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Shimon, Levi and Starting Over

By: Rav Yamin Goldsmith

The Gemara in Bava Batra 73b records a number of fascinating stories that happened to Rabbah bar bar Channa. Among them, he records an incident when he and his fellow travelers spent some time on what they thought was an island only to discover otherwise.

Once we were travelling on board a ship and saw a fish whose back was covered with sand out of which grew grass. Thinking it was dry land we went up and baked, and cooked, upon its back. When, however, its back was heated, it turned, and had not the ship been nearby we would have drowned.

When their reality quite literally was upended, Rabbah bar bar Channa had to scramble quickly in order to find safety.

Very often in life we also think we are on solid ground only to find out that our world is turned upside down. Tanach has many examples of lives changing quickly; being on terra firma one moment, and, in the next moment, being forced to scramble and to react (e.g. the death of Sarah Imeinu, the brothers on their return home only to find money - and, later, the goblet, the death of Eli Hacohen, etc.).

Our parsha, at least for two of the brothers, provides an example of this sudden turn of events and the various reactions to such an upheaval.

As Yaakov assembles his children and grandchildren for his end-of-life brachot, many of the gathered family receive most beautiful brachot. Ephraim and Menashe, for example, are told ; Reuven is blessed , . The blessings to Yehuda are even more detailed:
--, ; , . ,

However, for Shimon and Levi, their island is overturned as they receive painful rebuke from their father. Referring, according to Rashi, to Shimon and Levis concerted efforts to kill Yosef (see Rashi here and to Bereishit 42:24) and their attack on Shchem (see Bereishit 34) Yaakov conveys a very negative message to the pair (49:5-7):

, -- , . - , - , -. , ; ,
Shimon and Levi are brothers, a pair; instruments of crime are their weapons. Let my soul not enter their plot; let my honor not unite with their meeting - for they have killed men with anger, maimed a bull with their will. (i.e. Yosef).Cursed be their rage, for it is fierce, and their fury, for it is cruel. I will disperse them in Jacob, scatter them in Israel.

One can only imagine how these brothers - operating as a pair for as long as we can remember - felt after hearing their identical, negative bracha. We would expect them to react similarly, even identically, as they have their whole lives.

But that is not the case.

Shimon and Levi, from that point forward, have different reactions and create for themselves and for their descendants disparate destinies.

Shimon seems to have understood that all is lost and, it seems at face value, to be unable to recover from such a distressing experience. We hear almost nothing from Shimon nor from his tribe after this experience. They do indeed get dispersed and scattered as their population decreases throughout the 40 years in the desert and, by the time they enter Eretz Yisrael, their land becomes subsumed in the Yehudas land. At the end of Torah, when Moshe gives the Shvatim his end-of-life brachot in Parshat Vzot Habracha, Shimon does not even receive a bracha at all!

Levi, on the other hand, reacts to the rebuke in the absolute opposite direction. He seems to have used this overturned island as mussar to change his life around and to alter his tribes destiny. He becomes the progenitor of some the most important leaders in Bnei Yisrael including Moshe, Aharon, Miriam and Pinchas. Shevet Levi would go on to serve in the Mishkan and the Beit Hamikdash. They too, like Shimon, are dispersed and scattered around Israel but in a positive way: they receive the 48 Levi cities in order to teach Torah as Moshe foretells (Devarim 33:10):

The difference between Shimon and Levis reaction to crisis is remarkable.

We too have our experiences of overturning islands, of encountering sudden changes in our reality that call into question the stability of our lives. The question is not whether crises such as these will occur. The challenge is rather how we react to adversity and hardship. Will we view these challenges as barriers where we surrender and capitulate? Or do we take these encounters as a wakeup call giving us the opportunity to change the direction our lives are taking? The choice is ours.


Categorized under: 1: Parshat Shavua > Vayechi