What did Yaakov Aveinu really think of Shimon and Levi? In this week’s Parsha, in the context of his parting message to his sons, Yaakov revisits the violent past of his second and third sons, rebuking them for the behavior that led to the slaughter of all the males in the city of Shechem. In fact, all three pasukim (49:5-7) seem to be relentlessly negative. “Shimon and Levi are brothers, instruments of violence are their swords. I (literally, my soul) should not be part of their plots, my honor should not be linked to their gatherings, since they killed a man in anger, and willfully crippled an ox. Their anger is cursed because it is strong and their rage is hard, I will divide them within Jacob and scatter them amongst Israel”. (This is my translation. Given the difficulty of exact translation of these and all the pasukim in this perek, it is strongly recommended that you look up the original). Further, the original story, as described in Parshat VaYishlach (34), also seems to leave the clear impression that Yaakov is uncomfortable with their actions. The Ramban (34:13) in particular sees it this way. The Ramban is troubled why Yaakov lashes out at Shimon and Levi alone, when it appears that the plan to save Dina was approved by the entire family (including Yaakov!). The Ramban draws a clear distinction between “the plan”, namely to offer the seemingly impossible demand of circumcising an entire populace as the condition for allowing Shechem to marry Dina, and Shimon and Levi’s actions when the plan goes awry. The deception lay not in terms of lying to Shechem and his father, but rather in seeming to be willing to go long if certain conditions were met. It apparently never occurred to Yaakov or his sons that the entire city of Shechem would in fact submit to circumcision. When Shimon and Levi subsequently kill the entire city out of a sense of vengeance, Yaakov harshly criticizes the apparently wanton murder of so many who had in fact trusted the word of Bnei Yisrael and had demonstrated a willingness to become part of their nation. According to this, the notion that by leaving the last pasuk of perek 34 (“will they make our sister a harlot”) unchallenged, Yaakov is in fact convinced by their argument, is decisively rejected in the rebuke we find in our Parsha.
While it is therefore difficult to argue that Yaakov approved of the actions of Shimon and Levi in Shechem, it is not impossible to explain that Yaakov is not as overwhelmingly negative in his words to his sons as we have presented it thus far. There are two reasons why this may be so. Firstly, if their anger is such a curse, why is it sufficient to merely separate them, scattering them amongst the greater population. One could in fact argue that this is counterproductive, for all Yaakov has accomplished is to spread the undesirable trait amongst a wider group. Further, the Torah itself calls Yaakov’s words a blessing (“and he blessed them, each man according to the blessing that he-Yaakov-had given”) (49:28). If this is the case, how can we place Yaakov’s words in such a negative light?
(The question of how to understand Yaakov’s words in light of his clearly harsh words to Reuven, as well as Shimon and Levi is not a new one. Many meforshim, beginning with Rashi, already deal with it. Particularly interesting is the opinion of Seforno, who suggests that Yaakov blessed all his sons in addition to the comments that we read in perek 49.)
The Akeidat Yitzhak suggests that while anger is a negative characteristic, when properly channeled, it creates a positive outcome. By using anger in moderation, and as a motivational device, an individual or a group can accomplish more than those who approach the same task without a similar degree of passion can. Hence, Yaakov Aveinu seeks to spread this particular characteristic throughout all of Am Yisrael, while at the same time ensuring that it not be concentrated in a destructive fashion.
Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch sees Yaakov’s rebuke as focussed more on the context and less on the characteristic. In the context of his farewell to his sons, Yaakov begins by disqualifying Reuven for leadership of the family, and by extension, of the nascent nation. This was true, notwithstanding Reuven’s natural position as the firstborn. Now, Yaakov turns his attention to the next two in line, Shimon and Levi, and finds them lacking as well. They are disqualified due to their willingness to use anger and violence as a tool of public policy. Yaakov understands that the willingness to resort to such methods, even when pursuing otherwise noble goals, is dangerous and self-defeating. The ends can never be allowed to justify any means. Yaakov only then turns his attention to Yehuda in his search for a leader for the family.
The upshot of this approach, as Rav Hirsch himself explains, is that if the context shifts, the characteristic might no longer be viewed negatively. The specific context where this trait of fervor and (controlled) anger would be positive, says Rav Hirsch, is galut. The Jew in galut is exposed and downtrodden, and the callenge is not one of how to avoid the drunkenness of overconfidence born of wielding power, but rather the loss of self-pride and self-confidence. Here, the words of Yaakov, that Shimon and Levi will be scattered amongst the nation are in fact a blessing, as their presence everywhere insures a continuation of Jewish pride and thus of Jewish self identification.
The Netziv, Rav Naftali Tzvi Berlin, also adopts the idea that zeal, in small doses and within a few people as opposed to a group, is a positive aspect within a society. He reminds us of the most famous example of this type of behavior, namely the actions of Pinchas HaCohen A quick review of the story (BaMidbar 25) reminds us that Pinchas, in his zeal to defend the honor of Hashem, kills Zimri, the leader of Shevet Shimon(!) and Cazbi, the daughter of the Midianite king, who were publicly fornicating. His action was neither ordered nor sanctioned by Moshe Rabbenu or any other member of the leadership of K’lal Yisrael. Nonetheless, there is divine approval for his deed, as we see that Hashem himself praises Pinchas and rewards him with the Brit Shalom, the “Covenant of Peace” (25:12). This is a clear indication that the overwhelming sense of passion and zeal that burned within Shimon and Levi (and it is obviously significant that Pinchas was from Shevet Levi) has its place and time.
When commenting on the story of Pinchas, the Netziv gives an original explanation for the concept of Brit Shalom. Under ordinary circumstances, an individual who has killed, and certainly one whio has killed in passion, is indelibly marked by the experience. Unavoidabally, the person becomes hardened and less sensitive. This is a trait that often characterizes zealous people. Pinchas’ reward, the Brit Shalom, was that despite having killed, his personality did not become tainted.
The Meshech Chochma, Rav Simcha HaKohen of Duvinsk, gives a different spin on Pinchas. The zeal of Pinchas, says the Meshech Chochma, was not limited to killing those who so openly desecrated Hashem’s name. The Gemara in Sanhedrin (82) describes the entire scenario which unfolded before Pinchas, and how he reacted. In doing so, the Gemara relates that after he killed Zimri and Cazbi, Pinchas prayed to Hashem to stop the plague that had killed 24,000 people. The Gemara notes that Pinchas was so aggressive in his tefila, that the angels attempted to harm him. The Meshech Chochma takes this to mean that Pinchas put his reward in Olam Haba on the line in his zeal to save Bnei Yisrael. This, then is the true face of the fire and passion that Yaakov hoped to spread throughout Am Yisrael. Not violence harnessed toward a goal, however noble that goal may be, is the true zeal that Yaakov sought to spread and which so imbued Pinchas. Rather, a passion for Am Yisrael, a burning, unextinguishable love for his fellow Jew, is the true legacy that Levi passed on to his decendant, Pinchas.