Vayechi – Controlling our emotions

Abbe Neumann Gave this Dvar Torah at KICKS on 12/21/2018

In this week’s parsha, we read about the final moments of Jacob’s life; his wishes, the blessings of his children, and the prophecy he foresees for his family. Now there’s a lot that can be said about this parsha but I would like to specifically focus on the blessings for his children, and even more so, the scolding towards Reuben, Simeon and Levi. Jacob says to Reuben:

Reuben, you are my first-born, My might and first fruit of my vigor, Exceeding in rank And exceeding in honor. Unstable as water, you shall excel no longer; For when you mounted your father’s bed, You brought disgrace—my couch he mounted!

He goes on to say to Simeon and Levi:

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. Cursed be their anger so fierce, And their wrath so relentless. I will divide them in Jacob, Scatter them in Israel.

These are quite harsh words to say to your children, especially so since they were his last words to them. But perhaps they show how much he loves his children, leaving them with an honest portrayal of themselves and their actions, so that they may see the error of their ways and start on a better path, knowing what will happen to them if they continue in their current ways.

I’m struck by how Jacob highlights the anger of his sons in his final words to them. I think it’s a good idea to explore just exactly the role that anger plays, not just in this parsha, but in the greater narrative and what the realities are of uncontrolled anger.

If we look back to parsha Vayishlach, at the story of Dinah, we see a story of two men, Simeon and Levi, with so much anger that an entire town is destroyed. In this story, it is not Jacob who answers Shechem’s request, rather it is Jacob’s sons who answer. They specifically say:

“We cannot do this thing, to give our sister to a man who is uncircumcised, for that is a disgrace among us. Only on this condition will we agree with you; that you will become like us in that every male among you is circumcised. Then we will give our daughters to you and take your daughters to ourselves; and we will dwell among you and become as one kindred.

We know this isn’t what happens though. We later read that Simeon and Levi wait until the third day, when all of the men are in pain from the circumcision that they requested, take up arms and slay all of the men. Now you can argue that this is a justifiable act of revenge for what happened to their sister Dinah but that would only be true if Shechem was the only target of this rage. Instead, an entire town suffered from the actions of a few, in which they had no say in.

We see this happen again, later, in Exodus with Pharaoh and the hardening of his heart. Again we read about another man with whom rage grows and intensifies, becoming all consuming and resulting in violence and destruction. The Egyptian people suffer because of the actions and decisions of an individual, who’s choices they have no say in. Some may ask how God could allow so many innocent people to suffer instead of just the key players in these stories? I think that we should look at it a different way though.

Often times, the people who suffer the most from rage, they are not the perpetrator nor the “enemy” but the people surrounding that suffer. The people you love the most, the people who you don’t even know, these are the people who we forget in fits of rage. When we let our anger take control, we lose ourselves and we destroy everything around us. This is the reality of uncontrolled emotions. We see it not just in the Bible but we see it now, in our homes, in our neighborhoods, in our countries and continents. Whether it be victims of domestic violence, refugees from war torn countries, victims of gun violence, or any number of tragedies that are occurring all over the world, at any given time, they are the ones who bear the heaviest consequence of uncontrolled emotions.

You cannot be a great leader if you are so blind with hatred and rage that you cannot see or care about anyone but yourself and your feelings. Anger is addictive and is often times confused with power. Power, I assure you, does not reside in anger but in the ability to see and hear all that is around you and to consider with neutral head what your realistic choices are and what the consequences will be of those decisions. Anger blinds you to reality and clouds your judgements. Impulsivity does not allow you to consider all avenues and what may be waiting at the end of the path. Anger limits you.

God gave us the gift of Shabbat. A period of 25 hours of separation, of rest, of food and friendship, another realm for us to reside in temporarily. So take this Shabbat to sit down, breathe deep, to leave the week behind and leave the week ahead in the future. To let yourself live in the moment and be mindful of the people around you, whether you know them or not. When it comes time for Havdalah and you enter back into the secular world, bring with it the sweetness of the besamim and consider the last 25 hours of freedom that you’ve been enjoying, and consider how to leave these toxic emotions from the previous week, in the past and bring the expansiveness of Shabbat into the rest of your week – how might we let that new awareness influence us, refusing to be limited by the anger and overwhelming emotions stirred within us during the week?  Controlling your emotions is hard, very hard. It is even harder to do this while maintaining our awareness of those who surround us every day. But we can use the gifts that God gave us, to better ourselves, to free ourselves because we have free will and we have the power to use it for good.

Shabbat shalom!

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