Saturday 18th December 2021 14th Tevet 5782
This will be the final bulletin of the year.
Genesis 47:28 - 50:26; 1 Kings 2:1-12; John 13:1-19
The parsha this Shabbat opens with Jacob on his deathbed 17 years after arriving in Egypt. Jacob blesses Joseph’s two sons, Manasseh (Menashe) and Ephraim (to this day it is a tradition to bless our sons every Shabbat evening with the blessing, “May the Almighty make you like Ephraim and Manasseh” because they grew up in the Diaspora amongst foreign influences and still remained devoted to the Torah. The Shabbat evening blessing for girls is “to be like Sarah, Rivka, Rachel, and Leah”). He then individually blesses each of his sons. The blessings are prophetic and give reproof, where necessary.
A large retinue from Pharaoh’s court accompanies the family to Hebron to bury Jacob in the Ma'arat Hamachpela, the burial cave purchased by Abraham. The Torah portion ends with the death of Joseph and his binding the Israelites to bring his remains with them for burial when they are redeemed from slavery and go to the land of Israel. Thus ends the book of Genesis!
I would like to discuss the essence of proper criticism, which is particularly relevant to this Shabbat’s Torah reading.
Reuven, you are my first born [...] unstable like water [...] you desecrated and ascended my bed. Shimon and Levi are brothers [...] in their rage they killed a man and uprooted an ox [...] (49:3-7).
This week's Torah portion contains our forefather Jacob’s final directives to his children, his last will and testament, as it were. Naturally, one would suppose that a final message to one’s child would be one of love and empowerment.
For the most part, Jacob’s individual message to each child was exactly that; describing that particular child’s strength and unique contribution to the family as a whole. Yet, curiously, Jacob also singles out a few of his children for fairly severe criticisms.
Even more troublesome, the criticisms that Jacob levels at his children are related to actions that took place many decades before – almost fifty years prior. If Jacob felt that they should have been criticized for their improper behavior, then why did he wait so long to rebuke them?
The great medieval commentator known as Rashi addresses this question. In his commentary on Deuteronomy 1:3, Rashi explains that Moses waited until the end of his life to admonish the Jewish nation for their many misdeeds in the desert. Rashi points out that Moses followed the example of (his great-great-grandfather) Jacob and waited to rebuke the Jewish people until right before he died.
Rashi goes on to explain that the reason that Jacob waited until the end of his life to criticize his children was because he was concerned that if he had criticized Reuven earlier then he would have driven him away, and that Reuven would consequently attach himself to Jacob’s wicked brother Eisav.
Yet, if that were true, what difference does it make when he criticizes him, either way he may end up driving him away?
Criticism is a very tricky concept. The word criticize is actually derived from the Greek word “kritikos,” which means to judge, and the kritikoi were the judges who gave verdicts. Thus, the very word itself implies a dispassionate view of the circumstances.
Most people do not understand this. They criticize actions of others that they find bothersome, not behavior that is detrimental to the perpetrator’s wellbeing. In other words, our criticism of others is usually about us, not them. A classic example of this is “shushing” others who are talking aloud in synagogue.
When criticizing one’s child there is yet another layer of complication. With our children we don’t merely criticize actions that we find annoying; we criticize actions that we feel reflect poorly on us or our family. This comes from the mistaken notion that our children are merely an appendage, an extension of ourselves.
One of the most complicated aspects of parent-child relationships is rooted in the decisions that a child makes for himself/herself regarding profession, spouse, clothing, appearance, etc.
To be sure, often our children make poor decisions, inevitably leading to mistakes. But as much as we would like to help them avoid what we feel are mistakes, we must internalize that their lives are their own and that, in fact, their decisions might actually be the right choice for them. (Of course, there are also some extreme situations in which we must step in to save them from making a critical error, but those should be rare.)
Likewise, our forefather Jacob recognized that criticizing one’s children can be fraught with peril. He was therefore extremely careful about how and when he levelled criticism at his children. To this end, he made two remarkable innovations:
First, he waited until the end of his life. At that point it was clear that the criticism wasn’t about Jacob’s own embarrassment stemming from their behavior. He didn’t have much longer to live and how his sons then chose to lead their lives would have no emotional effect on him. It was thus clear that the criticism was about them, not Jacob.
Second, he didn’t merely criticize their actions; rather, he pointed out character flaws that they could identify and work on to improve themselves. He told Reuven that his impulsive behavior led him to careless and unworthy acts, which ultimately made him undeserving of leadership.
He then told Shimon and Levi that their uncontrolled rage led them to make poor decisions, which could have very well brought peril upon the entire family. By criticizing in such a manner, he conveyed the message that he was simply trying to help his sons – not control them.
This is the key to effective criticism: We must convey that our criticism comes from a place of care and concern and not because we are bothered by what they did or because their actions reflect poorly on us.
We need to express that our criticism stems from our love for them and a true desire to see them get the most out of life.