As Jacob lay on his deathbed, he called his sons to his side to offer them
parting words. When it came the turn of his sons Simeon and Levi, Jacob’s
words were scathing: “Simeon and Levi are brothers; instruments of anger are
their merchandise. Let my soul not come into their counsel; to their assembly
let my honor not be united: for in their anger they slew a man, and in their
self-will they lamed an ox. Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce; and their
wrath, for it is cruel: I will divide them in Jacob and scatter them in Israel”
(Genesis 49:5-7). Jacob recalled how the two had avenged their sister’s honor by
massacring Shechem. In parting, he chose to express his lingering anger over
this episode and harshly rebuke his two sons.
The first hassidic master
to serve in a major city, Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Halevi Epstein of Krakow
(1751-1823), author of the classic hassidic work Maor Vashamesh (Breslau 1842),
pondered Jacob’s words. Could it really be that he only reprimanded
Simeon and Levi without offering them any parting blessing? True, the verse says
that Jacob blessed them (Genesis 49:28) – presumably referring to all 12 tribes
– but where is the blessing in that withering critique?
The Maor Vashamesh
explained that holy people are their own harshest critics. Despite their lofty
achievements, they are constantly infuriated with themselves for not reaching
greater heights. This anger prevents such people from comfortably interacting
with others, for their inner rage is often perceived as antagonism toward the
other. Such a person is unable to talk to other people, for at every moment they
resent the conversation, thinking of it as a waste of time that should be
invested in spiritual pursuits. These people only find solace in solitude; never
While the Maor Vashamesh recognized this as a high
spiritual level, he was quick to declare that this was not the true path. The
ideal path – according to him – was to perceive interactions with others as a
further avenue of Divine service. Indeed, the paths to God are many; each path
is an opportunity for spiritual growth: “In all your ways, know Him” (Proverbs
3:6). Service of the Almighty should be a pursuit that precipitates joy and
happiness, not anger and depression.
Returning to Simeon and Levi, the
Maor Vashamesh explained that the two brothers were holy people of the first
type, enraged and unable to interact with their surroundings. This is what Jacob
meant when he said that instruments of anger were their merchandise. The Maor
Vashamesh called such an attitude by the Yiddish word “frum,” an overly pious
approach that precludes interaction with others. Simeon and Levi could only be
alone, and hence Jacob declared, “Let my soul not come into their counsel.” Even
when they were together, their antagonism was dominant and they could know no
joy; thus Jacob did not want to join their assembly.
His final words to
them included his solution to their fundamentalism: “I will divide them in Jacob
and scatter them in Israel” – only through interfacing with the other could
their vice be remedied. This interaction needed to be with all types: whether
the other was on a low spiritual level, as represented by the name Jacob (from
the Hebrew word meaning “heel”); or whether the other was on a lofty spiritual
plane, as represented by the name Israel (a Hebrew word that includes God’s
name). This was Jacob’s blessing to his two “frum” sons: to communicate, to
interface and to interact with others such that their dominant emotion would be
joy rather than depressive, isolating rage.
This – concluded the Maor
Vashamesh – is the perfect path to the Divine.
The writer is on the
faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.