Parashas Vayechi 5780 The True Repentance

The Parasha starts by describing the last days of Yaakov. Thus, before departing this world, he wants to bless his children. The first two blessings are very intriguing. “Reuven, you are my first-born, my strength and my initial vigor, foremost in rank and foremost in power. Water-like impetuosity – you cannot be foremost, because you mounted your father’s bed; then you desecrated Him who ascended my couch.” “Shimon 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.” These are not blessings but harsh rebukes. Yaakov reproves Reuven’s trait of impetuosity and Shimon’s quick anger. Let’s remember that we’re dealing with individuals that deserved to become part of Hashem’s Spirit. They were then at an exalted level and unblemished. Wouldn’t be more appropriate to bless them so they can improve those character traits? Why The commentaries explain that as the eldest son, Reuven should have received the special privileges of the Kingship, Priesthood and the double portion of the first-born. However, because of his impulsive behavior Yaakov stripped him of all three privileges. Reuven’s severe punishment seems difficult to understand; The Talmud Sota 7b greatly praise Reuven for doing teshuva for his sin. Indeed, Rashi (37:29) in Parshas Vayeishev notes that Reuven was not present during the actual selling of Yosef because he was in isolation wearing sackcloth and fasting for disturbing his father’s bed – this was several years after the incident took place and Reuven was continually repenting for what he had done. Given Reuven’s sincere Teshuva why did Yaakov not accept that he regretted what he had done and that the effects of the sin were wiped away? It seems that the key to answering this question is a Rambam in the Laws of Repentance. After discussing in great depth how one must repent for his sins, the Rambam adds that there is another essential aspect of Teshuva. He writes: “And do not say that there is only Teshuva for sins that have an action such as immorality, stealing, and theft. Just as one must repent from these, so too he must search for
his bad character traits and repent from them; from anger, from hatred, from jealousy… And these sins are harder than those that have an action to them, because the person acts according to his nature.” [Hilchos Teshuva 7:3]. This Rambam is teaching us; that in addition to repenting for one’s Aveira, one must also repent and change the character trait that enabled the sin. Moreover, he points out that it is more difficult to repent from bad middos than bad actions. The Vilna Gaon explains that every sin comes about as a result of a bad character trait, thus when a person sins, he simultaneously displays his bad character trait. Accordingly, every sin requires two levels of teshuva – one for the action, and one for the midda that was at the root of the sin. It seems that Reuven had effectively repented for the maaseh aveiro (the action of the sin) however he was unable to completely erase the negative character trait that caused him to sin. This answer is supported by Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz’ explanation of Yaakov’s rebuke of Reuven. Based on Rashi’s commentary, he points out that Yaakov was specifically criticizing the trait of rashness that caused Reuven to disturb Yaakov’s bed rather than the sin itself. It was this rashness that rendered Reuven unfit for Kingship and Priesthood. Rav Shmuelevitz gives a further example of a great person repenting for his actual sin but not the midda embodied by the action: King Shaul who lost the Kingship because he failed to observe Hashem’s command to eradicate Amalek. The prophet Shmuel criticized Shaul for being influenced by the people’s entreaties to have mercy on Amalek – it showed that he possessed a misplaced humility which meant that he was not strong enough to follow his own convictions. However, after Shmuel’s lengthy rebuke of Shaul, the King did admit his mistake and repented. Why, then was he stripped of his Kingship? Rav Shmuelevitz explains that he only did teshuva for his actual sin, but he did not eradicate the midda of misplaced humility from his character. This trait prevented him from being an effective King. The examples of Reuven and Shaul are highly relevant to our lives. It is highly praiseworthy for a person to genuinely strive to repent from his aveiros, nonetheless if he does not locate the midda that lies at the source of these aveiros then he will be unable to prevent himself from stumbling in the future. The rebuke of Reuven teaches us further that failure to improve one’s traits has another very serious consequence for his spiritual success. Reuven was destined for greatness – he was supposed to provide Kingship and Priesthood in Klal Yisrael, however his trait of impetuosity prevented him from fulfilling his true
potential in these areas. We learn then, that negative middos do not only cause us to sin, but also prevent us from attaining greatness. Similarly, Yaakov rebuked Shimon and Levi for two earlier episodes in their lives; the destruction of Shechem, and their plot to harm Yosef. Rashi tells us that before those two rebukes, Yaakov mentions two future events involving their descendants; the sin of Zimri of the tribe of Shimon, and the dispute of Korach, a member of the Tribe of Levi. It is unclear how the two sets of incidents are connected. Because Shimon was going to have a less than perfect descendant, he had to pay now for some sin thas was not yet committed? The Duvna Maggid explains; the reason that Shimon and Levi gave to justify the destruction of Shechem was their disgust at Shechem’s immoral actions towards their sister Dina. Yet many years later Shimon ‘s descendants sinned in this very same area! The fact that they stumbled so badly in immorality indicates that their ancestor, Shimon must have had some minute flaw in the purity of his thoughts in that area. For had his intentions been completely dedicated to rectifying the stain of immorality caused by Shechem, then Yaakov would not have rebuked him so severely. The fact that he had a slight weakness in that area itself shows that his intentions in his violent act were not totally due to his being repulsed by immorality, rather less pure motives played a small role as well. And without this complete purity of thought, the act of killing out the men of Shechem reverted to be a blameworthy act.
From this portion of the Parasha we learn that aside from repenting for a sin, we must look deep inside ourselves and uproot the part of our “nature” that caused us to sin. Otherwise, it’s a revolving door, and the person will sin again. The true Teshuva is to change ourselves!

By Rabbi Fridmann * [email protected] * 305.985.3461

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