Rabbi Moshe Bloom

By Rabbi Moshe Bloom
Torah VeHa’aretz Institute

“Simeon and Levi are brothers; their weapons are a stolen craft. Let not my soul be included in their council, let not my being be counted in their assembly … cursed be their anger so fierce, and their wrath so relentless. I will divide them in Jacob, scatter them in Israel” (Bereishit 49: 5–7).

“Let not my soul be included in their council” —  this refers to the incident with Zimri. “In their assembly” — when Korach, who is from the tribe of Levi, will assemble the congregation against Moshe and Aharon.” (Rashi, 49:6).

“I will divide them in Jacob” … there shall be no poor or scribes or teachers of small children except from [the tribe of] Shimon, so that they will be dispersed. The tribe of Levi was also made to go from one threshing floor to another for offerings (terumot) and tithes (ma’aserot). He caused [Levi] to be dispersed in an honorable way.” (Rashi, ibid.: 7).

One Act. Different Consequences.

At times, two students who do the same thing wrong are given very different punishments, since the teacher realizes that these actions stem from different roots, so each needs to be addressed separately.

Among the sons of Yaakov, the pair of brothers whose fraternity stands out most is Shimon and Levi. Later on, we do not see this bond persisting; on the contrary, their descendants each fail in different areas, their differences manifesting in the negative historical event tied to each tribe: the sin with the women of Moav and Korach’s rebellion, and also in the “punishment” that Yaakov gives each. The tribe of Shimon will be poor teachers while the Levi’im will go to threshing floors to collect terumot and ma’aserot.

It is interesting that for Levi, this dispersion is considered honorable. This seems strange; what is so honorable about the Levi’im having to go around to threshing floors to collect their gifts? Moreover, is Shimon’s form of livelihood as a teacher of small children not much more honorable? We don’t need teachers’ unions to decry teachers’ low social status; obviously, this is a perplexing statement, compounded when contrasted to what is considered more honorable — the Levi’im going to the threshing floors.

Different Roots Of Anger

It seems the Shimon and Levi’s anger did not come from an ingrained trait of anger. This is how our Sages explain “their weapons are a stolen craft” — the trait of anger isn’t really theirs; rather, it is “stolen” from Eisav. Their anger came from a tendency each had, doubtless perfected among the righteous fathers of each tribe; however, it manifested in a distorted fashion among their descendants.

With Shimon, it was a tendency towards matters relating to the drive for intimacy. Shimon, father of the tribe, was deeply pained over what was perpetrated to his sister Dina, and this sparked his anger. Yaakov felt this trait was not sufficiently refined here. Later, his offspring would argue with Moshe regarding the Moavite women — not to clarify the truth, but to permit having relations with them. In contrast, Levi desired a spiritual leadership status highlighting the tribe’s uniqueness. He was pained over the violation of the daughter of Yaakov, G-d’s representative in the world. This is what sparked his anger; here too, Yaakov sanctioned him that this drive wasn’t sufficiently refined. In his offspring, this tendency was manifest in a distorted fashion by Korach, an honorable spiritual figure. Korach used various claims to justify his personal drive for prestige.

Tempering And Channeling Character Traits

Yaakov is not punishing the tribes, but rather providing an antidote to perfect and channel their ingrained traits that otherwise would be expressed improperly. Since the drive for intimate relations was given to generate life, the sons of Shimon are given the mission to create new spiritual lives by turning completely materialistic children into refined individuals learning His holy Torah. To further temper their trait, they have to travel, as “Torah accompanied with a profession”; “the toil of both diminishes sin.” Since finding a livelihood in this field has never been easy, it keeps these drives in check.

Levi, in contrast, requires a different form of rectification. Since Levi’im might think they are the only ones capable of attaining lofty levels of spirituality and leadership, they have to go around to the threshing houses. The halachah is that while growers must separate terumot and ma’aserot from their produce, they decide to whom to give them; Levi’im and kohanim cannot take these gifts by force (Rambam Hilchot Terumot 12:15). Moreover, the kohanim and Levi’im need to go to the agricultural areas and request the gifts from the growers, not the other way around. All of these laws are to put kohanim and Levi’im in their proper place—so they know that while they have a unique spiritual potential, they should not become haughty but remember that they depend on the kindness of others. Moreover, the kohanim are all equals, and no one has precedence over the other in terms of receiving the gifts.

All this is not to humiliate them. Kohanim and Levi’im may not disgrace themselves, and cannot help with the agricultural work to find favor in the eyes of the growers so the latter will give them the gifts; these are gifts to G-d, not salary. “And anyone who helps profanes the sanctity of G-d … and Israelites may not allow them to help, rather should give them their portion in an honorable manner” (ibid.: 18). While this means that the kohen and Levi need the rest of the Jewish People, this must be done in an honorable fashion so that the kohanim and Levi’im remain free to perform their spiritual duties. This is what Rashi’s intention is: “He caused [Levi] to be dispersed in an honorable way” — unlike Shimon (whose dispersion is also honorable), this is a qualifier: while this situation may bring disgrace, it really is not so, since terumot and ma’aserot are to be collected in an honorable fashion. 

Rabbi Moshe Bloom is head of the English department of Torah VeHa’aretz Institute. Torah VeHa’aretz Institute (the Institute for Torah and the Land of Israel) engages in research, public education, and the application of contemporary halachic issues that come to the fore in the bond between Torah and the Land of Israel today. For additional information and inquiries, email h.moshe@toraland.org.il or call 972-8-684-7325.

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