Rabbi Binyamin Kahane- Parshat VaYechi
THE SHECHEM MASSACRE
Jacob's curse of Shimon and Levi in our parsha raises the perennial question: Were they correct in wiping out Shechem's male population or not?
One who reads Parshat VaYechi can easily reach the conclusion that the question is answered by Jacob when he says, "Cursed be their anger for it is fierce..." (Genesis 49:7). These words refer to the massacre of Shechem, and they certainly seem to put the deed in a negative light. Indeed, this is how many love to interpret Jacob's curse, condemning Shimon and Levi for their actions in Shechem.
But numerous observations challenge this simplistic understanding. First, whoever reads Parshat VaYishlach will notice that the Torah concludes the story with Shimon and Levi having the upper hand. For in response to Jacob's argument- "You have brought trouble on me to make odious among the inhabitants of the land"- Shimon and Levi promptly answer, "Shall he make of our sister a harlot?" And thus the story ends, without a peep from Jacob, with the brothers clearly putting the matter to rest.
More than that, pay attention to the argument of Jacob. He does not censure them for MORAL reasons. He does not criticize them for wiping out an entire city unjustly. NO! This is NOT his argument. His is a PRACTICAL one- that all the surrounding nations will attack him now.
And if the reader is not yet convinced, know what it says in the Midrash (Bamidbar Rabba 2:7) - that on the flag of Shimon was nothing other than an illustration of the city of Shechem! Now ask yourself: Would Shimon place an illustration of something on his flag that recalled a sin? Clearly, then, the act of Shimon and Levi was proper.
And the fact is, none of the Jewish commentators condemn the act. The Rambam, for one, explains that Shimon and Levi were justified because the people of Shechem did not put Shechem ben Chamor on trial for raping Dina, making them liable to death under the 7 Noahide laws. The Maharal disagrees, arguing that one can't expect a people to put their prince, whom they fear, on trial. He therefore suggests that the Children of Israel behaved as is customary in all wars, exacting collective punishment.
If Shimon and Levi acted properly, though, why does Jacob curse them in Parshat VaYechi?
The answer lies in their motive. Jacob realized that their impulse in wiping out Shechem wasn't entirely pure. When did Jacob conclude this? When it became clear that the major culprits in the selling of Joseph were the very same Shimon and Levi, as the Rabbis tell us (Tanchuma, VaYechi 9).
In other words, the brothers' plot to kill Joseph- headed by Shimon and Levi- shed light on their actions in Shechem. It indicated that their deed was not purely l'sheim shamayim but, rather, stemmed in part from anger. And so Jacob cursed "their anger for it is fierce." Jacob did not curse THEM, but rather their ANGER.
Interestingly enough, we find that the tribe of Levi took Jacob's curse to heart and improved itself. The tribe continued acting zealously- it was the Levites who slew their brethren for the sin of the Golden Calf and it was Pinchas who stood up for G-d's honor by killing Zimri- but the motivation was now purely l'sheim shamayim. Levi's zealotry was no longer tainted by anger.
The tribe of Shimon, in contrast, never succeeded in purifying itself. Whom did Pinchas kill? Zimri, from the tribe of Shimon- a Jewish leader who brazenly and impetuously committed the same type of sin for which his ancestor once wiped out an entire city.
Darka Shel Torah, 1992
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