A Blessing on Your Head
by Miri Korbman
If you attended a Yeshiva day school, you’ll likely have a particular tune stuck in your head throughout this coming Shabbos. I’m referring, of course, to the song you learned in elementary school to memorize Birchos Yaakov, the blessings Yaakov gave to his children, recorded in this week’s Parsha. (And if you weren’t privileged to learn your own song, hit up a friend who will be happy to prove that learning things in song is one of the best ways to preserve it in memory forever, for better or for worse).
Looking more deeply at the brachos Yaakov gave to the Shevatim, it is striking that some of his words do not appear to remotely resemble words of blessing. Beginning with (49:3) Yaakov’s chastisement of Reuven for his “pachaz kamayim,” personality trait of hastiness, through Yaakov’s harsh admonishment of Shimon and Levi, calling their anger cursed, and promising to disperse them in the Land of Israel (49:7), it would seem at first glance that Yaakov is criticizing his children, not blessing them.
In his Shiurei Chumash, Rav Wolbe explains according to Rav Yerucham Levovitz that the greatest blessing one can receive is knowledge of oneself. Rav Yerucham taught that every person has core, underlying Midos that can “derail” their Avodas Hashem, and everyone has core, underlying Midos that can tremendously enhance and strengthen their connection to God and observance of Torah and Mitzvos. To go through life ignorant of these traits and uncertain of one’s power in the world is a true curse. As such, to be given feedback and knowledge about one’s strengths and weaknesses, as Yaakov does for his children, is one of the most valuable gifts a parent – or teacher – can give.
Of course, receiving criticism – even constructive criticism – is one of the most difficult things we must do in life. There is an understandable kneejerk reaction of defensiveness, a need to protect our self-worth and dignity that arises when we are criticized. And yet, if you speak to any employer, supervisor, mentor, or parent, they will all agree that positive, graceful receptivity to feedback is one of the most important and valued traits an employee, student, or child can possess, particularly if those figures of authority are primarily interested in that person’s growth.
Though it is exceptionally difficult, being open to, and to even seek out, feedback from others regarding our deeds (or misdeeds), our character, or even just the way our actions or words affect particular people, is a fundamental tool for growth and connection. When a friend or family member provides us with insight into our impact on them or on others, we have an opportunity to evaluate that feedback, filter it through our own systems, weeding out the potential biases or misperceptions of the source, and integrate the information into our future decisions. This is growth; learning not only from our experiences and mistakes and successes, but learning from what others experience of us, and being willing to hear them out when they share real, honest opinions with us.
Furthermore, the people who spend time with us but are not subject to our internal biases about ourselves can see us in a way that we often cannot. Use your mentors, your teachers, your friends, your family members, (even your children!), to learn more about yourself. What are the traits that others see in you? What are the traits that may be getting in the way of your goals, your relationships, your Avodas Hashem?
Some of us may be both in the position of receiving feedback or criticism, and in the position to provide that feedback. Recognize that, in withholding criticism from those we love with the idea of protecting them, we may actually be keeping them in harm’s way, for ignorance is not bliss. The opportunity to give feedback in a gentle and firm way is the chance to teach someone we care about just a bit more about themselves, to further their positive influence in the world.
It is not easy for all of us to be receptive to feedback, to be willing to take a hard look at ourselves and ask ourselves tough questions. To be open to accepting that we will, even accidentally, cause others to feel hurt, or uncomfortable, that we will make mistakes and missteps, is a difficult reality to face. And yet, there is a reason it is called “constructive criticism.” If there are people in our lives who truly care about our growth and well-being, whose motives, like Yaakov Avinu’s, are pure and positive, who are brave and thoughtful enough to teach us something new about ourselves, we are truly blessed.