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Parshat Pinchas – Shimon and Levi

Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1 )

The Torah portion begins with G-d rewarding Pinchas greatly for his act of zealousness in killing Zimri and Cozbi who were committing a grave sin. Pinchas was from the tribe of Levi whilst Zimri was from the tribe of Shimon. This is not the first time in the Torah that these two tribes are associated with one another – Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky provides an illuminating account of the history of these two tribes and how they developed in such different ways.(1)

In Vayishlach, we are told of how Shechem kidnapped Dina. All of the brothers conspired to bring her back; their plan was to persuade the people of Shechem to perform circumcision and then they would come and retrieve Dina whilst the people were still recovering. However, Shimon and Levi planned a more drastic course of action; they believed that all of the people of Shechem were guilty for their part in the taking of Dina and proceeded to wipe out the whole city in the process of saving her. Jacob strongly disagreed with their course of action, fearing that it would greatly damage the reputation of his family. Shimon and Levi defended their actions, saying, “Should our sister be treated like a harlot?!”

It was only many years later that Jacob gave his final rebuke to the two brothers. In Vayechi, in his blessings to his sons, he criticized Shimon and Levi for their impulsiveness. Moreover, he punished them, saying, “I will separate them in Yaakov and disperse them within Yisroel.” (2) The simple understanding of this punishment is that its purpose was to separate the two brothers in order to prevent them from further violence. However, Rav Kamenetsky notes that Rashi provides a different explanation – that Shimon and Levi will be sofrim (people who write Torah scrolls, tefillin and mezuzot) and Torah teachers of children who will travel from city to city to fix the holy items and to teach the Jewish people Torah.(3)

Why was the future Torah education of the Jewish people deliberately put in the hands of Shimon and Levi; what is the measure for measure here?

He answers that Jacob saw that they possessed a positive character trait that the other brothers did not. He recognized their motivation in destroying Shechem: they were willing to risk their whole lives in order to defend the honor of their sister. The other brothers also saw the terrible situation in which Dina was in, but only Shimon and Levi felt the pain as if it were their own pain. Rav Kamenetsky writes: “Yaakov saw that their actions stemmed from an inner pain and genuine empathy with the pain of another, and this motivated them to a burning zealousness that was without limit… Only men of this character, who feel the pain of their fellow as if it is their own pain – only they would … show sufficient self-sacrifice and give up their physical resources, in order to wander from city to city to spread the God’s Torah in the world and to teach the children of Bnei Yisroel.”

Even though Shimon and Levi misapplied their zealousness in the incident of Shechem, Jacob saw in that trait a potential that could be used for a very positive purpose, spreading Torah amongst the Jewish people. However, in this week’s portion we see how the descendants of these two sons of Jacob, followed very different paths: Pinchas, a member of the Tribe of Levi, was able to channel his zealousness to doing the G-d’s will – his act of violence brought an end to the plague that killed thousands of people. G-d rewarded him highly to show that He acknowledged that Pinchas was acting purely for the sake of Heaven. However, Zimri, a Prince of the Tribe of Shimon, expressed the zealousness of his ancestor in a forbidden way, breaking boundaries that the Torah forbade. How did these two tribes divert so drastically from each other?

Rav Kamenetsky explains that whilst most of Klal Yisroel were slaves in Egypt, the tribe of Levi was free to learn Torah. It was this period of internalization of Torah values that enabled the Levites to channel their zealousness in the right way. In contrast the members of the tribe of Shimon never had the opportunity to learn Torah in the same way. Consequently their zealousness was without guidance and therefore expressed itself in forbidden ways.

One vital lesson that can be derived from Rav Kamenetsky’s explanation is the novel understanding of how zealousness should express itself. True zealousness should bring a person to a tremendous feeling of pain when people act in a detestable fashion. The great Torah figure, the Alter of Kelm zt”l expressed this feeling throughout his life: On one occasion he and another Rabbi noticed a Jew taking hay from a gentile’s wagon. After that the Alter was sad, and went about all day with a long face. That evening the other Rabbi asked what the matter was. The Alter seemed surprised at the question. “How can a person be at peace when he sees so much sin in the world?” (4) In addition to feeling pain at such behaviour, he should motivate himself to try to rectify the problem in a suitable fashion. The great leaders of the Jewish people didn’t suffice with expressing pain at areas that were lacking, rather they did whatever they thought necessary to improve the situation – may we all merit to learn from them and help solve the numerous problems that the Jewish people face at this time, whether it be mass assimilation, poverty or the threat against the State of Israel.

By Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen


[1] Emes leYaakov, Vayishlach, p.188-9. Vayechi, blz. 237-8.
[2]. Vayechi, 49:7.
[3] Emes LeYaakov, Vayishlach, ibid.

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