A ravenous wolf, a wild ass, unstable as water, capable of lawlessness, a toiling serf, a stranded serpent on the side of the road …. Jacob certainly doesn’t hold back in the descriptions he forwards of and directly to his children. He tells it like it is. “Blessings” they are called by the narrator of the text: Jacob blessed them, we are told, כברכתו אשר איש, each accordingly to his [own particular] blessing. Interestingly enough, Jacob doesn’t use the word blessing to describe his words of charge. The only time the word blessing crosses his lips during this detailed last testament to his sons is within his description of Joseph where, after calling him a wild ass, he reviews the blessings Joseph engenders by his being the “elect of his brothers.” Jacob isn’t consciously offering blessing to his sons, rather he is boldly and honestly stating his assessment of what will befall each due to their inherent nature and the circumstances they have each encountered thus far. According to Midrashic tradition, Jacob’s honesty was motivated by “pure love” for his children and their descendants.
I wonder how many of us have the capacity for such pure love - such honesty. Who among us is so willing to tell it like it is. It’s easier to remain cloaked in a veil of denial especially about those we love most. Perhaps that is why the biblical hand, the narrator of events, not only elavates Jacob’s words to the level of blessing, but uses the word “blessing” three times in his short summary of Jacob’s testament to his sons. The English offered as translation by the JPS editors aside, the Hebrew text is clear in its word choice:
וזאת אשר דבר להם אביהם ויברך אותם איש אשר כְּבִרְכָתוֹ בֵּרַךְ אותם
These are the words their father said to them, when he blessed them, each according to his [particular] blessing, he blessed them. (Gen. 49:28)
The biblical editor is clearly lifting Jacob’s words to the status of brachah, of blessing, reminding us that taking an honest assessment of ourselves and those we love is an important if not holy endeavor.
Being honest with ourselves is no easy task. The challenge of being so is again so blatantly apparent in the wake of horrific violence in our country. As I stately clearly on the eve of Rosh Hashanah: I believe it is our – all of our -- responsibility to make our world inhospitable to violence. It is far too easy to lay blame on others. To point fingers, for example, towards the gun lobby and NRA leaders such as Wayne LaPeirre who believe vigilant arming is the only answer to stemming violence or to failures in our health system that leave the mentally ill at best under, if not entirely untreated – and perhaps also to the teachers, counselors, and parents who don’t, won’t or simply can’t see the potential for horror standing before them. I wonder, would we? Pointing fingers doesn’t solve the problem of increasing gun violence in our country. Looking inward with an honest eye may.
Social critic and outspoken activist, Michael Moore demands just that. Highlighting the reality that though other countries have guns, though other countries’ children are exposed to the same violent movies and video games, generally speaking, citizens of other so-called modern, developed countries simply don’t kill each other at the rate we Americans do. There are many things for us to proud of as Americans: democracy, separation of church and state, an attempt at a balanced division of power within government. Our propensity towards violence is not one of them. Moore is a vocal proponent of stricter gun control laws, but more importantly – and where I suggest we listen to him – is that he demands that we simultaneously address this disturbing American propensity towards violence. He demands that we look inward and acknowledge our failure as a country in this regard.
Violence has become a major public health issue, and prevention must begin with the basic recognition that we all contribute to the problem by our refusal to take a good harsh look at our country’s history and its values. Moore notes our country’s use of violence, both past – from the start of country’s founding - and present, to achieve its goals and our refusal to let go of the death penalty as a vehicle of punishment as examples of our complicity in the violence that breeds here. Others remind us of our society’s failure to protect women from domestic violence, our inability to provide affordable and adequate education to all of our youth, and our willingness to let the sick and infirm suffer without access to healthcare. When did caring for our neighbor become such a partisan issue? We don’t become socialists simply because we want a non-violent and just world. I’d hope that’s how we become Americans.
Some say the tragedy in Newtown, CT has been the wake up call our country needed. This certainly wasn’t the Tekiah that I was referring to at the start of 5773when I spoke about waking up to the reality of gun violence. For sure, we need to be disturbed by the tragedy in Connecticut; we also need to be disturbed by the violence that takes place on a daily basis in this country, even on the streets of our own city. The Tekiah, the impulse to wake up and be honest with ourselves must come, however, not from continued tragedy but from within ourselves.
We actually have two models of legacy building presented before us this Shabbat. Jacob’s honest reflections in our Torah reading and David’s pointed message to Solomon presented in our Haftarah reading. David is clear – his son should exact military retribution for those who acted against David perpetuating the cycle of violence instead of stopping it. I think it is clear which serves as a better model for building a just and compassionate world.