As the end of his life drew near, Jacob assembled his 12 sons to share his final thoughts with them. Although the Torah refers to these comments as blessings, they are mostly varying degrees of harsh criticism. Two brothers that were recipients of perhaps the most severe comments were Simon and Levi, who teamed up to kill the residents of Shechem to avenge their sister’s honor. After Jacob chastises them for their violent aggressiveness, and says he wants to have no part of their partnership, he gets more specific. When he finally mentions their killing the inhabitants of Shechem, he uses two different and seemingly repetitive phrases. “For in their anger they murdered men, and with their will they lamed an ox” (Bereishit 49:6). What is the meaning of the end of the verse?
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808 – 1888), the fierce defender of traditional Judaism in 19th-century Frankfurt, Germany, and the originator of the Torah Im Derech Eretz philosophy, explains this verse with a shockingly radical idea. He writes in his commentary to Bereishit that this part of the verse alludes to the way that Simon and Levi carried out their attack. “With their will” actually refers to their feigned benevolent attitude toward their victims and should be translated as “with their good, benevolent, and friendly attitude.” “Ox” refers to ox-like strength, and “they lamed an ox” means that they weakened the strength of the inhabitants of Shechem by persuading them to be circumcised. The verse is therefore saying that as reprehensible as their anger and the actions that followed were, the severity of their conduct was even more pronounced because of its unjustified deceptiveness. Instead of executing their attack directly and giving the intended victims a chance to defend themselves, they displayed a false smile in order to cunningly paralyze their strength. According to this explanation, Jacob’s criticism is two-fold. It appears that even if he would not have condemned the violence that his sons perpetrated but rather agreed with their attack on Shechem, he would have still held them accountable for the deceptiveness of the attack. According to Rabbi Hirsch, the ethics of Jacob and the ethics of the Torah apparently sometimes require transparency toward one’s enemy!
This idea can be extended to other, positive relationships. If Torah morality requires us to act straightforwardly toward an enemy, we certainly owe it to our friends to be open with them. It’s easier to avoid awkwardness and conflict if we don’t speak up and withhold our constructive criticism. But a true friend doesn’t hold back the good he could do by helping another with a course correction. In his book, “Jack Straight From the Gut,” celebrated former General Electric CEO Jack Welch lists countless examples of the crucial role his ability to criticize with candor played in his successful career and the success of the company which he led. By creating a corporate culture around open dialogue about weaknesses and failures, he was able to perfect the way GE did business in a way that competitors couldn’t easily mimic. It’s cruel to withhold constructive criticism from our friends rather than kind.
Jacob has set the ethical bar quite high. Even when we’re legitimately pulled into a conflict, we must not make a bad situation even worse. Dishonesty, whether it stems from a malicious intent or serves as a defense mechanism, can often compound the pain and hurt that we cause. In addition, with our friends, painful honesty is sometimes preferable to comfortable silence. Jacob’s emphasis, even on his very deathbed, on acting truthfully and honestly serves as a potent reminder of the importance of this trait in his legacy. JN
Rabbi Yisroel Isaacs is director of the Greater Phoenix Vaad Hakashruth, rabbi at Beth Joseph Congregation and director of the Jewish Enrichment Center.