Friday, January 6, 2012

Vayechi

There is a flash of anger that runs through Israel’s priestly class.  It begins with Jacob’s children and courses through the tribe of Levi.

In this week’s portion, Jacob gathers his children and grandchildren to his deathbed to offer final blessings.  “Simeon and Levi are a pair; Their weapons are tools of lawlessness.  Let not my person be included in their council, Let not my being be counted in their assembly.  For when angry they slay men, And when pleased they maim oxen. (Genesis 49:5-6)

Such are the words Jacob offers to his sons Simeon and Levi.  And it is the descendants of Levi who become the Levites and the priestly custodians of the ritual cult.  Weeks ago we read of Simeon and Levi’s rage when they killed Shechem and his followers.  (Genesis 34) The brothers were enraged that Shechem had raped their sister Dinah.  Jacob however continues to worry that their anger will prove to be their undoing and unravel his legacy.

In fact anger can be our undoing.

Even Moses stands guilty of this sin.  Because of his anger he dies with his dreams partly unfulfilled.  He is not allowed to venture into the Promised Land because he lashed out at the people he leads.  When the Israelites clamored for water he strikes a rock and screams at them.  (Numbers 20)

Moses is as well from the tribe of Levi.  Is anger his family’s destiny?

We also read of Phinehas who is so angered by his countrymen that when they begin to follow the practices of the Midianites by offering their sacrifices and “whoring after the Midianite women” that he, like his predecessors before him, kills an Israelite man and a Midianitie woman while they are lying in bed.  (Numbers 25) Is anger and impassioned vengeance the tribe of Levi’s M.O?  Israel’s priestly class appears framed by anger.

Then again perhaps these stories are meant as warnings.  Perhaps the Torah connects these episodes by a family lineage so as to fulfill the warnings of Jacob.  The Torah is a balm against the destiny of anger.   Examine its conclusion.  Its greatest hero dies at the edge of his dream, on the steppes of Mount Nebo, on the boundaries of the land of Israel.  He does not touch his life long quest because of anger.  Check your anger if you want to fulfill your dreams, the Torah suggests.

Still I wonder how much of our destinies are shaped by our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents?   How much of Moses and Phinehas are shaped by Simeon and Levi?  Is anger a matter of genetics?  Can we overcome our destiny?  There are times when each of us sees our parents and grandparents in our own actions.  I recognize my father’s rage in my own.  I see my grandfather in my angered silence.

Is our destiny written by our parents and grandparents?  Do Simeon and Levi forever shape their family’s destiny?  Do Jacob’s words seal the future of Israel’s priestly class?  The great Israeli author, A.B. Yehoshua suggests in his novel, Mr. Mani, that we cannot escape what is written for us.  Our lives are a struggle against what is already codified by our ancestors.  We try in vain to wrest new paths against our destinies.

I however continue to believe otherwise.  I see the Torah’s conclusion and Jacob’s words as a warning against the dangers of anger.  It can be our undoing.  The priestly class can become unraveled.  A flash of anger can destroy dreams.  Even when anger is justified, it never serves the future.  “Cursed be their anger so fierce, And their wrath so relentless.  I will divide them in Jacob, Scatter them in Israel.” (Genesis 49:7)

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