Simchat Torah 5781: The Contrasts Between Yaakov’s and Moshe’s Brachot Regarding Shevatim Shimon and Levi

Shalom Friends;

Our Simchat Torah vort is being sponsored by Simon and Aliza Baum and family of Ramat Beit Shemesh who dedicate this vort Lilui Nishmas in honor of Simon’s Mother: Chaya Miriam Bas Boruch. To the Baum family, many thanks for your sponsorship and your continued kindnesses.

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Moshe Burt
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Simchat Torah 5781: The Contrasts Between Yaakov’s and Moshe’s Brachot Regarding Shevatim Shimon and Levi

by Moshe Burt

On Succot, the B’nei Yisrael, as an Am Segula (a nation apart and unique from the other nations), as Hashem’s special, chosen people; we visit, bond, and celebrate our special and unique relationship with HaKodosh Borchu.

We learn that Sh’mini Atzeres is expressed with a perspective as if one’s entire family, from various venues, are all together and savoring the love, bonding and enjoyment of being together — between each of the parents and their off-spring, the siblings with each other and with their parent(s). And so when it comes time for each to leave to return to their various venues and responsibilities, the parent pleads that the offspring, that the family stay together for one more day. And so Hashem Kovei’yokhel (as He is) Calls to His loved ones — the B’nei Yisrael, whereever they reside, to stay with Him for one more day.

We learn that in Eretz Yisrael, there is one day of Succot Yom Tov, five Chol HaMo’ed days and Hoshana Rabbah and, Simchat Torah — the last day of Yom Tov which contains within it the attribute of Sh’mini Atzeres — is that special time of bonding and expressions of love — Am Yisrael for our Father, our Creator, our eternal and universal King, and Hashem’s special and loving connection to Am Yisrael alone.

Hashem sooo treasures the B’nei Yisrael that after Hashana Rabbah and sealing the fate of the nations in the coming year, He, so to speak, wants to bask in the love and joy of being with and bonding only with B’nei Yisrael. And so, on Simchat Torah, we joyously celebrate the spiritual harvest of our learning of Torah, both written and oral, as we follow the leyning of V’zos HaBracha and the leyning of the seven days of Breish’t in a spirit of bonding with Hashem that is the last day of Yom Tov. And when we make our home in Hashem’s special, designated Land — Eretz Yisrael, the joy of Simchat Torah increases countless-fold for we are with Him in His Very Palace.

It is in the context of Simchat Torah, with its attribute of Sh’mini Atzeres — the bonding of Am Yisrael with our Creator and Eternal King that Moshe, following the tradition which began with Yaakov just before his passing, gave individual Brachot to each of the Shevatim (tribes) of B’nei Yisrael as conveyed in Parshat V’zos HaBrachot.

The Artscroll Stone Chumash translates the opening posuk of V’zos HaBrachot and summarizes the theme of Moshe’s Brachot to the Shevatim (pages 1112-1113):

“And this is the blessing that Moshe, the man of G’d, bestowed upon the B’nei Yisrael before his death.” (Sefer Devarim, Perek 33, posuk 1)

These final words of Moshe are a combination of blessing and prophesy, in which he blesses [the] tribe[s] [individually] according to its national responsibilities and individual greatness.

“And this is”…. “V’zos” implies that Moshe’s blessings were a continuation of Yaakov’s [as if to say that the Tribes were blessed at the beginning of their national existence and again as they were to begin life in Eretz Yisrael]. Moshe also used the word “V’zos” when he began his summation of the Torah (Sefer Devarim, Perek 4, posuk 44 in Parshat Va’etchanon) which symbolizes that Israel’s way to achieve the blessings of its Patriarch and Teacher is by studying and observing the Torah.

Moshe praised Hashem and recalled the merit that makes Israel worthy of his blessing.

In these introductory remarks, Moshe incorporated three outstanding merits of Israel: a) Hashem dwells among them; b) They accepted His Torah; and c) They acknowledged His sovereignty. (Ramban)

In keeping with the understanding of “V’zos”: “And this,” Moshe’s apparent continuation of Yaakov Avinu’s Brachot, this vort will focus on the contrasts between Moshe’s Brachot and Yaakov’s centuries earlier Brachot regarding Shevatim (Tribes) Shimon and Levi. Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, in his sefer “Unlocking The Torah Text” on Sefer Devarim (pages 365, 369-374), provides renderings to English of both Yaakov’s prophecy concerning Shimon and Levi and Moshe’s Brachot (or lack thereof) regarding Shevatim Shimon and Levi, as well as commentaries citing Rashi, as cited in Sifrei, the Malbim and other authorities.

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin provides commentary on the tradition as conveyed in Parshat V’zos HaBrachot (page 365):

A striking symmetry… marks the close of two critical periods in the Torah. The patriachal era ends as Yaakov blesses each of his sons from his deathbed. (Sefer Breish’t, Perek 49, posukim 1-26) The period of Moshe’s leadership closes as he blesses the people he has led from slavery into nationhood.

The Midrash discerns a textual nuance connecting these two scenes, centuries apart. Yaakov’s blessings close with the statement “V’zot (And this is) what their father spoke to them.” (ibid., Perek 49, posuk 28) Moshe’s blessings are introduced with the statement “V’zot (And this is) the blessing that Moshe spoke.” (Sefer Devarim, Perek 33, posuk 1)

At the close of the patriarchal era, the Midrash explains, Yaakov turns to his sons and declares: In the future, a man like me is destined to bless you; and from the place I end, he will begin… (Sifrei on Sefer Devarim, Perek 33, posuk 1)

Rabbi Goldin continues by rendering to English Yaakov’s Brachot to Shimon and Levi and contrasts it with Moshe’s Brachot (ibid, page 369-370):

Yaakov: “Shimon and Levi are brothers; weapons of violence are their means of acquisition. Let my soul not come into their counsel and my honor not be identified with their assembly, for in their anger they slew men and at their whim they hamstrung an ox. Accursed be their anger, for it is fierce, and their wrath for it is harsh. I will separate them within Yaakov, and I will disperse them in Israel.” (Rabbi Goldin citing Sefer Breish’t, Perek 49, posukim 5-7)

And so, centuries later, Moshe Rabbeinu conveys Brachot upon the Shevatim on the last day of life.

But wait a minute! As the iconic American comedic piano player with the “Schnoz” [big nose], Jimmy Durante would say, “Stop Da Music, Stop Da Music!” Something seems awry with Moshe’s Brachot. There’s a Shevet missing.

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin writes on Parshat V’zos HaBrachot in his sefer “Unlocking The Torah Text” (page 370, 372-374):

The contrast between the Brachot of Yaakov and those of Moshe is nowhere more apparent than with their respective blessings to Levi.

Yaakov chastises both Levi and Shimon for their rage and violence, and prophesies that they will be divided and scattered within the nation. Moshe, in contrast, is profuse in praise of Shevet Levi and speaks glowingly of its place at the helm of the nation’s ritual worship. Bewilderingly, Shevet Shimon is completely omitted from Moshe’s blessings.

Different schools [of thought] emerge among the commentaries concerning the glaring omission of Shevet Shimon from any of Moshe’s blessing.

Some authorities explain this phenomenon in technical terms — the tribe of Shimon does not receive a land inheritance of its own…. as the text[s] of Yehoshua and Shoftim relate, this tribe is voluntarily subsumed within the boundries of Shevet Yehuda. Moshe’s blessings, therefore, dealing in part with the division of the land, do not mention Shimon separately. A Midrashic tradition quoted by Rashi and others suggests a veiled reference to Shevet Shimon does appear in Moshe’s blessing to Yehuda, embedded in the phrase “Hear Oh Hashem, the voice of Yehuda and bring him to his people; may his hands fight his grievance and may You be a Helper against his enemies.” (Rabbi Goldin citing Sifrei, Rashi on Sefer Devarim, Perek 33, posuk 7 as rendered to English in sefer “Unlocking The Torah Text”, page 372 and the Artscroll Stone Chumash)

Other authorities, including the Ibn Ezra and Rashi, attribute the omission of Shevet Shimon from Moshe’s Brachot to the tribe’s earlier, active involvement in the [devastating] sin of Ba’al Pe’or. The primary role played by Shevet Shimon in this tragic crime, the Ibn Ezra argues, is evidenced in the striking discrepancy in Shimon’s numbers over the course of two separate censuses… before the… Ba’al Pe’or, Shevet Shimon number[ed] 59,300 (Rabbi Goldin citing Sefer Bamidbar, Perek 1, posuk 23), immediately after the tragedy, a second census numbers the tribe at 22,200, …a startling loss of 37,100 souls. (Rabbi Goldin citing Sefer Bamidbar, Perek 26, posuk 14) The Ibn Ezra points out that the most public perpetrator at the Ba’al Pe’or, [Zimri who was] killed by Pinchas, was a leading figure from Shevet Shimon. (Rabbi Goldin citing Ibn Ezra on Sefer Devarim, Perek 33, posuk 6)

So grievous is the sin of Ba’al Pe’or and so great the culpability of Shevet Shimon, the Ibn Ezra, Rashi and others maintain that Shevet Shimon [was] completely omitted from Moshe’s final Brachot. (citing Rashi on Sefer Devarim, Perek 33, posuk 7, Ibn Ezra, Sefer Devarim, Perek 33, posuk 6)

Finally, a beautiful Midrash connects and contrasts the fates of Sh’vatim Levi and Shimon, based on their actions in the intervening generations between Yaakov’s Brachot and those of Moshe.

The Midrash declares that both Shimon and Levi “drank of the same cup” when, with violence and deceit, they wrought [deadly] vengeance upon the city of Shechem in response to the rape of their sister Dina. …They are both chastised in the same breath by their father Yaakov… [in] his blessing to them…. (Rabbi Goldin citing Sefer Breish’t, Perek 49, posuk 5)

The Midrash continues by comparing the… story of the two brothers to the parable of two men who borrow money from their king…. One not only pays his obligation, but then… actually lend[s] his own fund to the manarch. The second individual, however, fails to pay back his loan, and then borrows again from the king.

Shimon and Levi, the Midrash explains, both incur a moral debt when, through deceit and violence, they wreak vengeance upon the city of Shechem in response to the rape of their sister Dina.

Ultimately, …Shevet Levi redeems its debt at the foot of Har Sinai, not only by refraining from participation in the sin of the egel zahav [the golden calf], but also by responding to Moshe’s call to action in the sin’s aftermath…. At Moshe’s instruction, the Levites defend Hashem’s honor by executing the active perpetrators of the sin. Furthermore, [in light of the sin of the Ba’al Pe’or], through the daring actions of [Pinchas] one of their own, Shevet Levi goes… further and, in the terminology of the Midrash, “advances a loan” to Hashem. (Rabbi Goldin citing Sifrei on Sefer Devarim, Perek 33, posuk 8)

Shevet Shimon, in contrast, not only fails to redeem the moral debt incurred at Shechem, but adds to that debt through the active involvement of its members in the sin of the Ba’al Pe’or. (Rabbi Goldin again citing Sifrei on Sefer Devarim, Perek 33, posuk 8)

From the Midrashic perspective, …”Shimon and Levi are brothers,” (citing Sefer Breish’t, Perek 49, posuk 5) with a shared… tendency toward zealousness. Each Shevet’s respective fate is ultimately determined by how their members apply this inherent trait in their dealings with the world around them.

The descendants of Shimon, whose violent tendencies lead them again and again to sin, are omitted entirely from Moshe’s blessings and fail to receive their… [distinct] geographic inheritance in Eretz Yisrael. The descendants of Levi, who apply the same tendency toward zealousness towards good in their …[upholding] of Hashem’s honor, earn one of the most beautiful of Moshe’s Brachot and attain the… leadership role at nation’s spiritual helm. In contrast to his brother, Levi has more than “redeemed his debt” to the Almighty.

The contrast between Sh’vatim Levi and Shimon seems to carry lessons for us all, in our times, all up and down all sectors of Am Yehudi, both within Eretz Yisrael — both the governing and the governed, and in Chutz L’Aretz.

What’s puzzling to this author about Shevet Shimon is their about-face. Albeit violently, Shimon, with Levi, upheld Dina’s and his family’s honor against Shechem, and yet centuries later, Kavod Hashem and the honor of Am Yisrael were shunned by Zimri, the prince of Shevet Shimon and others of the Shevet by the sin of the Ba’al Pe’or.

We have seen this play out in our time. A prime, recent example this author has seen in our time was the actions of a previous prime minister and former IDF general who apparently spent his political life in support of the Land of Israel, only to abruptly reverse course and expel thousands of Jews from their homes and from Land Divinely Ordained to B’nei Yisrael. Some have asserted that this prime minister made promises to an American president, and others have asserted that he cowered under leftist threat to expose his alleged corruptions.

We see these “flip-flops” constantly from governmental and political leaders who speak from “both sides of their mouths,” putting perpetuation of their power and influence above Kavod Hashem, the honor of Torah and the welfare of the Jews.

As religious Jews, we understand that Hashem continuously, instantaneously creates and recreates. And so the eternality of Torah as well as the meaning, actualization and application of Jewish learning and the continuity and constancy of Hashem’s creation are inextricably linked and maximized with Am Yisrael’s connection and presence in our eternal homeland — Eretz Yisrael.

We must take the craving for real improvement, the craving expressed during the Yomim Noraim, to make things right, with a proper synthesis between Tefillah with kavanah (intent) and Torah study, as well as between our Jewish brethren and throughout Am Yehudi into the new year. And at this auspicious time, may all of us have in mind, prominently in our hearts, thoughts, prayers and in our actions, our dear brother Jonathan Pollard — Yehonatan Ben Malka who continues, albeit free from prison incarceration, to suffer the injustices of the US Justice System: via both an exceedingly restrictive probation and prohibition against coming home to Israel after an extraordinarily long prison sentence — that Hashem see to his total release, complete freedom — freedom to care for his wife Esther Yocheved bat Rayzl Bracha who has been diagnosed with cancer, and to return to his brethren in THIS year — sooner than later.

May we, the B’nei Yisrael be zocha that our brethren — the refugee families from Gush Katif be permanently settled and be made totally whole — be totally restituted for all that was stolen from them and that the thrice expelled families of Amona be restored to their rebuilt homes, at government expense; both due to alt-leftist-agendized, supreme court legalized Yassamnik gunpoint. May our dear brother Jonathan Pollard be liberated and truly free, as Naama Issachar is now free and home — which can only occur when Jonathan is home in Israel and carrying for his ill wife Esther Yocheved bat Rayzl Bracha, and that the MIAs be liberated alive and returned to us in ways befitting Al Kiddush Hashem — as with the return in April, 2019, via Russia, of the remains of Zachariah Baumel, as should the remains of the two chayalim from the Gaza War of five and a half years ago. May we have the courage and strength to stand up and physically prevent the possibility of Chas V’Challila any future eviction of Jews from their homes and prevent Chas V’Challila the handing of Jewish land over to anyone, let alone to enemies sworn to Israel’s and Judaism’s destruction and eradication. May we fulfill Hashem’s blueprint of B’nai Yisrael as a Unique people — an Am Segula, not to be reckoned with as with “the nations” and may we be zocha to see the Moshiach, the Ge’ula Shlaima, as Dov Shurin sings; “Ki Karov Yom Hashem Al’Kol HaGoyim”, the Ultimate Redemption, bimhayrah b’yamainu — speedily, in our time”, — Achshav, Chik Chuk, Miyad, Etmol!!!

L’Shana Tova, Chag Same’ach and Good Shabbos! — may all who read this enjoy a healthy, happy, sweet and prosperous 5781and every year thereafter to at least 120!
Moshe Burt, an Oleh, is a commentator on news and events in Israel and Founder and Director of The Sefer Torah Recycling Network. He lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh.