Oh, the great wisdom of the patriarchs. How much we can learn from them. And, as often as not, it is in the oft overlooked things that we learn the most. Quietly, and without very much fuss, Yaakov/Yisrael taught his children lessons.
In 35:22, Reuben sleeps with his father's concubine. And what does Yaakov do? Nothing. For now. It is only in his dying testament in Vayechi (Gen 49:) that Reuben is repaid for his transgression, by the loss of his birthright. We have decades to go-the entire Joseph saga-before Reuben's chickens come home to roost.
Similarly, Simeon and Levi receive only a light chastisement from their father for what they did to Hamor, Shechem and the men of Shechem.
When we get to Vayechi, maybe I'll talk about the "getting even part." For now, I want to dwell on the "don't get mad part."
Yaakov was already fairly old by the time these events occurred. It is the cynicism of a weary life that shows in Yaakov's mild reactions to the rape of Dinah and Reuben sexual betrayal? Or is it wisdom? To be honest, I'm not sure. But, if you'll forgive me for being teleological, whether weariness or wisdom, the result is the same: Yaakov does not get outwardly angry. (I imagine that, even if we accept the "weary" theory, Yaakov was nevertheless quite angry inside for both incidents.
As I am learning in my own life, children can really wear us out, really try our patience. And Yaakov had a baker's dozen of them to deal with. That lends a lot of credence to the "weary" explanation.
The question is, what do we do when our children do things that make us angry? In this day and age, the thought of physical discipline is abhorrent to us. Yet I imagine that Yaakov would have been well within societal norms to physically punish even his grown up sons. Surely the actions of Reuben, Simeon and Levi deserved far more than a good throuncing. Nevertheless, a good throuncing might have been in order during those times. But Yaakov knows something that we would do well to remember: words have great power, depending how we use them. Later on, in Vayechi, he uses them to great effect, castigating Reuben, Simeon and Levi.
But here, in Vayishlach, how does Yaakov use the power of words? Quite wisely. In the case of Reuben, or Simeon and Levi, he could have unleashed a verbal barrage that could have cut through their psyches with abandon. But he does not. To Simeon and Levi he simply says (to paraphrase) "you have brought dishonor upon me." (A sidebar digression: I am reminded at this point to urge us all to listen for the hidden voice in all this-the voice of Dinah. Women's voice being sadly absent from Torah for the most part, we never get to hear of Dinah's pain. And even above the pain of her rape and humiliation is the pain of her father's seeming lack of concern. There is a hint that Yaakov may have said something, for in 34:5 it says that he kept silent until his sons returned from their work tending the cattle. But Torah does not tell us what, if anything, he said to his sons-or to Dinah. We only read that from thence on it is the sons who are doing the talking to Hamor-even though Hamor addresses himself to Yaakov! In any case, how devastating for Dinah that her father waits to even notify her brothers of the terrible deed, and then does no talking at all on her behalf or in her defense-no hint of outrage. And then, after the deeds of Simeon and Levi, to complain only that their act will cause Yaakov problems. Ouch. The scars Dinah must bear from all of this. There is one positive note in all this: the Torah makes it clear that the brothers were angry and did what they did because of what was done to Dinah. Given it's patriarchal tone, Torah could have easily said the brothers were angry for the dishonor that Dinah's rape brought upon them and their house. But it does not say that. Yaakov says that, but in regard to the actions of Simeon and Levi, not to what happened to Dinah. In all this I sense the hidden voice of Dinah and the women. Begging to be heard.)
Now, where was I before I started to digress? Oh yes. He does not verbally abuse Simeon and Levi. And to Reuben, he says nothing. Now surely, as weary as he was, there was anger inside. But he knew that he was so angry, that it was best to not express his anger lest he unleash a barrage of words upon his sons that would scar them for life. He knew that anything he said during such an attack would be wasted, and have no positive effect. So he didn't get mad. But he certainly got even, much later.
But it's not realistic anymore, we think. We have learned that keeping anger bottled up inside is unhealthy. And we know that sometimes a little hard discipline is what children really need. They need to know that what they have done wrong can and does make us angry. All this is true, as well I am learning in my own household.
But does it appear that Yaakov bottled it all up inside? No, there isn't. So he must have had some mechanism to deal with his internal anger. What was it? At first, I searched in vain throughout the story of Yaakov's life looking for the clue. But there it was staring at me right in the face in the midst of Vayishlach. Yaakov wrestles with Gd.
That is the secret. It is Gd who can help take our anger away.(Yes, I know, Yaakov wrestles with Gd before the Dinah and Reuben incidents-but I think the metaphor is still valid and we can likely assume that Yaakov continued to wrestle with Gd throughout his life.)
Simeon and Levi did not have their father's wisdom or maturity. When they got really angry, the only way they knew how to deal with it was violently. Perhaps if they had wrestled with Gd, they wouldn't have found themselves so merciless upon Hamor and Shechem.
My contention that one of the themes of Vayechi being not acting from our anger when it is really kindled strong is buoyed by the chosen alternate Haftarah for Vayishlach, from Hosea 11-12 which is substituted in some Jewish traditions for the more troubling and (in my humble opinion) far less related text of Obadiah. In Hosea 11:9 we read:
"I will not act on my wrath Will not turn to destroy Ephraim For I am Gd, not man, the Holy One in your midst..."
(The meaning of the last part of the verse "v'lo avo b'ir" being uncertain, I have omitted it. But the generally accepted meaning is "I will not come in wrath.")
Recognizing the harmful potential and massiveness of Gd's own power, Gd refrains from exercising Gd's fury, just as Yaakov did. (and like Yaakov, Gd is keen on later getting even!)
In Hosea and elsewhere among the prophets and Tanakh, we learn that sometimes anger needs to be expressed, discipline enforced, punishments meted out. But we also learn that there are times when our anger is so strong, that it is best not to say anything, or to act. They are lessons we can take to heart.
I think Yaakov was a good father. I think all the matriarchs and patriarchs were good parents (even the pre-Abrahamic ones.) Oh sure, they had their flaws, but who doesn't. But many of them learned this lesson: you can work and slave and be a great parent, do all that you can, all you are supposed to do, even all that Gd asks of you. You can teach them good and evil, impart the commandments and ethics to them. And guess what? They might still wind up doing horrible, awful things. When they are adults, and living apart from the household (a situation that obviously didn't occur as often in ancient times) their behaviors are their own issues to deal with. When they're young, and living at home, they must still be taught to deal with their own behaviors. But we, as parents, like Gd is to Israel as metaphor so often in the prophets, must learn when to discipline and when to channel our anger elsewhere than on to our children. Gd punished Gd's children often enough. Gd also knew when Gd's anger might lead to regrettable actions.
Whew. I mused on for a long time, it seems. Time to try and bring this to close. But how?
With the words of Hosea. For they are our children, after all:
"How can I give you up. O Ephraim? How surrender you, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah, Render you like Zeboiim? I have had a change of heart. All my tenderness is stirred."
This Shabbat, may we all have the compassion of Gd-for ourselves, our children, and each other.
© 1997, 2001 by Adrian A. Durlester
Email Me A Comment!