Back to This Week's Parsha

Peninim on the Torah

subscribe.gif (2332 bytes)

Previous issues

Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Shimon and Levi are brothers…..Into their conspiracy, may my soul not enter…..Accursed is their rage for it is intense….I will separate them within Yaakov, and I will disperse them in Yisrael. (49:5,6,7)

Horav S. R. Hirsch, zl, notes that Shimon and Levi exhibited a distinctive character trait that under normal circumstances would have constituted a basis for granting them a dominant role over Klal Yisrael: They were "achim," brothers. They had elevated the value of communal brotherhood to an extremely high level. Completely free of egoism, each one of them was touched by any wrong done to even the least important member of the family circle. To hurt a member of the family was to injure each one of them personally. In response, their collective rage, although perfectly justified, was unharnessed. They killed men whose indifference to Shechem's violation of Dinah betokened their silent support of his dastardly act. Had they confined their rage to the culprit, perhaps Yaakov Avinu might not have been as critical of them.

Rage cannot catalyze a blessing. The natural consequence of their impulsivity was a curse. Unbridled anger is a character trait that renders a person unfit for leadership. Horav Hirsch notes the significance of Yaakov Avinu's words to the emerging nation. At the laying of the cornerstone of the Jewish nation it was of profound importance to emphasize that every violation of the laws of morality and justice, even those performed in the best interests of the community, produces a curse. Cunning, guile and brute force, which in private life never go unpunished, result in accolades and civic honors in the public sector. The laws of morality exist only for private life. In politics and diplomacy, the only code of ethics that is recognized is the one that supports the party or the state. The original testament for the Jewish nation presented here placed a curse on all trickery and violence, even if they are allegedly executed on behalf of the public interest. We are, thereby, taught that the end does not justify the means, regardless whether or not the beneficiary is an individual or the entire community.

Yaakov says, "I will separate them within Yaakov, and I will disperse them in Yisrael." "Achalkem," I will separate/divide them up, not with the intention of breaking up a whole, but rather to portion out something valuable. "Afitzeim," I will disperse/scatter them, is to divide something up into the smallest possible pieces so that nothing remains intact of the original whole. The name "Yaakov" is a reference to Klal Yisrael in galus, exile, where they are depressed and persecuted. "Yisrael," on the other hand, is the name which implies strength, power and victory. Accordingly, the danger to the general well-being of our People as a result of Shimon and Levi's excessive impetuosity and irascible disposition, presents itself only at a time when Klal Yisrael is flourishing. It is manifest when the nation consists of a powerful body of people who can easily be influenced by two close- knit tribes filled with feelings of strength and power, coupled with unity and brotherhood. In a flourishing state of Yisrael, Shimon and Levi must be separated. This actually happened.

Shevet Levi was to be entirely dependent upon its brethren for sustenance. When the land was apportioned, they received no province at all. Shevet Shimon's portion was in an enclave, blocked in entirely and greatly dependent upon its more powerful neighbor, Yehudah. Thus, when Klal Yisrael was in a flourishing state, Shimon and Levi's political influence was totally impeded. During our times of persecution, when we are subject to the trials and tribulations of the galus experience, there is a clear and present danger that the people's feeling of inconsequence and sense of oppression will destroy their spiritual energy. It is under these circumstances that the phrase, "v'achalkem b'Yaakov," "I will separate them within Yaakov," is of critical import. The greatest benefit to the broken, downtrodden Jew of Europe, the depressed Jew scattered and persecuted throughout the world, was the fact that the tribes of Shimon and Levi were "scattered" along with them. Their presence helped to elevate the feelings of self-esteem within the Jew, the sense of belonging to a proud nation. It reinforced their pride in their religion and the satisfaction of maintaining their conviction in the face of extreme challenge. The fiery passion of Shimon and Levi kept alive the energy and courage, the fire and noble Jewish pride, the enduring Jewish spirit, which outlived the loss of the Jewish state. Indeed, as Chazal teach us, the most important contingent of Jewish teachers, scholars and scribes descended from Shimon and Levi. They imbued the children who, as they grew into adulthood, carried forth the zeal and passion to function as a proud and committed Jew. Yaakov Avinu's critique was actually a profound blessing in disguise. Is that not often the case?

Into their conspiracy, may my soul not enter! With their congregation do not unite, O' my honor! For in their rage they killed a man and in their wish they hamstrung an ox. (49:6)

Rashi cites Chazal, who explain that "b'sodam", in their design, is a reference to the incident of Zimri. The tribe of Shimon, following their leader, Zimri, gathered together conspiratorially to Cosbi, the Midyanite princess, before Moshe. Zimri asked, "Is it forbidden to take a non-Jewess as a wife or not? If it is forbidden, who permitted Yisro's daughter to you?" Yaakov did not want his name involved in this matter. Consequently, when the Torah records Zimri's lineage, Yaakov's name is not mentioned. The word "b'kehalam," with their congregation, is a reference to Korach, a member of the Tribe of Levi, who congregated the entire assembly against Moshe and Aharon.

Horav Meir Shapiro, zl, explains Chazal according to the Talmud in Kiddushin 52b where it is stated, "Happy is he who sees his parents in a superior craft/trade, and woe to him who sees his parents in a mean/defective craft." He interprets Chazal's term "craft/trade" as referring to mitzvos and maasim tovim, good deeds. When one is himself involved in the performance of mitzvos, is kind to his fellow man, goes out of his way to help whomever he can, it is appropriate to call to mind the good deeds of his ancestors. After all, he is following in their footsteps, so that the merit of his forebears assists him in continuing on in the path of the righteous, of Torah and mitzvah observance. The converse is true when one is involved in an evil craft of sin and mitzvah neglect. For him, it is best that he does not recall his ancestors' righteous deeds -- for two reasons. First, his actions bring disgrace upon them. He has deviated from the path which they have charted for him. Second, the mere fact that he has descended from virtuous and pious Jews is a greater liability. He is held in greater contempt for veering from the spiritual path which his ancestors laid out for him. Yaakov Avinu, therefore, prayed that his name not be mentioned in relation to his evil grandchildren. Why magnify their sin more than necessary? Emphasizing their origins would only condemn them even more.

In recalling their sin, Yaakov said "For in their rage they killed a man," and "in their wish they hamstrung an ox." Chazal say their act of rage refers to executing the people of Shechem for their involvement in, and subsequent indifference to, the violation of their sister Dinah. Yosef is referred to as an ox. Chazal criticize them for their part in the sale of Yosef. Horav Shapiro asserts that Yaakov was rebuking them for their hypocritical behavior. He addresses their anger. Even if we were to say that one could justify their actions, violating an innocent girl is a heinous crime, which deserves a punishment commensurate with the crime. Such evil should be expunged from the community, along with its perpetrator. Shimon and Levi did not attack the people of Shechem out of a sense of righteousness, to punish them for their crime, to rid the world of this virulent strain of evil. They acted in anger! They did not deliberate; they did not have kavanah l'shem mitzvah, religious intent to perform the mitzvah of removing the evil from our midst. No, they acted in anger. Their action was basically negative. Had they thought out their response, there might have been some room to justify it. Their implusivity rendered their behavior nothing more than revenge motivated by anger and vindictiveness.

Conversely, in regard to their selling of Yosef, had they acted out of anger, there might be some way to vindicate their deed. No, they acted deliberately, with premeditation, impervious to Yosef's entreaties. They knew what they were doing. They did not act out of impulse. They convened a bais-din, court of law, to determine Yosef's guilt. He was found guilty and deserving of punishment. There was no room for compassion. This was their error. They acted capriciously when they should have been prudent. They were circumspect when a "little anger" would have been appropriate.

Although you intended me harm, G-d intended it for good: in order to accomplish-it is as clear as this day-that a vast people be kept alive. (50:20)

Yosef was assuaging his brothers' guilt, saying that Hashem "caused" him to be brought to Egypt in order to set in motion the vehicle for ultimately saving them. They were simply pawns in Hashem's Divine plan. The commentators question the meaning and purpose of the words, "It is clear as this day." What is the reference to "this day"? The Ozrover Rebbe, zl, in his sefer Be'er Moshe, posits that the "kayom ha'zeh," "this day," is a reference to another instance in which the phrase "this day" is used: In Parashas Veyeshev, when recalling the incident of Yosef Ha'tzaddik and the promiscuous wife of Potiphar, the Torah says, "Then there was an opportune (this) day when he (Yosef) entered the house to do his work" (39:10). This pasuk serves as the preface, leading up to the incident in which Potiphar's wife did everything possible to seduce Yosef. Her blandishments and ensuing threats fell on deaf ears. Yosef could not be persuaded to sin. He maintained his purity, triumphing over the overwhelming challenge presented by this iniquitous woman.

The Ozrover explains that Yosef's ability to restrain himself, to overcome the natural desires this woman was attempting to arouse, was a merit, which foreshadowed future events for Klal Yisrael in Egypt. Yaakov's descendants were to be slaves in a country in which wanton immorality was an inherent part of the culture. Egypt was the most depraved country. To be able to overcome the challenges of such an environment, Klal Yisrael needed special zechusim, merits. They were bequeathed these merits through Yosef Hatzaddik. His strength of character and fortitude in the face of overwhelming challenge on "that day" formed the basis for Klal Yisrael's ability to withstand temptation during their tenure in Egypt. This is the meaning of "kayom ha'zeh", Yosef was inferring to his brothers that he was "sent" by Hashem to Egypt to save "this day," a reference to the "day" that Potiphar's wife attempted to seduce him. His ability to withstand the challenge to his purity on that day saved "a vast nation," namely Klal Yisrael's spiritual/moral purity. Because of him they did not become victims of the moral decadence of Egypt.

He (Yosef) comforted them and spoke to their heart. (50:21)

Yosef comforted his brothers. It seems that he had forgiven them for selling him as a slave. In a similar statement, Yosef said to his brothers, "Do not be distressed and do not reproach yourselves for having sold me here, for it was as a provider that Hashem sent me here ahead of you." (Bereishis 45:5) Once again, it seems apparent that Yosef was not angry with his brothers. Indeed, he asserted that the sale was a G-d-send. Hashem placed him in Egypt, so that he would be in a position to help his family. Both of these pesukim apparently imply Yosef's forgiveness. He did not, however, forgive them. The Torah does not relate explicit forgiveness from Yosef. Was explicit forgiveness necessary? One would think that Yosef's remarks concerning the mechirah, sale, would be sufficient proof that he had forgiven his brothers.

The Midrash, as cited by Rabeinu Bachya, teaches us that Klal Yisrael suffered the terrible tragedy of the Asarah Harugei Malchus, Ten Martyrs, who were murdered by the Roman emperor as a result of the sin of mechiras Yosef, the sale of Yosef. Is this possible? Did not Yosef forgive his brothers for their part in the sale? Why should ten great Torah leaders, the greatest of the generation, die as penance for that sin?

Rabbeinu Bachya explains that while it seems that Yosef forgave them -- and he probably did forgive them -- he never explicitly and openly articulated this forgiveness. It is only implied by his statements. That is not sufficient. The forgiveness must be explicit! This is why the tragedy of the Ten Martyrs occurred many centuries later.

What a powerful lesson for us! How often do we apologize to someone we hurt? We even ask for forgiveness, only to receive the following response, "It's okay;" "It's no problem," "Don't worry about it," which we accept as sufficient. We see here that unless the person we hurt explicitly says, "I forgive you," we are still held liable. To forgive a hurt is not a simple thing to do; to articulate this forgiveness is more difficult, but without this explicit forgiveness, the absolution is not genuine.

Vignettes on the Parsha

May (the angel) bless the lads….And may they proliferate like fish within the land. (48:16)

Why did Yaakov bless them to be like the fish, as opposed to any other living creature, such as animals or fowl? All creatures include species, some of which are kosher and some of which are not kosher. Fish are no exception. Even after fowl and animals are ritually slaughtered, however, they still require a process of checking that the shechitah went well, followed by a process of koshering the meat. Fish, on the other hand, observes Horav Mordechai Cohen, zl, are kosher immediately, as long as they manifest the required natural kosher sign. Yaakov blessed his children that they should remain on the same level of purity throughout their lives as they held when they were born. Once they are "kosher," they should remain kosher.


That will befall you in the end of the days. (49:1)

The word "yikra" has the same connotation as the word "yikrah" with a "hay" at its end; it denotes a random occurrence. The Baal Shem Tov comments that when Moshiach arrives, every Jew will be preoccupied and engaged in his daily endeavor. The sudden advent of Moshiach will be a sudden and totally unexpected occurrence. How strange it is that something we believe might occur at any moment can come as an unexpected surprise.


Your hand will be at your enemies nape. (49:8)

Rabbeinu Bachya notes that every letter of the Hebrew alphabet is included in the blessing to Yehudah-except for the letter "zayin". "Klei zayin" are utensils that are used for war, i.e., weapons. We are being taught that the malchus, kingdom that will emerge from Yehudah will not triumph by means of physical weaponry, but rather by spiritual intercedence and the power of the Above.


For he saw that the resting place was good…….And he bowed his shoulder to burden. (49:15) Horav Bunim, zl, m'Peshischa says that if a person seeks a life of tranquility, he must first acclimate himself to endure with aplomb any misfortune that may come his way. Any pain afflicted upon his person by his fellow-man must be accepted with equanimity. Only then will he be able to live in serenity.


Perhaps Yosef will nurse hatred against us. (50:15)

The Malbim explains that the brothers were saying that it would be so much easier to tolerate the humiliation of our terrible deed against Yosef if he would at least hate us. The love and tolerance that he is displaying magnifies our disgrace.


Peninim on the Torah is in its 7th year of publication. The first five years have been published in book form.

The fifth volume is available at your local book seller or directly from Rabbi Scheinbaum.

He can be contacted at 216-321-5838 ext. 165 or by fax at 216-321-0588.

Discounts are available for bulk orders or Chinuch/Kiruv organizations.

This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Permission is granted to redistribute electronically or on paper,
provided that this notice is included intact.
For information on subscriptions, archives, and
other Shema Yisrael Classes,
send mail to
Jerusalem, Israel