Parashat Vayechi 5767

simeon-levi.jpg“Simeon and Levi are brothers/Their weapons are tools of lawlessness/Let not my person be included in their council/Let not my being be counted in their assembly.” – Genesis 49:5-6

Centuries before the term “cycle of violence” was coined, there was Simeon and Levi…

The centerpiece of Parshat Vayechi is Jacob’s final words to his sons – the famous Biblical poem that is equal part blessing and curse, history and prediction. Jacob saves his harshest words for Simeon and Levi, presumably for their slaughter of the citizens of Shechem following the rape of their sister Dinah (Genesis 34.)

Many contemporary commentators suggest that the Torah’s generally pejorative portrayal of Simeon and Levi might reflect the historically landless status of those particular tribes. In his book “Who Wrote the Bible,” Richard Elliot Friedman suggests that both the Dinah episode and Jacob’s final words to Simeon and Levi reveal the pro-Judah bias of the Biblical “J author.” The geopolitical polemics of these references notwithstanding, Simeon and Levi remain for us as mythic models of unmitigated violence (34:25-29) religious cynicism (34:22-24) and zealous attachment to family honor (34:31).

Especially notable is Jacob’s use of the term “klei hamas” (“tools of lawlessness”). The Hebrew word hamas appears several times in the Bible, and has been also rendered as “violence,” “corruption” or “falsehood.” It is probably best known from the flood narrative in Genesis, where it is used to describe the corrupt generation of Noah.

According to Biblical scholar Tikva Frymer – Kensky, the use of hamas in this context represents a uniquely Biblical form of “pollution:”

In Genesis, the earth is filled with hamas and has itself become polluted because all flesh had polluted its way upon the earth (Genesis 6:11-12). It is the filling of the earth with hamas and its resultant pollution that prompts God to bring a flood to physically erase everything from the earth and start anew. The flood is not primarily an agency of punishment (although to be drowned is hardly a pleasant reward), but a means of getting rid of a thoroughly polluted world and starting again with a clean, well-washed one. (Biblical Archeology Review, December 1977, pp. 147-155).

Frymer-Kensky’s insights may offer us a deeper understanding into the nature of Simeon and Levi’s crimes. In the Biblical understanding, their violent actions may create a similar kind of moral and social pollution. Moreover, Jacob understands that the effect of their actions has become so indelible, so potentially contagious, that he has no choice but to disassociate himself from his own sons entirely: “Let not my person be included in their council/Let not my being be counted in their assembly.”

Among the most powerful Divrei Torah ever given on these verses was a speech delivered by the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on February 28, 1994. Four days earlier, a Jewish settler, Baruch Goldstein, had murdered thirty Muslim worshippers in the Cave of Machpelah in Hevron. In a speech before the Knesset, Rabin quoted Jacob’s words to Simeon and Levi. After reciting Jacob’s disavowal of his two children, Rabin continued, addressing the late Goldstein, who was already becoming viewed as a martyr in the eyes of his zealous followers:

To him and to those like him we say: You are not part of the community of Israel. You are not part of the national democratic camp to which we in this house all belong, and many of the people despise you. You are not partners in the Zionist enterprise. You are a foreign implant. You are an errant weed. Sensible Judaism spits you out. You placed yourself outside the wall of Jewish Law. You are a shame on Zionism and an embarrassment to Judaism.

The legacy of Simeon and Levi remains with us still: only one year after delivering these remarks, Rabin himself was murdered by a religious extremist.

Tragically, Simeon and Levi continue to teach us a profound lesson about the contagion of violence. Much like a virus, bloodshed has the very real potential to beget even greater bloodshed. More than anything else, Jacob’s words to Simeon and Levi remind us to recognize the poisonous effects of violence, to resist its power in ourselves and disavow it when it is manifest in the actions of others, even when – or especially when – it emanates from within our own communities. In the 21st century, an age of increasing sectarian violence and religious zealotry, this imperative may be more critical than ever.

2 thoughts on “Parashat Vayechi 5767

  1. Shirley Gould

    Hasn’t anyone noticed that the word “hamas” is the name of a violent Arab group? I wonder what the word means in Arabic, which often is very close to Hebrew.

  2. Rabbi Brant Rosen Post author

    The connection between the Biblical Hebrew word and the Islamic Palestinian group is a coincidence. The latter is an Arabic acronym for Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiyya (“Islamic Resistance Movement.”)

    I’ll leave it to others to note the potential irony of this similarity…


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