Vayechi: Fierce Brothers

April 15, 2011 at 8:44 pm | Posted in Vayechi | 1 Comment

(This blog was first posted on December 27, 2009.)

Shimon and Levi are two-of-a-kind;

weapons of violence are their trade.

Don’t let my soul come into their conspiracy;

don’t let my honor be associated with their assembly!

Because in their rage they murdered a man,

and in their desire they crippled a bull.

Accursed is their rage because it is fierce,

and their fury because it is relentless.

I will separate them in Jacob,

and I will scatter them in Israel.  (Genesis/Bereishit 49:5-7)

az = strong, intense, fierce

In this week’s Torah portion,  Vayechi (And he lived), Jacob’s twelve sons gather around his deathbed to receive his final blessings.  But before Jacob blesses them, he says he will tell them what will happen to them in days to come, acharit ha-yamim (Genesis 48:1).  In the long poem following, he gives each son a prophetic insight about his inner nature or the nature of his descendants, his tribe.  Only then does the Torah say Jacob “blessed each son according to his appropriate blessing” (Genesis 49:28).

Each of Jacob’s twelve sons gets a separate verse in the poem—except Shimon (Simon) and Levi, Jacob and Leah’s second and third sons.  They were the two ringleaders responsible for tricking and then massacring the peaceful men of Shechem.  (See my blog Vayishlach: Mr. Shoulders.)  Here Jacob lumps Shimon and Levi together again—then says he must separate them.  This reminds me of a teacher who notices two troublemakers in the class egging one another on, and makes them sit apart in order to neutralize them.  Yet Shimon and Levi are not just troublemakers.  Their problem, according to Jacob, is the intensity of their anger.  When they are together, their fiery natures combine in a conflagration that is so fierce and unthinking, it results in genocide at Shechem.

Jacob is not the first to separate Shimon and Levi.  When Joseph arrests the ten brothers who come to Egypt for grain, he sends nine of them (including Levi) home to fetch Benjamin, but he keeps Shimon imprisoned in Egypt until they return.  Who knows what would have happened if Shimon and Levi had stayed together at that critical time?

As Jacob predicts on his deathbed,  in the subsequent history of the people of Israel the tribes of Shimon and Levi were scattered, and did go separate ways.  The Levites become the caste of priests and their assistants.  (The kohanim, priests, are descendants of Aaron, a member of the tribe of Levi.  The other Levites are their assistants in the sanctuary.)  They did not have their own territory, but lived in 48 cities.  The Shimonites became itinerant teachers, according to some midrash, and inherited land only within the territory of the tribe of Judah.  Their numbers dwindled in the book of Numbers/Bamidbar, and they were left out of Moses’ final blessings of the tribes in Deuteronomy/ Devarim 33:6-24.  But Moses praised the devoutness of the Levites.

Both Shimon and Levi are born with fiery, passionate natures.  Both fall into the error of violent anger.  But only the Levi (as a tribe or an archetype) learns how to channel this natural passion into devotion to God.

Except, perhaps, for the tale of Zimri, the leader of the Shimonites, and Pinchas, the Levite who became the high priest, concerning the worship of Baal-Peor in Numbers 25:1-14.  But that’s another story and another blog.


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  1. […] Each prophecy is really about the tribe that will bear that son’s name. (See my earlier post, Vayechi: Fierce Brothers.) But earlier in Genesis, Jacob’s sons are characters in the […]

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