululn was always looking for a profit.
  • Issachar used others to fight his battles.
  • Dan snipes at others behind their backs.
  • Gad weakly gives in to his opponents.
  • Asher and Naphtali serve others but do not command respect.
  • Joseph was hated and distrusted by his brothers.
  • Benjamin lacked balance of judgment and concern for others.
  • Judah, who was chosen for leadership, was trusted and accepted by his brothers.  He was brave and successful in battle.  He was steady, thoughtful, and dependable.  He was clear about his goals and determined to fulfill them.

Abravanel’s emphasis is upon the important qualities that define leadership.  Jacob, he argues did not speak to his sons in order to mar their feelings or create bitterness between them (and him).  His purpose was to clarify for them whyJudah, above them all, qualified as the leader of the tribe that would produce King David and future rulers ofIsrael.

Jacob’s last words to his sons were neither a blessing nor a promise for a peaceful future.  Instead, Jacob presented them with a blunt and cogent evaluation of their behavior and personalities.  Our interpreters believe that his purpose was to provide his sons with some critical insights into themselves and their motivations.  In doing so, Jacob also created valuable standards for defining the difference between superior and unacceptable leadership qualities.

As we move into the first Shabbat of the secular New Year, a year in which we will be having a Presidential election and at a time when the leadership in Israel is in peril over the issues with the Charedim, let us be reminded by Jacob of what leadership qualities we should seek for in our leaders in the Diaspora, Israel, and worldwide.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham