Parashas Vayechi

This week’s parashah recounts Yaakov’s parting words of admonition and blessing to his sons before his death. Regarding Shimon and Levi, he said (Bereishis 49:5-7):
Shimon and Levi are brothers – their weapons are pilfered tools. Into their council may my soul not enter; with their assembly, O my honor, do not associate. For in their anger they slew men, and in their self-will they hamstrung oxen. Cursed be their anger, for it was fierce, and their wrath, for it was harsh; I will separate them with Yaakov, and scatter them in Yisrael.
The Midrash in Tanchuma, Vayechi 10, quoted by Rashi, comments: When Yaakov expressed his wish that his soul not enter Shimon and Levi’s council, he had in mind a hope that his name not be associated with Zimri ben Salu, prince of the tribe of Shimon in the wilderness generation, who brazenly consorted with a Midianite princess (Bamidbar 25). The Maggid raises two questions about this passage. First, how does the phrase “their council” refer to Zimri’s sin? Second, when Yaakov says that “in their ‘self-will’ they hamstrung oxen,” what is the import of the term “self-will,” given that is usually a person’s will that motivates him to act as he does. In connection with this term, the Midrash in Bereishis Rabbah 98:5 states that Yaakov was telling Shimon and Levi that “it was in order to carry out the dictate of your desire that you uprooted the bulwark of the converts.” We need to examine what Yaakov had in mind in saying the Shimon and Levi were following the dictate of their desire.
The Maggid explains the matter as follows. Every person, from his earliest days, is caught up in a battle against his evil inclination. On some occasions, the evil inclination’s line of attack is to try to keep a person from performing a mitzvah. On other occasions, the line of attack is to taint a mitzvah that a person does with an ulterior motive. For example, certain mitzvos that a person performs, such as partaking of delicacies on Shabbos in honor of the day, involve an element of pleasure, and then the question arises whether the person is doing the mitzvah to fulfill Hashem’s will or to fulfill his desire. The person himself may not recognize his true motive.
These ideas serve as a guide in viewing Shimon and Levi’s attack on the city of Shechem after Shechem the son of Chamor violated Yaakov’s daughter Dinah. Was the attack motivated by an earnest intent to avenge Hashem’s honor? Or was the attack motivated by an irate desire to avenge their own personal honor, after the assault on their sister? Yaakov discerned that Shimon and Levi’s motive was personal honor. He therefore declared, “Into their council (סודם) may my soul not enter” –  building on the fact that the Hebrew word סוד for council can also mean secret, Yaakov was indicating that he did not want to be associated with the improper motive secreted in Shimon and Levi’s hearts.
How did Yaakov know what their motive was? He prophetically foresaw Zimri ben Salu’s evil deed, and from this he inferred Shimon and Levi’s motive. The Maggid interprets in this vein the Gemara’s teaching in Sanhedrin 82b that Zimri ben Salu’s name (זמרי בן סלוא) alludes to the fact that he caused his family’s sin to be recalled (הסליא עון משפחתו). What was Yaakov’s reasoning? The Maggid explains the reasoning as follows. In Shir HaShirim Rabbah 4:24, the Midrash teaches that in the merit of Sarah, who guarded herself against immoral relations when she went down to Egypt, the Jewish women guarded themselves against immoral relations during the enslavement in Egypt, and in the merit of Yosef, who guarded himself against immoral relations in Egypt, the Jewish men guarded themselves against immoral relations during the enslavement in Egypt. In this vein, if Shimon and Levi’s attack against Shechem had been prompted by an earnest intent to avenge Hashem’s honor after an incident involving immoral relations (the way Pinchas was prompted to kill Zimri), this merit would have protected their descendants from engaging in similar wrongdoing. Thus, from the fact that Shimon’s descendant Zimri would engaged in immoral relations, Yaakov inferred that Shimon and Levi’s attack had been prompted by a selfish motive. This is what Yaakov meant in saying that Shimon and Levi had acted out of “self-will,” following the dictates of their desire.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

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