In Parshas Vayechi, Yaakov Avinu blesses his sons, and to a degree foretells the future of the shevatim who represent the body of Klal Yisrael. Addressing Shimon and Levi, he says (Bereishis 49:5-7), “Shimon and Levi are brothers; tools of injustice are their livelihood (a reference to their killing the inhabitants of the city of Shechem). Into their scheming (besodam) my soul did not enter, with their congregation my spirit did not join. For in their rage they killed people and at their will they lamed oxen, I will separate them within Yaakov and I will disperse them within Yisrael.” It would seem that, amongst all the shevatim, only Shimon and Levi, two shevatim, were addressed as one unit. Yet Ramban states (ibid 5), ‘Therefore, [Yaakov] decided that he would separate them within Eretz Yisrael, so that they would not be able to scheme together, and that he would disperse them so that they not congregate together. This is in fact what happened to them, for Shimon’s inheritance was among the people of Yehudah… and its cities were separated from each other, scattered throughout all of the tribe of Yehudah. Levi’s heritage was the cities of refuge, which were dispersed throughout all of Israel. Thus, the members of the tribe of Shimon were separated from one another within the portion of Yehudah, while the Levites were dispersed throughout all of Israel. What is the reason for the differences in the way these tribes were dispersed?
A careful examination of the Ramban teaches us that the ‘separation with Yaakov’ corresponds to ‘into their scheming my soul did not enter,’ while the ‘dispersal in Israel’ corresponds to ‘and with their congregation my spirit did not join.’ What does this mean? How is their ‘scheming’ negated through the separation of Shimon and their congregating foiled by the dispersal of Levi? It is also of note that when speaking of ‘separation,’ Yaakov Avinu uses the name ‘Yaakov’ and when speaking of ‘dispersal’ he uses the name ‘Yisrael.’
The Ramban explains two aspects of wrongdoing in Shimon and Levi’s killing the people of Shechem. First, Yaakov Avinu felt that there was a chance that the people of Shechem might join the group of proselytes who were Avraham Avinu’s students, since they had undergone circumcision. Second, Yaakov did not want people to say that he, Yaakov, was the one who advised Shimon and Levi to do what they did, for that would constitute a desecration of Hashem’s name if Yaakov, who was a prophet, would abet an act of plunder and injustice. This is the reason for Yaakov’s words, ‘in their scheming’, referring to their deceptive response to Shechem and his father. In addition, Yaakov did not join in their congregation when they came upon the city and killed its inhabitants.
Although both Shimon and Levi were jointly responsible for the killing of Shechem, we find that these shevatim were viewed differently. Ramban notes (Bamidbar 3:14) that the tribe of Shimon suffered the loss of 22,000 people just before entering Eretz Yisrael, while Levi “the tribe of the righteous ones” simply did not experience population growth in proportion with the other tribes. Moreover, we see that the tribe of Levi became the servants of Hashem in the Beis Hamikdash. Surely, this difference must have been reflected in the persona of the respective tribes’ progenitors, Shimon and Levi, themselves!
The Midrash says that Shimon and Levi sought council neither from their father Yaakov nor from each other! This certainly implies that they each went about their attack on Shechem with individual agendas. The Netziv (He’emek Davar, ibid 5) suggests that Shimon’s intent was to protect the family’s good reputation, while Levi was avenging the chillul Hashem inherent in Shechem’s deed. Levi might have erred, inasmuch as everything we do, even when acting with selfless agendas, has a proper time and place, and needs to be judged for appropriateness; especially concerning something as atypical as the decimation of an entire city. Nevertheless, we take note of the more selfless, lesheim shamayim motivation of Levi over that of Shimon. This is what the above Midrash alludes to —their differing agendas. Thus the tribe of Levi, in merit of the purity of motive of the head of their tribe, became “the tribe of the righteous ones,” while Shimon’s tribe became the source of much trouble at Ba’al Pe’or, with the subsequent consequences.
Many commentators point out that the name ‘Yaakov’ is used in reference to the Jewish people when dealing with the connection that B’nei Yisrael have to this world, the world of chomer (physicality), while the name ‘Yisrael’ is used in a more sublime, spiritual connection. The name Yaakov is derived from Yaakov Avinu’s emergence in the world “holding onto the heel of Esau” (ibid 25:26), while Yisrael stems from his “struggling (spiritually) with G-d and people,” (ibid 32:29) and winning!
The ‘separation’ of Shimon amongst Yaakov was intended for the purpose of —separation! That is the beginning and end of it. In contrast the ‘dispersal’ of Levi was ‘in Yisrael,’ with the resultant purpose of this dispersal amongst all the tribes for the benefit of Klal Yisrael, so that Levites could teach Torah and rule on halachic issues throughout the entire land (Rabbeinu Bachya ibid 49:7). Thus, the Levites were said to be dispersed amongst Yisrael, while Shimon was spread out—in Yaakov!
We mentioned above that there were wrongful parts of the attack on Shechem. One aspect was the scheming, the seeming-to-appear-as-a friend and planning otherwise. Yaakov declared that he wants it known clearly that he was not involved “besodam”—in their scheming. In order to prevent any further such scheming, Shimon was scattered. In this respect, Levi was just as culpable as Shimon had been.
The second part —the dispersal amongst Yisrael— was directed at their having congregated for the slaying itself, which Yaakov Avinu held to be wrongful. Again, Yaakov Avinu declared that he was not part of this congregating to accomplish this deed. Thus, he dispersed them so that their congregation would not lead to such inappropriate actions. However, inasmuch as Levi’s intentions were pure, this dispersal has a definite spiritually beneficial result; the way any ‘punishment’ ideally should be (remember last week’s column?). That is, a spiritual tikkun (rectification) of the misdeed. In this case, the tikkun is teaching Torah to all of Klal Yisrael. Instead of having Levi teach from one central location, ‘I will disperse them amongst Yisrael.’
This also explains the difference in the further ‘punishments’ of these two respective tribes. Shimon, whose tribe was involved in the Ba’al Pe’or debacle, lost 22,000 of its members, while Levi ‘suffered’ only by not experiencing the supernatural growth that the other shevatim had in Egypt. From their ancestor’s selfless motivation, came forth the eternal, continuous zikui harabbim of the Levite tribe.