31 Dec Vayechi: The Strength and Pride of the Galus Jew
In this week’s parsha, Parshas Vayechi, upon his deathbed and at the end of his life, Yaakov Avinu blesses each of his sons with their own unique bracha (Bereishis 49, Birkas Yaakov).
To Shimon and Levi, his second and third sons born to Leah, he blesses (and rebukes) them together. Referring to their killing of the people of Shechem, after the abduction and violation fo their sister, Dina, (Gen.34), as well as to the sale of Yosef (instigated and committed by these two brothers, Gen.37), Yaakov says: שִׁמְעוֹן וְלֵוִי, אַחִים כְּלֵי חָמָס מְכֵרֹתֵיהֶם, Shimon and Levi are brothers, stolen tools are their weapons; into their design may my soul not enter, with their congregation do not unite, O my honor!, for in their rage they killed a man (Chamor and the people of Shechem), and in their wish they hamstrung an ox (they wished to uproot and eliminate Yosef); אָרוּר אַפָּם כִּי עָז, וְעֶבְרָתָם כִּי קָשָׁתָה; אֲחַלְּקֵם בְּיַעֲקֹב, וַאֲפִיצֵם בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל, cursed is their rage for it is mighty, and their wrath for it is harsh; I will divide them in Yaakov and I will disperse them in Israel (Bereishis 49:5-7 with Rahi).
In his final words to Shimon and Levi, Yaakov presents two different possibilities as to how these tribes will flourish and spread out amongst the nation: אֲחַלְּקֵם בְּיַעֲקֹב, וַאֲפִיצֵם בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל– I will divide them in Yaakov and I will disperse them in Israel. Why does Yaakov say they will be divided (or apportioned) amongst Yaakov [אֲחַלְּקֵם בְּיַעֲקֹב] and dispersed (or scattered) amongst Israel [וַאֲפִיצֵם בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל]?
R’ S. R. Hirsch brilliantly and powerfully clarifies this bracha for us in his commentary to Chumash: “It is not the intention of the מחלק (the ‘divider’) to weaken something that hitherto was whole, but, rather, to apportion something valuable so that as many people as possible can have a part (חלק) in it. By contrast, the מפיץ (‘scatterer’) divides a whole into the smallest possible parts so as to negate its unity and solidarity.
“Yaakov: the image of dependence, the Jewish people in galus (exile), oppressed and persecuted.
“Yisrael: the image of the Jewish people triumphant, by the hand of G-d.
“Accordingly: The danger posed to the nation by the anger and impetuosity of Shimon and Levi exists only when the nation is flourishing, when it constitutes a powerful community, which could easily be carried away by the influence of two united tribes who are filled with the awareness of their own power and aflame with the feeling of brotherhood. Therefore, אֲפִיצֵם בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל; in the flourishing Jewish state (Israel) they must be scattered, (their unity and solidarity weakened and negated).
“And this is exactly what happened: The tribe of Levi received no share at all in the land, and its survival depended on ma’aser (tithes), on the goodwill of each individual… The landowner was obligated to set it aside, but no particular Levite had a direct claim to it. A person is entitled to give his tithe to any Levite he chooses, and no one has the right to demand it from him. Shimon’s territory was an enclave inside the portion of Yehudah, and Shimon was completely dependent on that powerful tribe. Thus, when Israel thrived as a nation, the political influence of Shimon and Levi was completely paralyzed. [Hence, the fulfillment of Yaakov’s prophecy: אֲפִיצֵם בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל, I will scatter – and weaken their power and strength – among Israel.]
“However! In galus, in exile, where the pressure of our fate weighs down on everything, and the nation itself is scattered, there the real and present danger is that all self-respect will be lost and all spiritual vitality will be stifled. To enable even the wandering Jewish peddler to proudly look down on the European street youth; to enable him to maintain his self-respect and his sense of belonging to his people – for that it is necessary that אֲחַלְּקֵם בְּיַעֲקֹב, I will scatter them amongst Yaakov. [אֲחַלְּקֵם – I will apportion something valuable so that as many people as possible can have a part (חלק) in it.]
“By scattering the tribes of Shimon and Levi among all the other tribes of the Jewish state, G-d did us a great kindness. For the natural result was that, when the state was destroyed and the nation scattered in all directions, descendants of Shimon and Levi were always present, in every place of our dispersion. Everywhere they would foster and nurture in us strength and courage, fervor and noble Jewish pride, thus assuring that the Jewish spirit remained alive and strong even after the demise of the Jewish state.
“As the Sages teach: From Shimon and Levi came scribes and teachers in the synagogues, and from Levi schools where the study of Torah was pursued (Yalkut Shimoni)” (R’ S. R. Hirsch, Commentary to Bereishis 49:7).
The passion, anger, call-to-arms, and impulse of Shimon and Levi pose a potential danger when we are settled in our own Land, in the Jewish commonwealth, and so there, they must be scattered amongst us, אֲפִיצֵם בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל. And yet, it is this very same passion and pride that ensures our survival in exile, amongst the nations of the world, and so there, they are apportioned amongst the nation, אֲחַלְּקֵם בְּיַעֲקֹב, their tenacity of spirit given to us all as a blessing, ensuring our spiritual survival throughout the long millennia of exile.
R’ Soloveitchik teaches, “When ‘Eisav’ wanted a gift of ‘Yaakov’’s sacred objects – the holiness of family life, Shabbos, kashrus, accepted beliefs and traditions, when “Eisav” demanded that “Yaakov” compromise his Torah and his way of living – then a remarkable transformation occurred within Yaakov. Suddenly, the coward, the quiet unassuming Jew, became a hero, full of strength and stubbornness. Suddenly, the crooked back straightened, the pitiful eyes began to spit fire, and he, the coward, refused Eisav’s request with chutzpah and determination” (Days of Deliverance, p.135).
As we await the final redemption, אני מאמין באמונה שלמה בביאת המשיח…אחכה לו בכל יום שיבוא, let us recall the courage, fighting spirit, and daring of Shimon and Levi. For it is their tenacity of spirit, and pride in their heritage, as they have been apportioned amongst Yaakov, that ensures our survival in each and every generation.
בברכת בשורות טובות ושבת שלום