Commentary for Vayechi

29 Dec

In this week’s parshah, Jacob, on his deathbed, calls all of his sons to him so that he can “tell you what is to befall you in the End of Days (Gen. 49:1).” While this seems to promise specific knowledge of future events, the majority of Jacob’s messages to his sons here seem be more of a commentary on each son’s character than a prophecy of what is to befall each son. Because of this, most commentators understand Jacob’s words as referring to what will happen to the tribes that will bear their names (which were said to have similar temperaments to their progenitors) rather than to the men themselves.

Jacob does not mince his words to his sons. He is positive where he feels it is warranted, but is also not afraid to criticize where he feels it is necessary. Of the criticisms handed out, the harshest by far are delivered to Shimon and Levi. To them Jacob says, “Shimon and Levi are comrades, their weapons are tools of lawlessness. Into their conspiracy may my soul not enter, into their congregation may my honor not join; for in their rage they kill people, and at their whim they maim an ox. Accursed is their rage for it is fierce, and their wrath for it is harsh; I will separate them within Jacob, and I will disperse them in Israel (Gen. 49:5-7).”

The reason for this harsh rebuke stems from the incident of the rape of Jacob’s daughter Dinah, recounted in Gen. 34. In short, a local prince named Shechem came across Dinah in the field one day, kidnapped her and raped her. He felt terrible about what he done, so he sent his father the king to negotiate with Jacob, offering to pay any amount of money or do anything in order to put the incident behind them and let Dinah stay with him as his wife and have peace between their peoples. Jacob’s sons tell Shechem and his father in order to be allowed to marry Dinah (and allow for the possibility of more marriages between their peoples, as Shechem and his father suggest would help cement a peaceful coexistence), they and all of the men of their city must first circumcise themselves. Shechem and his father find these terms acceptable, and after convincing their citizens to go along with it, they all circumcise themselves… and while they are all weakened and in pain from the procedure, Shimon and Levi slipped into the city, rescued their sister, and killed Shechem, his father, and all of the other men in the city. The chapter then closes out with an argument between Jacob and Shimon and Levi in which Shimon and Levi appear to be given the last word.

Our parshah’s scene of Jacob, on his deathbed, addressing each of his sons with a special message is mirrored in the very last parshah of the Torah, in which Moses gives one final address to the Israelites on the eve of his death, offering a unique and personal blessing to each tribe… with the exception of Shimon.

In Levi’s blessing, the Levites are praised as those “who said of his father and mother ‘I consider them not,’ did not recognize his brothers, and did not know his children; for they [the Levites] have observed Your word, and your covenant they preserved. They shall teach Your ordinances to Jacob and Your Torah to Israel; they shall place incense before Your presence, and burnt offerings on Your altar (Deut. 33:9-10).” While that first verse does not sound like praise when taken on its own, the second verse teaches us that the first verse refers to the incident of the golden calf, in which the Levites took up arms against all of those who refused to renounce the idol, showing no favor to idolatrous family members, being loyal only to God and those who serve God, an act for which the Levites were rewarded with their special responsibilities of carrying out sacrifices. This same attribute for which Levi was rebuked by Jacob is praised by Moses as a virtue which earned his descendants a special role in God’s service.

Jacob’s prophecy about Shimon and Levi being separated and dispersed within Israel does come true, but in very different ways. Levi is dispersed and separated in that his tribe is not given a large parcel of territory like all of the others are, but rather they are giving responsibility for running the thirty-nine cities of refuge placed around the country, and are also separated spiritually by their special mandate of service to God. Shimon was dispersed by simply being assimilated into the tribe of Judah, whose territory in Israel surrounded it (which Rashi notes is alluded to in Moses’ blessing to Judah, which starts out with the word “Shema,” which comes from the same root as Shimon’s name).

It is often hard for us to see our own flaws, and when others point them out to us, we often become defensive, but if we can keep our minds open and be honest with ourselves, we like Levi, can work on those flaws and improve ourselves, and even turn our flaws into virtues. If we won’t, we can very well wind up like Shimon, and deny our flaws until we let them destroy us.


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