Parshat Vayechi: Shimon, Levi and the Zealous Brotherly Bond

Shimon, Levi and the Zealous Brotherly Bond

Rabbi Benjy Myers is the Educational Director of the Beren-Amiel and Straus-Amiel Emissary Training and Placement Institutes.

At the end of Yaakov’s life, shortly before he passes from this world, he gathers his sons around him to bless them. While for most of the sons it’s clear that these are indeed blessing; for the first three – Reuven, Shimon and Levi – it’s not so clear-cut.

I would like to address the words spoken to Shimon and Levi, and to understand them in light of future history, the emergence of Moshe and the blessings that Moshe bestowed on the tribes at the end of his life.

Yaakov, with his sons around him, turns to his second and third born:

“Shimon and Levi are brothers; 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 desirous they maim oxen. Cursed be their anger so fierce, and their wrath so relentless. I will divide them in Jacob, scatter them in Israel.” (Bereishit 49:5-7)

שִׁמְעוֹן וְלֵוִי אַחִים כְּלֵי חָמָס מְכֵרֹתֵיהֶם: בְּסֹדָם אַל תָּבֹא נַפְשִׁי בִּקְהָלָם אַל תֵּחַד כְּבֹדִי כִּי בְאַפָּם הָרְגוּ אִישׁ וּבִרְצֹנָם עִקְּרוּ שׁוֹר: אָרוּר אַפָּם כִּי עָז וְעֶבְרָתָם כִּי קָשָׁתָה אֲחַלְּקֵם בְּיַעֲקֹב וַאֲפִיצֵם בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל: (בראשית פרק מט, ה-ז)

Rashi notes that their description as “brothers” is not merely a biological statement, but rather that they were in sync when it came to their treatment of the people of Shechem following the rape of Dina, and also in their approach to their younger brother, Yosef. It is their actions and united front that led their father to send them away, eternally, with these words ringing in their ears. It seemed at the time, following their assault on Shechem, that Shimon and Levi had the final word, “Will our sister be treated like a harlot?” (Bereishit 43:31) וַיֹּאמְרוּ הַכְזוֹנָה יַעֲשֶׂה אֶת אֲחוֹתֵנוּ: (בראשית פרק לד, לא). Yaakov saved his ringing rebuke of them for the end, ensuring that his words will reverberate not only in the heads of his sons, but throughout the generations.

However, by the time Moshe comes to bless the tribes, we note something curious. Levi is blessed in glowing terms, and receives one of the lengthiest blessings, second only to Yosef. The tribe has transformed and become a mainstay within the Jewish people. Shimon, on the other hand, is conspicuous in his absence. There is no direct mention of the tribe at all at the end of the book of Devarim. It’s as if the tribe has ceased to exist. So while we have one tribe that has flourished and achieved a pinnacle within the hierarchy of the Jewish nation, the other has effectively disappeared from view.

Rabbi Yitzchak Caro (1458-1535, Rabbi Yosef Caro’s uncle) in his commentary Toldot Yitzchak raises an interesting question. Yaakov gave his sons their blessings through the Divine spirit – ruach hakodesh – that rested upon him. If so, why didn’t he separate Levi from Shimon? After all, a few short years later the greatest prophet the world has known will emerge from this tribe. The first High Priest and his descendants who will serve in the Tabernacle and later the Temple will come forth.

Shimon, however, doesn’t produce the progeny that comes close to matching Moshe, Aharon, Miriam, Pinchas and more. In fact, during the time in the wilderness, it was the leadership from the tribe of Shimon that brought shame to the nation which precipitated the plague that cost the lives of 24,000 people. Why didn’t Yaakov know that this is what would happen, and therefore already at the initial stage of his words distinguish Levi from Shimon, blessing one while admonishing the other?

He answers that Yaakov did in fact see that in the future both good and bad would emanate from these two brothers, these two tribes. He saw them as one unit, and therefore, unlike with all the other brothers who received individual messages and blessings, he had no choice but to speak to them as one.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) emphasizes, together with a number of other commentators, the fact that they were brothers, united in thought and action.

“There is a clear delineating line in Shimon and Levi, one that equipped them especially to head any future leadership. They’re brothers and displayed this sense of brotherhood to its fullest extent. They truly feel that any evil that befalls the smallest member of the family [Dina] has happened to them. There is no selfishness or self-centeredness, just a feeling of brotherhood.”

באופיים של שמעון ולוי מתגלה קו, שהיה מכשיר אותם בייחוד לעמוד בראש ההנהגה העתידה. הם אחים, והם גילו רגש אחוה (משורש “אחה”: מחוברים זה אל זה בחוט המאחד את כולם) במידה יתירה; עוול שנעשה לקטן שבמשפחה הרי הם חשים בו, בלא כל אנוכיות, כאילו נעשה להם (רש”ר הירש בראשית פרק מט פסוק ה)

The Toldot Yitzchak is correct in his assessment of Shimon and Levi. They share a bond of kinship and brotherhood that is second to none, and therefore they are inseparable in life and also in prophetic visions. It is their strength of character, their sense of right and wrong, that enabled them to outwit and kill the men of Shechem. But it was the same strengths that, after the sin of the Golden Calf allowed Levi to once again take up the sword and this time bring it down on his own brethren. This is the critical juncture. While Levi heeded Moshe’s cry to take up arms to sanctify God’s name, Shimon did not. Furthermore, Zimri sinned most egregiously and it was only another Levite, Pichas, who put a stop to Zimri’s public desecration of God’s name.

This strength of character, the zeal, says Rav Hirsch, is what kept the Jewish flame alive throughout our long exile. We needed people throughout our long history of persecution to stand up and be counted, to keep the fire of Judaism burning. The danger comes when the goal is a negative one. This is why Yaakov spread them throughout the Jewish people, both in the Land of Israel and also throughout Jewish history and geography. It’s vital that they create bonds of brotherhood, that they help fan the flames of Jewish pride. And yet, if they are centralized, they run the risk of letting their zeal overtake, of letting the fires spread indiscriminately.

As such, we need to reexamine Yaakov’s words. He does not curse the brothers. He curses their anger and wrath, he curses the tools – swords – that they use to exact vengeance. Not because there is no place for weaponry, but because they became blinded by their rage and allowed the weapons to overtake them.

Yaakov’s words are both a mission statement and a challenge.

In our daily interactions, we must be careful to speak of actions rather than people. We must be careful to keep things in perspective and ask constantly whether our actions will enhance or diminish God’s name in the world. Above all, we must be like brothers, displaying a keen sense of awareness for the vulnerable, downtrodden and persecuted, and helping them where we can while not losing sight of who we are – “שמות פרק יט, ו “מַמְלֶכֶת כֹּהֲנִים וְגוֹי קָדוֹשׁ – “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Shmot 19:6).

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