Jacob, now nearing his death, gathers his sons around him to address them before he dies. This final testimony is often referred to as Birkat Yaakov (the Blessing of Jacov), in accordance with the verse: “All these are the tribes of Israel, and that is that their father spoke unto them and blessed them; every one according to his blessings he blessed them.” (Genesis 49:28)
Like any loving father, Jacob wanted to bring comfort and encouragement to them so that they could withstand the pressures of the days ahead.
But this characterization as “blessings” meets with problems in the words addressed to Reuben, Simeon and Levi. Reuben, his first-born, he described as “unstable water.” Simeon and Levi had become accustomed to using weapons of violence (a reference to the massacre of Shechem).
These sentiments do not sound like blessings. Jacob should have wished his children success for the future; he should have prayed for their health, that they should carry on the tradition he has transmitted to them. Yet we read only words of recrimination about the bad traits and wrongdoings of the tribal leaders.
Rashi interprets verse 28 to mean that, in addition to the rebuke given to three of the sons, Jacob blessed them, but these blessings were not recorded in the Torah.
Abraham Ibn Ezra goes further by stating: “They have erred-those who say they are blessings.” The words of Jacob, he adds, should be understood as prophetic statements, while verse 28 refers to unrecorded blessings.
I would like to suggest that when Jacob revealed to his sons their hidden strengths and weaknesses, he provided them with the greatest blessing of all — being told the truth about themselves. By reprimanding his sons — because of his genuine love for them —Jacob was directing them on a path toward success. He gave them the blessing that God should meet their requirements and desires so long as they corrected their faults.
To bless people may seem easy: we just wish them what we feel they need. But we are in fact warned that gifts from God must be deserved if they are to endure.
Now, after their father’s testimony, they were faced with the stark reality of their personalities. That truth, revealed to them by the beloved father from his deathbed, would surely remain with them as a guiding force for the rest of their lives.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinical Association.