“Jacob Maintains a Bitter Grudge Against Simeon and Levi”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayechi, Jacob blesses his twelve sons prior to his death.

Even though not all the statements expressed by Jacob in his last testament to his sons appear to be blessings, scripture regards them as blessings. The Torah, in Genesis 49:28, clearly states, כָּל אֵלֶּה שִׁבְטֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל שְׁנֵים עָשָׂר, וְזֹאת אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר לָהֶם אֲבִיהֶם וַיְבָרֶךְ אוֹתָם, אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר כְּבִרְכָתוֹ בֵּרַךְ אֹתָם, All these are the twelve tribes of Israel, and this is what their father spoke to them when he blessed them. He blessed each according to his appropriate blessing.

Rashi as well, confirms the words of Jacob as a blessing. Rashi notes, that Jacob’s words to Reuben, Simeon and Levi seem not to be blessings at all, but, in fact, appear to be words of reproach. However, the verse definitively states, וַיְבָרֶךְ אוֹתָם, he [Jacob] blessed them, implying that no matter what the words seem to mean, Jacob blessed all his sons.

There is, however, a significant difference between Jacob’s words to Reuben and those to Simeon and Levi. To Reuben, Jacob says, Genesis 49:3, רְאוּבֵן בְּכֹרִי אַתָּה, כֹּחִי וְרֵאשִׁית אוֹנִי, יֶתֶר שְׂאֵת וְיֶתֶר עָז, Reuben, you are my firstborn, my strength and my initial vigor, foremost in rank and foremost in power. However, unstable as water, you cannot be foremost, because you mounted your father’s bed, then you defiled it–he ascended my couch.

Jacob’s words to Reuben appear to be expressions of disappointment, rather than words of reproach. Although Reuben has all the right intentions, his timing is horrible (Vayechi 5763-2002), and thus he is inappropriate for leadership.

On the other hand, Jacob’s words to Simeon and Levi are significantly harsher. In Jacob’s final testament to his children, Jacob says, Genesis 49:5-7,שִׁמְעוֹן וְלֵוִי אַחִים, כְּלֵי חָמָס מְכֵרֹתֵיהֶם. בְּסֹדָם אַל תָּבֹא נַפְשִׁי, בִּקְהָלָם אַל תֵּחַד כְּבֹדִי, כִּי בְאַפָּם הָרְגוּ אִישׁ, וּבִרְצֹנָם עִקְּרוּ שׁוֹר. אָרוּר אַפָּם כִּי עָז, וְעֶבְרָתָם כִּי קָשָׁתָה, אֲחַלְּקֵם בְּיַעֲקֹב, וַאֲפִיצֵם בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל.. Simeon and Levi are brothers, weapons of violence are their tools. Into their conspiracy may my soul not enter! With their congregation do not unite, O my honor! For in their rage they killed a man and in their wrath they injured an ox. Accursed is their rage for it is mighty, and their wrath for it is harsh; I will separate them within Jacob and I will disperse them in Israel.

Fifty years have passed since the rape of Dinah took place in the city of Shechem. After attacking Dinah, the mayor of the city, whose name was also Shechem, held Dinah hostage and came to beg Jacob for Dinah’s hand in marriage. The brothers, who would have nothing to do with this scandalous proposal, schemed in order to rescue Dinah.

The brothers informed Shechem and his father that they could intermarry with Jacob’s family only if all the men of Shechem would be circumcised. On the third day following their circumcision, when the men of Shechem were in deep pain, two of Dinah’s brothers (“Ah’chay Dinah,” Genesis 34:25), attacked the defenseless city, killing all the males. The other brothers later joined in to plunder the city.

Jacob, who was terribly distressed by his sons’ actions, cried out to Simeon and Levi, Genesis 34:30,וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב אֶל שִׁמְעוֹן וְאֶל לֵוִי, עֲכַרְתֶּם אֹתִי לְהַבְאִישֵׁנִי בְּיֹשֵׁב הָאָרֶץ בַּכְּנַעֲנִי וּבַפְּרִזִּי, וַאֲנִי מְתֵי מִסְפָּר, וְנֶאֶסְפוּ עָלַי וְהִכּוּנִי וְנִשְׁמַדְתִּי אֲנִי וּבֵיתִי, “You have troubled me, making me odious among the inhabitants of the land, among the Canaanites and among the Perizzites; I am few in number, and should they band together and attack me, I will be annihilated–-I and my household.” The brothers plaintively responded, “Should our sister be treated like a harlot?”

It should be carefully noted that Jacob’s condemnation of the two sons, Simeon and Levi, and only these two sons, is not a condemnation of their actions. It is, rather, a condemnation of the fact that they had compromised the security of Jacob and his family, who are now subject to a Canaanite attack–-a rather mild condemnation for murdering all the men of the city.

Why, then, is Jacob so much more unforgiving fifty years later, at the end of his life, denouncing Simeon and Levi as murderers, and demanding that his name not be mentioned in their congregation?

The May’am Loez also points out that, in his final moments, Jacob did not curse his sons, but specifically cursed their anger. Both the May’am Loez and Rashi (Genesis 49:5) suggest that Jacob was particularly upset at Simeon and Levi because they behaved like Esau and stole the “weapons” of Esau, who was destined to live and die by the sword (Genesis 27:40). The May’am Lo’ez surprisingly suggests that perhaps Jacob felt that the actions of the sons might have been justified because of the perfidious crime the people of Shechem had committed, as well as the fact that the perpetrators were idolaters. However, suggests the May’am Lo’ez, Jacob felt that the brothers had gone too far. Since the men of Shechem were disabled, killing the entire city was unjustified. After all, the brothers could have just rescued their sister and left. This, according to the May’am Lo’ez, is the reason why Jacob is so angry, even fifty years later.

Both Rashi and the Malbim pick up on an important nuance in Jacob’s words to Simeon and Levi. In his final words to his sons, Jacob says, כִּי בְאַפָּם הָרְגוּ אִישׁ, וּבִרְצֹנָם עִקְּרוּ שׁוֹר, in their rage they [Simeon and Levi] killed a man and in their wrath they injured an ox (uprooted an ox). Rashi notes that Jacob’s reference to the killing of a “man” clearly refers to the killing of the men of Shechem, who, since they were disabled and defenseless, were like a single “man.” However, “in their wrath, they injured an ox,” refers to Joseph, who is called an ox by Moses in Deuteronomy 33:17, “The chief ox, glory is his.” The Malbim, therefore, explains that, at this point, Jacob is much angrier at Simeon and Levi than he was at the time of the massacre of Shechem, because he now holds Simeon and Levi responsible not only for their unjustified actions in Shechem, but also for scheming to kill Joseph.

Although the Bible never clearly states that Simeon and Levi were the chief schemers against Joseph, Rashi deduces that it only could have been them. (See Rashi, Genesis 49:5)

While it is true that Jacob was devastated by the actions of Simeon and Levi in Shechem, as already noted, it was more because they had compromised the security of Jacob’s entire family, opening them up to a possible Canaanite attack. Even though the brothers’ attempt to take Joseph’s life never materialized, and in fact, turned into a blessing not only for Jacob and his family but for the entire world, Jacob was deeply disappointed with his two sons, Simeon and Levi, and felt the need to express that publicly before his death.

The prophecy of Jacob regarding his two sons, Simeon and Levi, אֲחַלְּקֵם בְּיַעֲקֹב, וַאֲפִיצֵם בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל, I will separate them within Jacob and disperse them within Israel, actually came true. Of all the tribes of Israel, only Simeon and Levi did not receive a designated portion of land in Canaan. The Levites, of course, repented and became the ministers, the clergy of Israel. They re-channeled their passion to the service of G-d (Matot-Masei 5775-2015).

The tribe of Simeon, however, never received their own portion of land and was dispersed within the tribal lands of Judah and the other tribes. According to tradition, most of the poor people of Israel, the scribes and elementary grade teachers, were of the tribe of Simeon. The Simeonites were therefore required by their professions to seek out a livelihood among others, dwelling and dispersed among the other tribes.

The Netziv suggests that the different fates of Simeon and Levi was due to their personal motivations. Simeon was motivated by family pride, while Levi was motivated by the desire to maintain the sanctity of the family of Jacob.

These are the fascinating aspects of the story of Simeon and Levi, and the gems that are derived from the scriptural nuances of the Biblical text.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The fast of the 10th of Tevet will be observed this Tuesday, December 22, 2015 from dawn to nightfall. It commemorates the start of the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, which led to the ultimate destruction of the Temple on the 9th of Av.

Have a meaningful fast.