How terrible the disappointment must have been for Simon and
Levi! How crushing! They had come to their father’s bedside together
with all their brothers with the expectation that they would receive the
old patriarch’s blessing, but all they received was a sharp reprimand.
As we read in this week’s Torah portion, Jacob, sensing the end of
his life drawing near, summons his sons to his side and blessed them.
But this is far more than a father’s deathbed blessing to his children.
Jacob, the third and final of the Patriarchs, has completed the work of
laying the foundation for the Jewish nation, and now, his twelve sons,
patriarchs of the individual tribes, are poised to build the rich, multi-
hued edifice that would stand forever upon that solid foundation. To help
them achieve this transcendent goal, Jacob’s blessings define the
characters of each of the tribes, their strengths, their obligations, their
contributions to the overall tapestry of Jewish peoplehood. His holy
words empower them to fulfill their particular roles in the greater
scheme of Jewish destiny.
At this critical juncture, when Judah is assigned the crown of
royalty, Isachar the role of scholar, Zebulun the role of philanthropist
and so on, what does Jacob say to Simon and Levi? He reminds them
of the outburst of bloody rage in which they destroyed the city of
Shechem. “Their weaponry is a stolen craft,” he declares, behavior unfit
for the exalted family of Jacob, a page stolen from the book of Esau.
And that is it!
Where is their blessing? Are they to be deprived for all eternity of
the patriarchal fortification which the other tribes received? How could
Jacob leave them standing their without a kind word, a compassionate
gesture of conciliation?
This is how the scene appears to us at first glance. The commentators,
however, have an entirely different perspective on it. Jacob did not
exclude Simon and Levi from his blessings, they explain.
On the contrary, Jacob gave them a very great and critical blessing, a
blessing that would facilitate their participation in the formation of the
During the Shechem incident, Simon and Levi had displayed a dark
and violent side to their natures. They had shown themselves capable
of underhanded conniving and a disregard for human life. With such
decidedly un-Jewish traits, how could Simon and Levi take part in
building a nation whose very existence is predicated on spirituality,
kindness, truth and the nobler traits of the human character, a nation to
which violence and deceit are abhorrent? Simon and Levi, fully aware of
how they had dishonored the Jewish ideal through their own
shortcomings, were heartbroken at the prospect of losing for all the
eternity the opportunity to take part in the building of the Jewish nation.
But Jacob was a loving father, and in his blessing to his two
headstrong sons, he gave them profound reassurance. Your self-image
is wrong, he told them. Do not think of yourselves as violent, deceitful
people. Violence and deceit are an aberration to you, a craft stolen from
Esau. Do not despair. You have it in your power to purge yourselves of
this contamination and resume your honored place among the other
tribes of Israel. It is a undoubtedly a difficult thing to do, but I give
you my blessing that your efforts should be blessed with success.
Two boys were expelled from school for pulling a nasty prank on
one of their teachers. As time went by, one of them became a notorious
criminal, while the other became a great sage.
Years later, the principal had occasion to meet the sage. “Tell me,”
he said. “You both started from the same point. How come you are a
sage and your friend is a criminal?”
“It’s very simple,” the sage replied. “When we were expelled, my
friend’s father ranted and raved at him and punished him severely. But
my father was wiser. He said to me, ‘You are such a fine, good boy.
What got into you to do such a cruel thing? It’s so out of character!’ You
know what? I realized he was right, and I never did such a thing again.”
In our own lives, we are often overcome with remorse and mortification
over some terrible misdeed we committed, whether in the conduct of our
relationship with Hashem or with friends and family. Remorse can be a
very positive reaction, but not if it drags us down into despair and self-
loathing. Let us take heart in Jacob’s reassurance that as descendants of
the holy patriarchs we are essentially good and decent people, that any
misdeeds of which we may be guilty are the product of stolen crafts, alien
influences we can and will eradicate from our hearts.