Parshat Vayechi: Yaakov’s Blessing to Shimon and Levi

Rabbi David Basok is a Straus-Amiel emissary who heads Jewish Education in the Jewish community of Tallinn, Estonia, and was previously the Rabbi of Wroclaw, Poland.

BASOK e1672563070471In every community or group, there often exists some form of disparity or division of sorts between the leadership and the public.  The same goes for rabbis and their congregations.  When it comes to emissary work abroad, this disparity may seem all the greater, leaving the emissary with a sense of loneliness and incompetence.  In smaller communities in particular, where most of the congregants do not live a Torah life, the emissary-rabbi and his family often feel like they are the only ones who keep the flame of Jewish tradition burning.  Even if the emissary-couple doesn’t say it out loud, their children will often walk around with the feeling that their family is “the crazy one”.  Such thoughts may evoke questions like:  Are we not too extreme?  Do we belong here?  Why are we doing this?  At such moments, I look to Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch’s beautiful commentary on the portion of Vayechi, and the way in which it highlights the importance of emissary work.

Towards the end of his days, Yaakov gathers all his sons around him and blesses them.  Each one of the sons receives a unique and personal blessing: “All these are the twelve tribes of Israel, and this is it that their father spoke unto them and blessed them; every one according to his blessing he blessed them” (Bereishit 49:28). 

However, hiding between the lines of blessings are some very harsh words.  In fact, some of the sons seem to have received curses from their own father.  The exegetes offer different commentaries on the words of Yaakov to Reuven, Shimon and Levi. “Cursed be their anger, for it was fierce, and their wrath, for it was cruel; I will divide them in Yaakov, and scatter them in Israel” (ibid. verse 7).  Are these words of rebuke?  Perhaps they speak of reward and punishment?  Or is there a blessing hiding somewhere in between the words of reprimand?

According to many of the commentaries (Ibn Ezra, Ramban, Sforno and Rashbam), Yaakov is indeed angry with his sons for their conduct with Shechem, and punishes them by dispersing them throughout Israel and by not giving them an inheritance of their own, unlike the other tribes.  The tribe of Levi was scattered across 48 different cities, and the tribe of Shimon received his portion within the portion of Yehuda and was not considered a tribe unto itself. 

Rashi explains that the fact that the sons of the tribe of Shimon were tasked with the education of the people, and thus became teachers, was part of their punishment – their vocation forcing them to wander from place to place.  Similarly, the Levites had to wander from field to field to collect their tithes. 

However, some of the exegetes viewed this “dispersion” in a positive light.  The Ohr HaChayim, for instance, explains that the very fact that Yaakov criticizes his sons is a blessing, for it would lead them to mend their ways and merit future blessing.  Rabeinu Bachya explains that “their dispersal among the People of Israel and the fact that they instructed the people was of great benefit to the nation.” In other words, the fact that the sons of Shimon taught young children was a blessing rather than a curse.  The same is true of the fact that there was Levite presence in the cities of all the tribes. 

The Kli Yakar writes at great length about an important educational principle.  The actions of Shimon and Levi were severe and negative and warranted Yaakov’s denunciation.  That said, the values which triggered their actions also have a rightful place in this world.  When impertinence and obstinacy come together in high quantities, they become dangerous and negative.  However, when these traits are present in good measure, they have a positive dimension. 

Sometimes one needs that daring and impertinence (for instance, “Make yourself as courageously strong as a leopard” – Pirkei Avot).  In other instances, stubbornness is the trait that saves the day (“let God walk in our midst for it is a stiff-necked people”).  Hence, these qualities should be distributed among the People of Israel.  This dissemination is not a punishment; rather – it is a rectification.  According to this interpretation, Yaakov did, in fact, bless his sons.  Sometimes the blessing is simply pointing a person in the direction of the path which would best help him fulfill his calling, or teaching him how to go about realizing his full potential in the optimal way. 

This educational message is further developed by Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, as he discusses the powerful notion of shlichut, its essence and the role of emissaries in every generation wherever they may be.  He goes on to explain that zealousness and radicalism are dangerous when exercised by a strong and unified nation; however, in the Diaspora, the situation is different.  When Jews are in exile, the hardships they encounter prevent spiritual upliftment which may lead to a loss of Jewish identity.  A Jew living in the Diaspora requires a certain measure of pride and fervor in order to preserve some measure of national pride.  “It was therefore essential to ‘divide them in Yaakov’.  It was an act of kindness and justice to the People of Israel to disperse the tribes of Shimon and Levi among the other Tribes of Israel.  For the natural consequence of this was that even after the destruction of the Kingdom of Israel and its devastating downfall, and even throughout the numerous exiles that followed suit, the sons of Shimon and Levi were always present and never disappeared.  They were there to teach and stimulate the Jewish mind; they were there to infuse courage in the Jewish heart; instill daring, enthusiasm and encourage the Jewish genius.  Because of their actions, the Jewish spirit never ceased to exist, even when the Kingdom of Israel no longer existed.”

Even in our times, when we are fortunate enough to have a vibrant Jewish State, we still need a spirit that will infuse us with strength and courage, enthusiasm and perseverance.  These qualities may sometimes appear like madness, and yet we know they are able to impact an entire community.  Yaakov sends out Shimon and Levi to live among the entire People of Israel.  These enthusiasts become the teachers and the rabbis of each and every community.  These are the people that pull communities upwards. 

Shabbat Shalom.

The Jewish community of Estonia was founded in the 1990s, after the dissolvement of the USSR.  The community comprises some two-thousand members, most of whom are Russian-speakers.  The community focuses on Jewish education and culture, and has a few growing institutions – a kindergarten, a school, a youth movement, a Jewish Community Center and a welfare center for the elderly and for Holocaust survivors.  The community in Estonia collaborates with the communities of Latvia and Lithuania, and is a fervent supporter of Israel. The Basok family heads Jewish Education in the community for all age groups. 


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