You gotta keep ‘em separated.
– The Offspring<1>
On his deathbed, Yaakov gave his sons blessings that would have centuries-long ramifications for the tribes descended from them. But for the first three sons – Reuven, Shimon, and Levi – Yaakov’s words don’t seem very positive. Let’s examine what Yaakov said to Shimon and Levi, which on the surface seems more like a curse than a blessing:
Simeon and Levi are a pair; instruments of crime are their wares. Let my soul not enter their plot; let my spirit not unite with their meeting – for they have killed men with anger, maimed bulls with will. Cursed be their rage, for it is fierce, and their fury, for it is cruel. I will disperse them in Jacob, scatter them in Israel.<2>
Wow, that’s harsh. And yet, a close reading reveals that Yaakov did not curse Shimon and Levi but rather their rage. This opens the door for commentaries to find something positive about the last thing Yaakov said, namely that they should be dispersed and scattered. How can this be positive? Here are three approaches.
EXTREMISM IN SMALL DOSES
One approach says that the “scattering” was fulfilled in the sense that neither tribe received a portion of land in Israel. Levi lived in 48 Levitical cities scattered through the Land, and Shimon lived inside the portion of Yehudah. This could be interpreted negatively, but the Netziv reads it positively. According to him, Yaakov meant that while it’s dangerous to have many hotheads in the same area, sometimes hotheads are necessary! An example is Pinchas. He was the hero we needed, stopping the villain Zimri with vigilante justice. But, the Netziv continues, that character trait is good only in small doses. Accordingly, Yaakov instructed the tribes of Shimon and Levi to spread out.<3> Rav Chanan Porat elaborates:
Yaakov did not expel Shimon and Levi from the Jewish people. On the contrary! He determined that their abilities should be diffused throughout the Jewish nation, with just the right dosage and balance. What was important was to avoid concentrating them in one place, as a gush (cluster) of yishuvim (settlements) of extremists. Otherwise their passionate, unbridled devotion to the Jewish people and the Land of Israel might lead them to act impulsively, causing a terrible chillul Hashem (desecration of God’s name).<4>
Since Rav Porat was one of the founders of Gush Emunim (the movement for religious settlements), it’s probably not a coincidence that he uses the words “gush” and “yishuvim.” He thinks that even for the best of causes – the Jewish people and the Land of Israel – Yaakov was cautioning against impulsiveness. For Shimon and Levi’s extremism to be useful, they would need to stay away from each other. Then their strong emotions would not be cursed but blessed.
GOING DOOR TO DOOR
A second approach suggests that the scattering took place differently for each of the two tribes, as a result of how they acted in the desert.
When Jews were worshiping the Golden Calf, Moshe called out, “Whoever is for God, follow me!” It was the Levi’im who showed up, and whom Moshe instructed to kill all the idol-worshiping Jews (Shemot 32:26-28). Since the Tribe of Levi stood up for God – using their rage in a justified way – they were rewarded with the job of serving God in the Mishkan and Beit HaMikdash (Devarim 10:8-9). Later, when Moshe blessed the tribes before he died, he gave Levi a beautiful blessing (Ibid. 33:8-11).
In contrast, the Tribe of Shimon used their extremism to rebel against God. At Baal P’or, Jews committed the capital crimes of avodah zarah (idol worship) and gilui arayot (sexual immorality). The plague that God sent to punish the sinners wiped out 24,000 people (Bamidbar 25:1-9). The vast majority of them, it seems, were from Shimon.<5> When Zimri was executed by Pinchas at that time, ironically it was a good leader of Levi (Pinchas) who was doing the right thing by killing a bad leader of Shimon (Zimri). Later, when Moshe blessed the tribes, he omitted Shimon completely.
The midrash picks up on this parting of ways of the two tribes:
“I will disperse them in Yaakov.” How? When 24,000 [men] of the Tribe of Shimon fell along with Zimri, they left 24,000 widows. These women were divided [when they remarried men of other tribes,] 2,000 of each tribe. That fulfilled “I will disperse them in Jacob.” Furthermore, everyone who goes around [begging] door to door is from the Tribe of Shimon. God said, “Levi too should go around.” What did God do? He let Levi earn a living in a clean way, while still fulfilling Yaakov’s words. God elevated Levi and awarded him a tenth [of everyone’s produce, which is called ma’aser]. A Levi thus goes around saying, “Give me my portion [of ma’aser]!” That’s a fulfillment of “I will scatter them in Israel.”<6>
In other words, both tribes ended up “scattered” in the sense of needing to go door to door. But whether this was positive or negative was a direct result of each tribe’s choices. Since the Tribe of Shimon chose poorly, it was fulfilled in an embarrassing way – they were the poor, and people gave them out of sympathy. Since the Tribe of Levi chose well, it was fulfilled in an empowering way – they were the elite, and people gave them out of admiration. According to this, Yaakov’s words played out as both a blessing and a curse, depending on the actions of each tribe.
A third approach states, intriguingly, that the “scattering” was fulfilled by traveling around to teach Torah. For Levi, this teaching is explicit in Moshe’s blessing: “They will teach Your law to Yaakov, and Your Torah to Israel” (Devarim 33:10). For Shimon, there’s a tradition stating it. In Rashi’s formulation:
There are no poor people, scribes (sofrim), or teachers of young children except from the Tribe of Shimon, so that they should be scattered.<7>
If this is what Yaakov meant by “I will scatter them,” why would he entrust the vital education of the Jewish people to hotheads? Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky has an intriguing theory:
It seems that Yaakov saw that [Shimon and Levi] were more suited than their brothers for this lofty task. From their answer to him in Bereisheet 34:31 [to explain why they killed the men of Shechem] – “Should our sister be treated like a whore?!” – Yaakov understood that they gave up their entire being to the spiritual goal of saving their sister’s honor. . . . It was only Shimon and Levi who felt her pain and suffering as if it were their own. . . . Their action stemmed from [feeling] internal pain and truly joining in the suffering of the other. That was what galvanized them to a fiery, uncompromising extremism. . . . Only people like this, who feel the pain of the other as if it’s their own, would take up the staff of wandering. They would devote body and soul to wandering from city to city in order to spread God’s Torah in the world and to teach Jewish children. This holy task cannot be carried out properly except by those who go above and beyond their job, those who have extremism for God burning in their heart. Therefore Yaakov entrusted them with this calling.<8>
In other words, the same trait that resulted in extreme violence can – if properly channeled – result in extreme dedication to a good cause.
All three approaches reinterpret Yaakov’s “scattering” of Shimon and Levi in a positive way. Sometimes even what looks like a curse can turn out to be a blessing.
1. The Offspring, “Come Out and Play,” Smash (1994 album).
2. Breisheet 49:5-7. Translation from Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, The Living Torah (Maznaim, 1981). http://bible.ort.org/books/pentd2.asp?ACTION=displaypage&BOOK=1&CHAPTER=49
3. Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin (Netziv, 1817-1893), Ha’amek Davar on Breisheet 49:7.
4. Rav Chanan Porat (1943-2011), “HaBerakhah HaTzefunah BeTokhachah,” M’at Min HaOr, Vayechi 5766 (my translation). http://www.tora.co.il/parasha/meat/vayechi_66.doc
5. Sanhedrin 82a. Rav Gavriel Goldman, in an article called “Shimon VeLevi Achim” that is unfortunately no longer available on the internet, presents some circumstantial evidence to support this. Between the censuses of Parashat Bamidbar and Parashat Pinchas, most of the tribes remained stable in number. At the same time, the male population of the tribe of Shimon plummeted from 59,300 to 22,200. Presumably, most of the missing were the 24,000 sinners of Baal P’or.
6. Breisheet Rabbah (Vilna) 99:6. According to an earlier statement in the midrash, “Most poor people are from Shimon” (Ibid. 98:5). A variation on this appears in Rashi on Breisheet 49:7 (not the part quoted below).
7. Rashi on Breisheet 49:7, modified from the translation of Rabbi Yisrael Herczeg, Rashi: Bereishis (Artscroll, 1995), p. 540.
8. Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky (1890-1986), Emet LeYaakov, Parashat Vayishlach (pp. 188-189). He also has a theory about why the two tribes acted so differently from each other in the desert; see pp. 236-237.