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More than a Label

01/08/2020 11:33:34 AM


Through my training as a camp counselor at Ramah Darom, I was taught to never label a camper negatively, but rather their actions. It’s not that the camper is a liar, but rather a person who told lies. Or it’s a camper who misbehaved or acted meanly towards others. The critical difference between the two is that when we call out a person’s actions, we are suggesting that they can behave differently. You told a lie, but you could also have told a truth. A liar on the other hand, one might assume all they do is lie. Thus, as a counselor working to help campers grow in their independence and self-esteem, it is important to share the narrative that most helps them succeed and be their best selves. Additionally, by assuming the camper is good but chose to act impulsively, it allows the camper to save face and resume their identity as a good person, despite their misbehavior.

In Parshat VaYechi, Jacob is nearing the end of his life and bestows blessings to each of his children. However, not all the blessings are positives. As we know from an earlier narrative in the book of Genesis, the relationship between Jacob and his sons Simeon and Levi is a fraught. After Simeon and Levi zealously slaughter all the men of the city-state of Shechem in retribution for their mistreatment of Dina, Jacob rebukes them for making trouble with the much more numerous Canaanite neighbors (Genesis 34). Thus, when giving them a “blessing” he says, “Their weapons are tools of lawlessness… Cursed be their anger so fierce, and their wrath so relentless.” Clearly, Jacob is still bothered by their actions so many years later.

On his commentary on this verse, the 13th century French commentator Hezekiah ben Manoah (Chizkuni) suggests that on its surface it might seem that Jacob is cursing his sons, but in fact, to curse someone’s anger so that it doesn’t succeed is a form of blessing. He argues that Jacob curses them so that “they will learn the lesson not to act out of anger.” In such a way, Jacob isn’t cursing his sons, but rather is cursing their actions; specifically, their anger! It turns out that at least for one of his sons and their decedents, it is a good thing Jacob only cursed their actions. The tribe of Levi will go on to become one of the more influential tribes of the people of Israel, as the priesthood will come from their ranks.

As we live alongside one another, we sometimes are quick to label the people around us, and not their actions. We seem to encounter many slobs, lazybones, space-cadets, jerks, and snobs. But what might it look like if we were able to see our displeasure in their choices and not the perpetrator? How might we be like Jacob and curse the actions and not the actor? If we can get in the habit of separating people’s misbehavior from their character, then perhaps we can get to a place where we value each other more and see the potential in every other person.

Shabbat Shalom

Mon, December 4 2023 21 Kislev 5784