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   by Jacob Solomon

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(Jacob's final words to his sons include)
'Reuben, you are my firstborn… but because you were impetuous, you will not be foremost'
'Simeon and Levi… cursed be their anger, for it is intense, and their wrath because it is harsh…' (49:3-7)

Before blessing all his sons together (49:28), Jacob addresses them one by one, and has words of rebuke for Reuben, Simeon, and Levi. Reuben had been over-enthusiastic in coercing respect to be given to his mother Leah in intimate matters (35:22, and Rashi thereon), and Simeon and Levi had incurred their father Jacob's censure in massacring inhabitants of Shechem in return for the rape of their sister Dina (34:30-1).

However, the style of the rebuke in each case is different. Jacob still speaks to Reuben as 'my firstborn' - in the first person. But Simeon and Levi's reproach is phrased in the third person 'their anger… their wrath' throughout. This difference would imply that although Reuben acted improperly, he is still Jacob's son. By contrast, Simeon and Levi's actions seem to have put them so far away from their father, that they no longer merited being spoken to in the first person. What did they do to deserve it?

A careful look at the texts would suggest an answer. Simeon and Levi took the law into their hands in their war of destruction against the people of Shechem (34:25-29). That would have been the normal thing to do by contemporary standards; namely in reprisal for the raping of the daughter of a highly distinguished tribal chief by locals. However, Jacob saw the bigger picture. As Rashi fills in the details: 'There was a tradition amongst the Canaanites (including the people of Shechem) that they would fall into the hands of the descendents of Jacob, but they were saying that that would happen only at a later date, "when they (the Israelites) would be numerous, and inherit the land (Ex. 23:30)"'. The Creation was bigger than the rape of Dinah; there was a time and place for everything, and justice would catch up in due course. The brothers, however, would not accept his admonition. They answered their father back: 'Shall our sister be treated as a common whore?" (34:31) And there is no record that they changed their minds and accepted their father's rebuke. They had thus distanced themselves from Jacob. That is why he addressed them in a more distant way in the third person.

By contrast, there is no record that Reuben attempted to defend his behavior once he realized how matters stood. In contrast, there is a Rabbinic tradition that the reason that Reuben was not present at the sale of Joseph is because he was 'occupied in sackcloth and fasting because he intervened in his father's intimate domestic arrangements' (quoted by Rashi to 37:29). He realized that he had been gravely mistaken, although he acted with the best of intentions at the time. In that way, his behavior appears to have contrasted with his younger brothers, Simeon and Levi. That is why he merited the closeness of being addressed in the first person, despite his earlier mistake…

We learn from this contrast that a person should be prepared to admit his mistakes, however high the motive behind the actions which caused them. As the daily service includes: 'A person should always… acknowledge the truth, and reconcile himself to the truth…'

Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.

Parashiot from the First, Second, and Third Series may be viewed on the Shema Yisrael web-site:

Also by Jacob Solomon:
From the Prophets on the Haftara

Test Yourself - Questions and Answers


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