Magazine

Instruments of anger

Discover what Jacob's blessing was to his two "frum" sons and how this is the perfect path to the Divine.

Jacob and Esau 521
Photo by: Avi Katz
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 in community.

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.


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