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Parshas Vayechei

12/31/2017 03:15:06 PM


Sefer Bereishis concludes with Yaakov leaving distinct and personalized messages for each of the 12 tribes.  Just as Yaakov had specific words for each tribe that spoke to its individual makeup, Moshe Rabbeinu also blessed each tribe with individual focus prior to his death.  Much study has been done in comparing and contrasting Moshe's and Yaakov’s blessings, and the most conspicuous difference is the tone and body of their opening words to the first tribe, Reuven.  Yaakov implies that Reuven was a tribe of high potential that unfortunately did not reach fruition, as he critically chastises Reuven’s impetuosity and declares that it cost him leadership and priesthood.  When Moshe addresses Reuven, however, he speaks of only good wishes and prayers, and gives an overall comforting message that Reuven will move on from his mistakes.  Moreover, Moshe juxtaposes Yehuda’s blessings with Reuven’s to show that Reuven deserves tremendous credit for Yehuda’s rise to greatness, because it was Reuven’s strength of admitting his sin of moving his father’s bed that motivated Yehuda to later admit his own faults with Tamar.  The difference between Moshe's and Yaakov’s words is accentuated by realizing that they are both reflecting on the very same issue with Reuven, and yet Yaakov highlights the core issue behind Reuven’s mistakes and Moshe assures Reuven through his mistakes. 
The Kotzker Rebbe explains that the difference between Yaakov's and Moshe’s approaches to Reuven is the difference between a parent’s perspective and a teacher’s perspective.  Parents have total responsibility for their children, both for their virtues and vices, with the accountability of correcting mistakes being just as vital as the need for fostering strengths.  Despite the difficulties involved, parents need to be somewhat critical and fault-finding of their children in order to negate their natural love and bias that may cloud them from seeing any blemish in their “perfect” children.  In contrast, the educator’s unbiased angle to a child affords very different challenges and opportunities whose underlying theme is the need to recognize what is special about each student and to constantly praise his talents and abilities.  A child looks to a parent more in terms of support, safety, and love, but the pointed and articulated points of approbation must necessarily come from the objective angle of the pedagogues in a child’s life.  The teacher stands in a classroom filled with children who have all sorts of problems and issues that their parents hopefully deal with on a personal basis at home, but the teacher’s job is to see past that and find the particular good abilities in each student and constantly encourage those aspects in the child’s development. 
The Mishna in Avos teaches: Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai had five (pre-eminent) disciples, namely Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya, Rabbi Yose, Rabbi Shimon ben Netanel, and Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh. He used to recount their praise: Eliezer ben Hyrcanus:  a plastered well that never loses a drop. Yehoshua ben Chananya:  happy the one who gave him birth.  Yose the Priest:  a pious man.  Shimon ben Netanel:  a man who fears sin. Elazar ben Arakh: an ever-flowing spring.  Perhaps the point of the Mishna in relating the praise of R’ Yochanan Ben Zakkai is to show that it was his focused and individual praise of each of his students that caused him to be one of the greatest educators of Jewish History.  Additionally, instead of just saying that R’ Yochanan would say nice things about his students, the Mishna uses an unusual term Moneh - literally to “count” their praises.  To “count ” their praiseconnotes that it was a repeated and reinforced sense of praise to the extent that his great disciples walked away from his tutelage knowing precisely what their Rebbe thought capable and worthy of them.  Jewish tradition has always emphasized the value of “having a Rebbe” and while we usually relate to the value as simply having someone to whom we ask questions and seek advice.   Perhaps there is a deeper value as well.  Someone with a Rebbe has more than just support and loving guidance from home - he has a clear message of what his unique abilities are and where they are meant to take him in life. Indeed, it is the Rebbe’s pointed and repeated words of approbation that give one confidence to fulfill the missions of life.       
Wed, January 27 2021 14 Shevat 5781