Vayechi – Praised as a Wild Animal?
What does it mean that Jacob compared some of his sons to animals?
In this week’s Torah reading Jacob calls all his sons to his bedside to bless them before he dies. In the midst of the blessings, he refers to some of his children as animals. Judah is compared to a lion, Dan as a snake and Benjamin is like a wolf. Rabbi Avigdor Miller points out that this terminology would seem to be quite odd. Who appreciates being referred to as an animal? Comparing a person to a beast would ordinarily be perceived as an insult. What is the message Jacob was trying to relate by using this kind of terminology?
Interestingly enough, we find that the Mishna (Pirkei Avos 5:23) instructs one to act like a lion and a leopard! The Mishna says, “Yehudah the son of Teima says, ‘Be fierce like a leopard… and strong like a lion to do the will of your Father in Heaven.'” This teaching requires some explanation. The way of the Torah is of a pleasant nature, as the verse says (Proverbs 3:17), “Her ways are ways of pleasantness.” The Torah does not encourage violence. The Torah demands of one to be humble and act graciously towards others. How do the words of this Mishna comply with the spirit of the Torah which denounces vicious behavior?
We see from here, that while the Torah promotes gentle behavior, at the same time the Torah expects of a person to use powers of fierceness in his observance of its laws. Given, a person should treat others with graciousness and maintain an overall spirit of humbleness. But when it comes to combating evil influences and confronting negative inclinations, one should not act timidly. While in general, the Torah encourages our interactions with others to be with a kind demeanor, this is not the case when our values are threatened by corrupt influences. When it comes to standing up for our principles, we must do so with unwavering firmness. When people attempt to introduce ideas which go against our morals, it is not the time to be courteous and accepting. This is when we need to be fierce, in a manner that is metaphorically similar to character traits usually attributed to wild animals, and battle strongly in opposition to unethical ideas. Similarly, when we realize we have potential to grow and accomplish, it is not the time to be laid-back and easy-going. When it comes to doing good deeds, we need to don the cap of a warrior and aggressively combat our laziness. We also need to be brazen in disregarding those who scorn us for being loyal to the Torah and being careful in observing its principles.
Rabbi Elazar Menachem Man Shach was a sweet and caring person. When he was a young man, he was the one who went out of his way to welcome newcomers to the Yeshivah (school for Talmud study) and tend to their needs. During his senior years, he began getting heavily involved in leading the Torah community. As a result, at times, he had to speak out vociferously and publicly against movements that were threatening to compromise Torah principles. When he was once criticized for taking an aggressive stance, and accused of instigating friction, he replied as follows: “If strangers were to walk into your house and start carting away your possessions, would you sit back idly and keep quiet? Not at all! You would be up in arms, screaming and yelling violently as you would chase them out. Would anyone accuse you of being an instigator of strife? This group I spoke out against is threatening the spiritual purity of our community! These people are attempting to penetrate the security of our values. It is our obligation to stand up firmly against them with all our might.”
Rabbi Miller explains that this is what Jacob was referring to when comparing his children to wild beasts. He saw within them traits of fierceness for standing up firmly in preserving the honor of God and carrying out His will. Jacob was addressing the qualities with which they will accomplish great things.
Taking a stance is not always easy. We often feel uncomfortable doing so, and we are fearful of being perceived as fanatics. Laziness is also a prevailing force interfering with our desires to accomplish good. But God is not interested in weaklings. God demands of us to display strength and conviction in guarding His ideals. When we encounter a situation calling for action on our part in implementing Torah ideals, and feelings of meekness creep up inside us, we need to identify them as invading forces of the enemy and garner up strength against them. In these situations, we need to identify with the forceful traits of the lion and the leopard and gird our loins to uphold our values.
Parshas Vayechi 5780/2020
firstname.lastname@example.org by Rabbi Yitzchok Aryeh Strimber