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Parashat 12/15/2010

Parashat Vayechi

submitted by Robert Rabinoff


Shimon v’Levi achim – Shimon and Levi are brothers (49:5)

Shimon and Levi are associated together in two unpleasant incidents in Torah.  In Parashat Vayishlach, their sister Dinah is abducted and raped by the eponymous prince of Shechem (present-day Nablus).  When Shechem and his father come to plead with Ya’akov and his sons that Dinah be given to Shechem as a wife, Ya’akov’s sons pretend to agree on the condition that all the men of the city be circumcized.  Surprisingly, the people of Shechem agree.  Then, on the third day after the operation, when the men were disabled, Shimon and Levi entered the city and slaughtered all the inhabitants.  Ya’akov rebukes them at the time for acting deceitfully and for endangering the whole family.  They answer “Shall our sister then be treated as a harlot?”

The second incident is the selling of Yosef to Egypt.  Here Rashi deduces by elimination who the main culprits were:

“And they said one man to his brother etc.  And now let us kill him and we will see what comes of his dreams.”  Who are they? If you would say Reuven or Yehuda, they didn’t go along with the idea.  If you want to say the sons of the handmaids, they hated Yosef a lot less [than the sons of Leah] as it says “and he was a lad with the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah etc.”  And Yissachar and Zevulun wouldn’t speak up before their elder brothers.  You’re left with only Shimon and Levi, whom their father called “brothers.”

In fact, our tradition tells us that it was Shimon who actually threw Yosef into the pit, and for this Yosef singled him out as the one to remain hostage in Egypt.  Rashi gives one reason for Yosef’s choice as a desire to keep Shimon and Levi separate, lest their violent tendencies be directed at him.

Given this problematic background it is not surprising that Ya’akov’s parting charge to his sons was more of a rebuke than a traditional blessing.  In particular he says of them:

I will divide them in Ya’akov, and I will spread them out in Israel.

Rashi points out that “I will divide them in Ya’akov” refers to Shimon, who really inherited no contiguous portion of the Land of Israel, but rather a number of cities in the territory of Yehudah; the “dividing” refers to the fact that Shimon became a tribe of schoolteachers, and were found throughout Israel.  Note that Shimon is associated with the name Ya’akov, which alludes to our forefather’s material nature.  Levi on the other hand is “spread out in Israel.”  The tribe of Levi of course is explicitly excluded by Gd from inheriting any portion of the Land, except for the 48 cities where they would live.  The reason for this however is that they are the ultimate teachers of Gd’s Wisdom to the people, and they are associated with the name Israel, which alludes to Ya’akov’s higher, spiritual nature.  The two brothers, once so close, appear to have gone in different directions.

This split reaches its tragic zenith at the end of Parashat Balak, where the Israelites are tempted into lewdness and idolatry by the women of Midian.  It appears from the description of the ensuing plague, and from the tribal headcounts taken just before and just after the plague, that the great bulk of those who went astray were from the tribe of Shimon.  The text is explicit that one of the major ringleaders was Zimri, a prince of the tribe of Shimon, who publicly has relations with a Midianite princess.  The whole sordid episode is brought to a sudden halt when Pinchas, son of Elazar the Kohen (of the tribe of Levi) kills both Zimri and the Midianitess.  After the conquest and division of the Land the Levites rise to the apex of Israelite society, while the tribe of Shimon is barely heard from again.  What accounts for these radically different paths?

I heard one explanation in a lecture by R. Yissochar Frand; I apologize that I don’t remember the sources that he quoted.  The gist of what he said was this:  Both Shimon and Levi were outraged at Shechem’s behavior, but for different reasons.  Shimon was concerned with the honor of the family – the family of Israel had been violated.  This is no doubt a legitimate concern.  Levi, on the other hand, was focused on the Chillul haShem, the desecration of Gd’s name that occurred because of the violation of his sister.  This difference, slight though it may have seemed at the time, got magnified as both trod slightly divergent paths, until the incident in Parashat Balak.  At that point, the whole tribe, or perhaps better, family, of Shimon, gathered in support of their leader, Zimri.  It didn’t matter that what Zimri was doing was wrong – it was “my family right or wrong.”  Pinchas, on the other hand, took the opposite approach.  He saw Chillul haShem, and the very real danger that Israel would be wiped out, as it was not fulfilling its mission of sanctifying Gd’s Name.  He therefore acted, destroying life in order to protect life.  Pinchas thus manifested the same outrage as his ancestor Levi, and for the same reason – the sanctification of Gd’s Name.

This distinction is something that we must always be cognizant of as we act, and especially when we “take up arms against a sea of troubles.”  It is a fine thing to defend the downtrodden, especially when it is our own people that are being trodden down.  But we need to be very careful regarding our motivations.  It is easy to get outraged – there is a lot of outrageous stuff going on in the world, from N. Korea to Iran to Europe and Russia, and certainly on our own shores as well.  But to what extent is our action self-serving – action whose effect it will be to preserve our material advantages, or even keep us in an intellectual comfort zone?  To what extent is our action motivated by a kind of tribal unity, which, while it may normally be adaptive, can turn terribly evil as well – Nazi Germany is an excellent example.  In truth, the only motivation it is worthwhile to use when evaluating a course of action is: will this activity sanctify Gd’s Name in the world and draw people close to Him?  Even our everyday work can be a source of Kiddush haShem when it is performed joyfully and with integrity.  Our every interaction with another human being is an opportunity to bring Gd’s light into the world.  Even when we are just sitting silently within ourselves, we can be bringing more order and sanctity into Creation.  The purpose of Gd’s creating human beings was for us to recognize Gd in the world, thus reunifying the finite back into its infinite Source.  It is our special mission as members of the Jewish people to lead the way by making our every action a Kiddush haShem.

Fast of the 10th of Tevet

The fast of the 10th of Tevet, which is this Friday, commemorates the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem by Nevuchadnetzar, about 2 years before the actual destruction of the First Temple.  It is a minor fast (dawn to dark); since it is on Friday this year one must light the Shabbat candles by the usual 18 minutes before sunset (4:23 according to my calendar), but one may not eat or drink (e.g. the kiddush wine) until the fast is over an hour later (the Chabad calendar from R. Jacobson gives the time as 5:17 which is a few minutes earlier).  Were we not on a fixed calendar, it would even be possible for the 10th of Tevet to fall on Shabbat, and in this case, unlike all other fasts except Yom Kippur, it would actually be observed on Shabbat.  Even Tisha B’Av, which in most ways is a more stringent fast, does not override Shabbat — it is observed on Sunday, as will be the case next year (5772).  What is special about Yom Kippur and the 10th of Tevet that they should override Shabbat?  I either heard or read a few years ago, that the 10th of Tevet really commemorates the fact that the heavenly decree against Jerusalem was “issued” on this day.  In other words, it dealt with something in the future.  Therefore the nature of this fast, like Yom Kippur, is repentance rather than mourning.  Mourning is inconsistent with the pleasure we are supposed to take in Shabbat — this is the reason that outward displays of mourning, which are obligatory on other days (e.g. sitting shiva) are forbidden on Shabbat.  Repentance, whether it be generalized as on Yom Kippur, or to avert a specific decree as on 10th of Tevet, is most assuredly not inconsistent with Shabbat, because repentance is return to and repair of our damaged relationship with Gd!  Even our mourning fasts have repentance as a major theme of course, but there the regret and the pain are for lost opportunity.  This Friday, as we wait an extra hour to enjoy the Shabbat meal, we can still rejoice that repentance, return to Gd, is still, and always, available to us, if we only make the most of the opportunity.