18. Tevet 5781
by Barbara Pfeffer Billauer JD MA PhD
In my “antique” machzer, gifted to me by my sainted Grandmother on my Bat Mitzva, there is an archaic prayer said to oneself during the five Kedushahs on Yom Kippur. One can ask for vast wealth, righteous children – or Divine Inspiration – a modern day variant of prophesy. I submit that prophesy, as a gift, is vastly overrated.
On his deathbed, Yaakov attempts to impart prophetic wisdom of his descendants’ future. He is precluded by the Almighty. at least according to Rashi (“[Yaakov] wanted to reveal the end [the future], and the Sh’china [the ability to prophesize] left him, and he began to say other things.” Instead, Yaakov either blesses them – or calls them out (Shimon and Levi). Did the Almighty “cheat” Yaakov’s children of the gift of knowing the future? Or is there a deeper message here?
Indeed, Yaakov’s words vis a vis Levi and Shimon can be viewed as a curse: Because of their uncontrollable anger which manifested in the genocide of the people of Shechem, Yaakov left Levi with these words ringing in his ears: “Let not my person be included in their council. Let not my being be counted in their assembly.”
Indeed, one might say that just the opposite occurred. The tribe of Levi were the ones davka selected to hosts the Countenance of the Holy One, to attend to His home on Earth.
I think the message of this Parsha gets lost in translation and parshanization: It is that we have the power to change our futures – by virtue of our actions. Knowing a possible future precludes us from actualizing our best gifts and transforming our weaknesses necessary to enable attainment of the highest heights. If we think we know what will happen, either we succumb to undeserved feelings of grandiousity, or we fall victim to the specter of the self-fulfilling prophecy, demoralized from reaching our true potential.
The tribe of Levi became the priests of the Lord. Aaron became the High Priest. But – Aharon conquered his anger- he heeded the message his grandfather (on his mother’s side) left him – he became the most loving of men. Would he have been entrusted as Spiritual Sovereign if he was Levi-like in uncontrolled anger? Moses was able to transmute his need for revenge into righteous anger on behalf of his people. Would he have been designated God’s liaison and shepherd of the Jewish people if he harbored even residual vengefulness? Recall, Moses was the author of our Yom Kippur prayer, composed on behalf of his people – precisely to remind God of the counter-productive attribute of vengeance. Only someone who had known, but truly conquered, his own urge toward rage and revenge could produce such words: “The LORD, the LORD, God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth” which we recite unto this very day.
There are numerous instances in the Tanach where prophecies, even those uttered by “true” prophets, did not come true – because of the actions of those targeted changed their fore-ordained future. None other than the prophet Isaiah prophesied that King Hezekiah would die:
In those days Hezekiah was sick unto death. And Isaiah the prophet the son of Amoz came to him, and said unto him: ‚Thus saith the LORD: Set thy house in order; for thou shalt die, and not live. ‚ 2 Kings:
But Hezekiah prayed and wept- and lived, rendering Isaiah’s prophecy null, void – and false.
And Jonah told the people of Ninevah their lives were about to be turned upside down. Rather than being destroyed – they chose to turn their own lives upside down, repented, and lived.
Huldah gave a positive prophesy that Josiah would die in his bed- (and by implication, not in battle). Relying on a sense of invincibility that he believed the prophecy conferred on him, Josiah made an insane and disastrous political decision to engage a powerful neighboring country in battle, creating an unneeded enemy – and died, as a result of battle, if not on the battlefield.
Had Yaakov given Levi the prophesy that his descendants would become the spiritual leaders – would they have done the work needed to rectify their personal short-comings and overcome their anger? It is hardly likely. They would have gloried in their state of development- as it was then- and not resolved to repent, as did Hezekiah, and change their ways as did the people of Ninevah. It is quite clear that the future which ultimately was afforded them would not have actualized- if they knew it in advance- and hence change.
Even Shimon figured out how to improve his station. (Poor Shimon, we forget he was the one held hostage by Joseph as ransom in case Jacob didn’t return with Benjamin. Imagine Shimon speaking to his brothers on the re-uniting and asking: “Did my father ask of me?” And getting the response – “Nah, he didn’t even mention you at all — all he cared about was the well-being of his baby (the then 30 year old), Benjamin.”) Well, Shimon might have lost his personal identity, but he chose to identify himself with positive leadership, to put himself in company with the “good-guys” thereby gaining the best of blessings- by sheer nexus- if not directly. Merging into the tribe of Judah, Shimon’s descendants may have lost their individuality, but they did not lose their connection with God. Presumably they are still within Klal Yisroel. We can also assume that the Shimonites would not have been accepted by the Judaeans if they were still prone to uncontrolled rage. (Who wants to live with an unpredictable anger-explosive type?).
Knowing our short-comings and being forced to face up to them along with being endowed with blessings to encourage our gifts is perhaps a far greater gift than knowing a future- that can be changed by an act of grace or hubris – or an evil decree avoided by repentance.