If we cast our minds back to Vayishlach, (Bereishit, 34,) we remember a detailed description of the events that took place in Shechem. Shechem ben Chamor takes Dina, Leah’s only daughter, prompting negotiations for her release between his family and Ya’akov’s sons.
It initially appears that agreement has been reached and a covenant signed. The two families will apparently merge, on condition that Shechem, Chamor, and their whole town circumcise themselves. However, by the end of the episode, we see that the brothers had no intention whatsoever in making a deal with Shechem and Chamor. Circumcision was just a ploy to weaken them, so that Shimon and Levi could rescue Dina, punishing the people of Shechem for having forcibly denied her freedom, and for having treated their sister as a harlot.
After hearing the news, Ya’akov does rebuke Shimon and Levi, though he seems more concerned with the timing of their act rather than the act itself. Most commentators understand that Ya’akov’s apparent failure to immediately rebuke Shimon and Levi severely, as we would have expected him to do, should not be understood as acquiescence, but rather as an indication that this was not the most effective time for reprimand.
Thus, here in our parasha, when he blesses his children from his deathbed, Ya’akov has very severe words to say to Shimon and Levi about their actions in Shechem all those years ago:
“Shimon and Levi are brothers; swords are their instruments of cruelty. Let my soul not come into their council; let my honor not be united to their assembly: for they slew a man in their anger, and they willingly lamed an ox. Cursed be their anger, for it was fierce; and their wrath, for it was cruel: I will divide them in Ya’akov and scatter them in Israel.” (Bereishit, 49: 5-7)
Rav Ya’akov Kamenetsky, in Emet LeYa’akov, explains:
Ya’akov’s words (Bereishit, 49:7) regarding splitting up and separating the two brothers, seem to be a ‘measure for measure’ punishment – these two sons must be separated, because they are likely to cause trouble when they are together. And this is exactly what happens. The tribe of Shimon has no real inheritance of its own; they are absorbed into the area designated to the tribe of Yehuda, and Levi has no physical inheritance at all; Hashem is their inheritance.
However, Rashi explains quite extraordinarily, that Ya’akov was in fact saying to Shimon and Levi that they would be scribes and teachers, who would need to be dispersed amongst their people in order to be effective. Rashi’s words require explanation. Why should the future of our people, and its education system, be left in the hands of Shimon and Levi?
Ya’akov saw something in Shimon and Levi that was lacking in the other brothers. When Ya’akov initially rebuked them in Parashat Vayishlach, they angrily retorted: “Should our sister be treated as a harlot?” (Bereishit 34:31)
Ya’akov understood that these two men had placed their entire reputation on the line, for the sake of their sister. All of the brothers knew what had happened, yet only Shimon and Levi did something about it.
Ya’akov perceived some awesome potential that needed to be channeled in the right direction. Here were two men who felt their sister’s pain as if it were their own. Their understanding of danger and the need to react swiftly and precisely made them prime candidates to be the future educators of the Jewish people, if only the quality of their reaction could be refined. Their behavior on this particular occasion could not be commended, yet if channeled correctly it could be of vital importance to the future of the people of Israel.
Therefore, Ya’akov’s concluding words, “I will divide them in Ya’akov and scatter them in Israel,” are not a curse, but a great blessing for Am Yisrael.
When we look to see what became of Shimon and Levi, we see that the tribe of Levi indeed fulfilled its designated role, while the tribe of Shimon failed abysmally.
The Levites repeatedly stood firm against the force of the people, for example during the Golden Calf episode, and at the time of Pinchas. Shimon’s energy and zealousness eventually manifested itself in the negative actions of Zimri, the Prince of the tribe of Shimon. In fact, at the end of Parashat Balak, we see those two inseparable brothers fighting each other, when Pinchas kills Zimri as a direct result of his public act of desecration.
So why does Levi succeed in fulfilling his potential while Shimon fails? The answer is clear. The Tribe of Levi was not enslaved in Egypt; they spent their time in spiritual matters. When zealousness is directed through the path of Torah it will lead to positive results. Thus, when Levi saw the Chilul Hashem at the Golden Calf, they reacted immediately. Similarly, Levi stopped Am Yisrael when they wanted to return to Egypt.
Throughout the time that passed, from Dina’s rescue through to freedom from slavery, Levi’s strengths were not simply retained; they were nurtured, refined, and directed in the proper manner.
Shimon did not follow the same course. The latent potential remained, but it was left to grow wild, without direction, without the refinement of Torah. And after years of spiritual neglect, it materializes negatively at Ba’al Pe’or, when the Prince of the tribe of Shimon publicly desecrates God’s name.
We can learn a crucial lesson from Rav Ya’akov’s outstanding insights.
Every human being on the face of this earth has a purpose, has potential. We do not need to justify our existence to anyone but ourselves. God ‘took the time’ to create us and gave each of us a role to play. It is our duty to realize our potential, but it is essential that we also know how to take the ‘raw material’ and shape it correctly. We need direction, and refinement, when transforming our potential into positive action.
We look to the Torah, Torat Yisrael, as did Shevet Levi, to give us that direction. Ourmiddot, our character traits, are essentially neither good nor bad; it all depends on how we use them. Envy is a bad middah when dealing with material assets, but in the Beit Midrash it can trigger incentives that can eventually lead to the emergence of a realTalmid Chacham. Excitement and enthusiasm are middot that can lead to light-heartedness and frivolity, but they can also lead to impressive accomplishments and success. We need to know exactly how to channel our skills.
For years, I have had discussions with students about their role in life. There is so much frustration involved; it might take years for some of us to discover our greatest talent, and even longer to learn how to channel that talent in the best way possible. This is perhaps one of the biggest challenges of life. Each of us needs to understand, as best as we can, why Hashem put us in this world, and if we merit that understanding, we then have to work out the optimal way to realize the potential we undoubtedly have.
Often enough, we cannot perceive our own inner strengths and talents; for that we need a teacher or a mentor. As our Rabbis taught: “Make a teacher for yourself, and acquire a friend.” If we have a longstanding mentor, who really knows us well, then they will see us in an objective light and help direct us in the best way possible. Genuine friends also have the ability to help us in this way.
I am reminded of a conversation with my Uncle Bert (of blessed memory) almost 30 years ago. He asked me how many friends I had, and I answered, as most children do, by listing every child in my class at school! He looked at me very seriously and said: “No David. They are acquaintances; if you are very lucky in life you will merit one real friend.” Although quite young at the time, I have never forgotten those words of wisdom. If one merits a true friend (and thankfully I have,) then he can really help you understand who you are and assist you in channeling yourself in the right direction.
Obviously, parents can also fulfill this role, but there is often confusion between what is in the child’s best interests, and what the parent would like to be in the child’s best interests. Thankfully, I have met a surprisingly high number of perceptive and understanding, relatively objective parents. The parent who manages to overcome subjectivity is in the very best position to channel the child in the right direction, depending of course, on the child’s acceptance of that advice.
One may justifiably ask why Ya’akov specifically singles out teachers and scribes? Surely political leaders, soldiers, and other professions can also inspire and shape society? Maybe I’m biased, but I honestly believe that professionals and politicians do not create society as much as they reflect society. The politics of a politician depends much on his education in general and on his understanding of the role of a human being in this world; the behavior, zealousness, and conviction of a professional is very much to do with his beliefs and ethos of life.
In fact, whatever we do in this world is molded by our childhood experiences and the educational foundation we received. Today, more than ever, we have become rather superficial in the way we look at things. Many look at the politician to be the leader, but I think that that person’s teacher, the one who taught him right and wrong, the one who taught him life’s priorities, is the key to the future. On Seder night, when we celebrate the independence of the Jewish people, the theme is purely education, because the past is only important if there is a future, and the future entirely depends on the education of the next generation.
As parents, educators, and friends, we are commanded to perceive the innermost talents and desires of our children, our students, and our friends, so that we can help direct them along the right path. As members of society, we must endeavor to search out the Shimon’s and Levi’s in the community; those dynamic and exciting teachers who passionately believe in what they are doing and would fight for what they preach. There can be nothing more inspiring for a student than to study with a passionate, enthusiastic, charismatic teacher, and there is nothing more uninspiring than having to listen to someone lecture you on a subject in which they themselves have no interest.
Our obligation, if we cannot do it ourselves, is to find the very best, most passionate and dedicated teachers and educators. Our future lies in our children, and that future, and the future of the Jewish people, depends on their education.