Refining Our Nature to Become Great (Vayechi)
Parsha Vayechi: Bereshith/Genesis 47:28 - 50:26
We conclude the first book of the Torah, Sefer Bereshith (Genesis), with Parsha Vayechi. Bereshith began with the creation of the world and mankind. Elohim created man perfect, but man quickly fell from his perfection. Throughout the book, we see man fail again and again, but we also see man excel to great heights.
YAHUAH created man perfect to show us our potential and our capabilities. We see the heights we are capable of achieving spiritually and materially with examples like Abraham, Yitshaq, Ya’aqob, and Yoseph.
However, we also see what happens when we fail to live up to our potential, with examples like Qayin (Cain), Esau, the generation of the flood, and the tower of Babel.
Also in Bereshith, we see examples of those who sincerely try to do right but make mistakes, and they have to work to redeem themselves. In Parsha Vayechi, we see three of these examples in Reuben, Shim'on, and Levi.
Before Ya’aqob passes away, he calls his twelve sons to him to bless them, but he harshly rebukes three - Reuben, Shim'on, and Levi. It almost seems as if there was no blessing at all for them. But is that really the case?
If all twelve of the tribes were chosen at this point to be the special nation of Yisrael, would it really be possible to leave these three out of the blessings? Were they not blessed?
We know from future texts that they were blessed. Levi was even granted the priesthood. So, what could Ya’aqob’s words mean?
In a way, Ya’aqob’s rebukes were the blessing. Because of his words, Reuben, Shim'on, and Levi were able to recognize their mistakes and redeem themselves.
Ber/Gen. 49:3-4 “Re’ubĕn, you are my first-born, my power and the beginning of my strength, the excellency of exaltation and the excellency of power. Boiling like water, you do not excel, because you went up to your father’s bed, then you defiled it – he went up to my couch."
Reuben was the firstborn. He was supposed to receive the kingship, the priesthood, and the firstborn's double portion. Yet, he lost them all.
The kingship went to Yahudah, the priesthood to Levi, and the double portion to Yoseph. What happened?
He boiled like water (Ber/Gen. 49:4). In another translation, it says he had “water-like impetuosity.”
Reuben rushed into things. He quickly formed judgments and quickly acted on his own without thought of consequence. He was hasty. Impulsive.
He had the potential to be a leader. He showed his leadership qualities when he stopped his brothers from killing Yoseph (Ber. 37:21-22). He also had the potential to be a priest. He revealed his spiritual character when he tore his garments in repentance after finding out that Yoseph was sold (Ber. 37:29-30).
However, Reuben’s stumbling block was his impetuosity - acting without thinking. Ya’aqob rebuked him, not to be critical and judgmental of him, but to point out his weakness so he could change and better himself.
SHIM'ON & LEVI
Ber/Gen. 49:5-7 “Shimʽon and Lĕwi are brothers, their weapons are implements of violence. (6) Let my being not enter their council, let my esteem not be united to their assembly; because they slew a man in their displeasure, and they lamed an ox in pleasure. (7) Cursed be their displeasure for it is fierce, and their wrath for it is cruel! I divide them in Yaʽaqob and scatter them in Yisra’ĕl."
Ya’aqob did the same with Shim'on and Levi. As the next oldest after Reuben, one of them should have inherited the kingship after Reuben was rejected. Yet, they too lost this honor.
When Shekem violated their sister Dinah, they became enraged, and in their wrath, they killed all the males of the city (Ber. 34).
Shim'on and Levi’s downfall was their anger. “Cursed be their displeasure for it is fierce, and their wrath for it is cruel!” (Ber. 49:7)
Their uncontrollable anger consumed them and turned into wrath and rage, inflicting harm upon others.
Ya’aqob saw this in them and rebuked them. He did this not to be critical, but to point out their weakness so they could change and improve themselves.
STRENGTHS & WEAKNESSES
In the blessings to his other sons, Ya’aqob brought out their positive qualities and strengths. Yahudah was a leader, Dan a righteous judge, Gad a strong soldier, etc.
When they acknowledged and used their strengths, they would be a strong pillar in the nation of Yisrael. They would make positive contributions to their nation and to the world.
This message is clear. YAHUAH blesses us with strengths and positive characteristics, and we are obligated to use them for the betterment of ourselves, our families, our community, and for the world.
Each of us has a unique strength and quality, and each one of us is needed to do our part in making the world better.
However, we must not forget Ya’aqob’s words to his first three sons. Their inclusion in the Torah gives us an equally important lesson.
We have strengths, but we also have weaknesses. We’re human. We’re made of flesh. We all have bad or negative characteristics. Some we were born with, and some we developed.
Ya’aqob is telling us that we have to acknowledge these weaknesses just as much as we acknowledge our strengths. If we don’t acknowledge the negative characteristics and do something about them, then they could get the better of us -- and it could cost us dearly. We could lose out spiritually and materially.
Our job is to work to improve ourselves.
THE NEW LEVI
Levi heeded his father’s rebuke. He worked on his weaknesses and improved himself. He took his fiery temperament, and instead of allowing it to erupt in anger and wrath, he channeled it into dedicated service of YAH. He used his passion to ignite the souls of his brothers, to inspire them to righteousness rather than violence.
He directed his drive for righteousness into implementing the Laws of Torah, distinguishing the right from the wrong, the clean from the unclean, and the set-apart from the profane (Wayy. 10:10).
Levi took his “raw” nature and molded himself into a vessel for YAHUAH - bolstering his strengths, correcting his faults, strengthening his weaknesses, and discarding his undesirable traits. He refined himself.
In his “raw” state, Levi caused harm. However, in his refined state, he became YAH’s servant.
REFINING OUR WEAKNESSES
Some bad traits must be uprooted and removed altogether. Others need to be refined. We see the example of Levi refining his natural temperament to be used for good.
YAHUAH created Levi, and YAHUAH created him with a certain temperament. That temperament was necessary for him to fulfill the role YAH had for his tribe. However, it needed to be refined or polished.
After the golden calf incident, the tribe of Levi was called upon to kill those who had instigated the sin (Shem/Ex. 32:26-29). The Levites were able to do this because of the righteous indignation that was part of their natural temperament. When refined, Levi did the will of YAHUAH rather than cause meaningless violence.
He was thus awarded the priesthood. From an “implement of violence” to the seat of the high priest. Because he worked on himself, Levi lived up to his potential and became a vital part of the nation of Yisrael.
Another example is Yoseph. In Ya’aqob’s blessing to Yoseph, he said that Yoseph endured troubles and attacks against him.
The rabbis teach that Yoseph actually had a stubborn nature, but he refined himself until his stubbornness became a determination to endure and persevere. Yoseph’s “stubbornness” wouldn’t allow him to give up on Elohim. He endured all his sufferings and hardships until YAHUAH redeemed him.
Ber/Gen. 49:24 “But his bow remained in strength, and the arms of his hands were made strong by the hands of the Mighty One of Yaʽaqob"
The “stubborn” nature YAHUAH gave him was refined to be his saving strength.
YAHUAH is our Creator. If we have a certain nature deep within our being, one that we seemed to be born with, then YAHUAH placed it there. But it is up to us to mold and refine that nature.
I once told the father of a stubborn 3-year-old that if he did his job well as a parent, then his head-strong little girl would one day become a determined young woman who could accomplish anything she set her mind to. It was his job as a parent to help her begin the process of refining herself.
Some bad traits must be uprooted and removed altogether. Others need to be refined. We work to remove the hard, crass, dirty, and destructive layers to reveal the gem within.
DOING THE WORK
The work of self-improvement and character refinement is an important part of being a Yahudi/te (a worshiper of YAH).
Sometimes, we have the tendency to focus mainly on improving our spiritual self with learning and prayer, which of course, is of the utmost importance. However, we can’t leave the weaker side of ourselves unchanged. Just as we work on our spirit, so too we must work on our character.
We can’t simply say, “That’s the way I am.”
It may be how I am, but it’s not how I’m supposed to remain.
Who I am now and who I’m supposed to be are two different things. We’re supposed to work to improve ourselves, to correct and refine our nature.
If we don’t correct ourselves, we will only go so far spiritually. Our weaknesses will hold us back.
So, ask yourself:
What are my weaknesses?
What is my downfall?
What holds me back?
What will my Father rebuke me for?
Take the answers to these questions and begin the work. Remove what needs to be removed, and refine what needs to be refined. It may take time, but it’s necessary. And the reward is great.
Sefer Bereshith shows us our choice: We can allow our weaknesses to bring us down lower and lower, or we can work to improve ourselves and reach great heights.
Chazak! Chazak! V’nitchazek!
Be strong! Be strong! May we be strengthened!