Achieving the Right Balance
The book of Genesis culminates with the eternal blessings that Jacob bestowed on his sons. Each son received a unique blessing which catered exactly to his talents and needs. At the end of the blessings the Torah states that Jacob blessed them again. What was this new blessing?
Rashi explains that with this final blessing, Jacob included every son in each other's blessing. Therefore all the brothers would, for example, would be blessed with Judah's blessing of the strength of a lion.(1) Rashi's explanation, however, raises a new problem: If every brother was blessed with the other brothers' personal blessing, then what was the significance of blessing them individually at all?
The Maharal answers that Jacob's final blessing did not make them equal in every area; rather each one was strongest in the area that he was blessed in. The additional final blessing gave all of them an aspect of each other's blessings. Judah, for example, was blessed with a higher level of strength than his brothers; however this final blessing gave each of other brothers a certain element of that trait.(2)
Why did each brother need a certain degree of each blessing? Rabbi Yitzchak Berkovits explains that a person can specialize in a certain area; however, he must also have some propensity in the other areas. This concept applies in numerous areas, including one's role in life, character traits, and learning Torah. With regard to one's role in life there are many roles that each of us must play. We must be fathers or mothers, husbands or wives, friends, children, teachers, colleagues and so on. A person may wish to pay particular attention on one area such as parenting - this is a great thing - but he must not overly focus on that area to the exclusion of everything else. We need to know how to make a balance between working, spending time with our wives and children, learning Torah, doing kindness and all the other functions that an observant Jew must fulfill. A good indication that one is over-emphasizing one area is if the other areas are suffering. So if a person is spending plenty of time with his family but isn't able to learn any Torah, something is amiss.
This necessity for balance is particularly important in the sphere of character traits. For example, many people have a natural tendency towards being kind or being strict and we tend to focus the majority of our time and energy on that trait. So a naturally kind person is more likely to emphasize helping others over working on self-discipline. It is natural and correct for a person to focus on his strengths; however, it seems that a great deal of one's reward for growth comes in areas that do not come naturally to him. Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky notes that the Forefathers faced their greatest tests in areas that were the opposite of their natural character traits. Abraham, the consummate giver, faced the incredible test of the Binding of Isaac (the Akeida), where he had to overcome his great sense of mercy and be prepared to kill his son. Jacob's greatest challenges required him to outsmart evil people using the tool of falsehood, the antithesis of his trait of honesty.(3)
The necessity of developing a balance in one's life is very apparent in the area of learning Torah. Firstly, the Mishna in Pirkei Avos (Ethics of the Fathers) says, "If there is no Torah, then there can be no derech eretz,(4) and if there is no derech eretz, then there can be no Torah." (5) The Rambam comments that both aspects complement the other - one cannot overly focus on learning Torah without any emphasis on improving his character and likewise, one cannot effectively develop one's character traits without learning Torah. Rabbi Yisroel Salanter was once asked why he encouraged his students to spend so much time on the study of mussar, (which emphasizes self-growth), consequently sacrificing a higher level of greatness in Torah. He answered by discussing a question in the laws of saying blessings - if a person has in front of him a full piece of food (known as a Shalem) and a larger piece of the same food which is not complete (i.e. it is broken in pieces, known as a Gadol) then it is a question of what is bigger versus what is complete - which should a person bless on? The law is that one must bless on the full piece even though it is smaller than the other one. So too, a person who learns Torah but also works on his traits (a 'Shalem') is on a higher level than someone who is more learned but has a less refined character (a 'Gadol').
We learn many lessons from the specific blessings that Jacob bestowed on his sons. They also teach us that whilst a person may specialize in a particular sphere, he nevertheless has an obligation to be complete and balanced in all the areas. This is a demanding task, but Jacob blessed all of the Jewish people with the potential to achieve it. May we all reach true balance.
1. Vayechi, 49:21.
2. Gur Aryeh, 49:21, Sk 22.
3. For the challenge of Isaac, see the Gemara in Shabbos, 89b. Also see Michtav M'Eliyahu, 2nd Chelek, Parshas Lech Lecha, p.162-3.
4. Derech Eretz can have a number of meanings - in this instance it refers to having refined character traits.
5. Avos, 3:17.