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Pinchas(Numbers 25:10-30:1)

Shimon and Levi

The Torah portion begins with God rewarding Pinchas greatly for his act of zealousness in killing Zimri and Cozbi who were committing a grave sin. Pinchas was from the tribe of Levi whilst Zimri was from the tribe of Shimon. This is not the first time in the Torah that these two tribes are associated with one another - Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky provides an illuminating account of the history of these two tribes and how they developed in such different ways.(1)

In Vayishlach, we are told of how Shechem kidnapped Dina. All of the brothers conspired to bring her back; their plan was to persuade the people of Shechem to perform circumcision and then they would come and retrieve Dina whilst the people were still recovering. However, Shimon and Levi planned a more drastic course of action; they believed that all of the people of Shechem were guilty for their part in the taking of Dina and proceeded to wipe out the whole city in the process of saving her. Jacob strongly disagreed with their course of action, fearing that it would greatly damage the reputation of his family. Shimon and Levi defended their actions, saying, "Should our sister be treated like a harlot?!"

It was only many years later that Jacob gave his final rebuke to the two brothers. In Vayechi, in his blessings to his sons, he criticized Shimon and Levi for their impulsiveness. Moreover, he punished them, saying, "I will separate them in Yaakov and disperse them within Yisroel." (2) The simple understanding of this punishment is that its purpose was to separate the two brothers in order to prevent them from further violence. However, Rav Kamenetsky notes that Rashi provides a different explanation - that Shimon and Levi will be sofrim (people who write Torah scrolls, tefillin and mezuzot) and Torah teachers of children who will travel from city to city to fix the holy items and to teach the Jewish people Torah.(3)

Why was the future Torah education of the Jewish people deliberately put in the hands of Shimon and Levi; what is the measure for measure here?

He answers that Jacob saw that they possessed a positive character trait that the other brothers did not. He recognized their motivation in destroying Shechem: they were willing to risk their whole lives in order to defend the honor of their sister. The other brothers also saw the terrible situation in which Dina was in, but only Shimon and Levi felt the pain as if it were their own pain. Rav Kamenetsky writes: "Yaakov saw that their actions stemmed from an inner pain and genuine empathy with the pain of another, and this motivated them to a burning zealousness that was without limit... Only men of this character, who feel the pain of their fellow as if it is their own pain - only they would ... show sufficient self-sacrifice and give up their physical resources, in order to wander from city to city to spread the God's Torah in the world and to teach the children of Bnei Yisroel."

Even though Shimon and Levi misapplied their zealousness in the incident of Shechem, Jacob saw in that trait a potential that could be used for a very positive purpose, spreading Torah amongst the Jewish people. However, in this week's portion we see how the descendants of these two sons of Jacob, followed very different paths: Pinchas, a member of the Tribe of Levi, was able to channel his zealousness to doing the God's will - his act of violence brought an end to the plague that killed thousands of people. God rewarded him highly to show that He acknowledged that Pinchas was acting purely for the sake of Heaven. However, Zimri, a Prince of the Tribe of Shimon, expressed the zealousness of his ancestor in a forbidden way, breaking boundaries that the Torah forbade. How did these two tribes divert so drastically from each other?

Rav Kamenetsky explains that whilst most of Klal Yisroel were slaves in Egypt, the tribe of Levi was free to learn Torah. It was this period of internalization of Torah values that enabled the Levites to channel their zealousness in the right way. In contrast the members of the tribe of Shimon never had the opportunity to learn Torah in the same way. Consequently their zealousness was without guidance and therefore expressed itself in forbidden ways.

One vital lesson that can be derived from Rav Kamenetsky's explanation is the novel understanding of how zealousness should express itself. True zealousness should bring a person to a tremendous feeling of pain when people act in a detestable fashion. The great Torah figure, the Alter of Kelm zt"l expressed this feeling throughout his life: On one occasion he and another Rabbi noticed a Jew taking hay from a gentile's wagon. After that the Alter was sad, and went about all day with a long face. That evening the other Rabbi asked what the matter was. The Alter seemed surprised at the question. "How can a person be at peace when he sees so much sin in the world?" (4) In addition to feeling pain at such behaviour, he should motivate himself to try to rectify the problem in a suitable fashion. The great leaders of the Jewish people didn't suffice with expressing pain at areas that were lacking, rather they did whatever they thought necessary to improve the situation - may we all merit to learn from them and help solve the numerous problems that the Jewish people face at this time, whether it be mass assimilation, poverty or the threat against the State of Israel.



1. Emes leYaakov, Vayishlach, p.188-9. Vayechi, pp. 237-8.

2. Vayechi, 49:7.

3. Emes LeYaakov, Vayishlach, ibid.



4. Ibid. p.76.


July 10, 2011

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Visitor Comments: 4

(2) Yehudith Shraga, June 25, 2013 5:04 PM

Something ot remember

Very reassuring article, because the explanation on the different ways the potential of the Levi and Shimon developed stems out of the fact that the first studied Torah all the time and the 2nd from time to time if any. It teach us, that no matter what qualities and trends one may be born with, there is always a chance to improve them and to learn to use them for the benefit of all the People of Israel and this way is the Studying Torah and Performing Mitzvot leShma= for the sake of correction of our egoistic parts and converting them into the bestowing ones.

(1) Andy, July 15, 2011 10:44 PM

can't understand this

Yisroel were slaves in Egypt, the tribe of Levi was free to learn Torah. It was this period of internalization of Torah values that enabled the Levites to channel their zealousness in the right way. " The slavery was before the Torah was given.Even if some had Torah Knowledge where is it stated that they learned in Egypt.I thought they were collectively at the 49th level of impurity.In addition it would be troubling if the tribe of Levi while all their brother tribes where suffering in slavery learned Torah in freedom.It seems incomprehensible . Obviously If Rav Kaminetsky gives this explanation I'm not understanding something significant.

Yehonasan Gefen, July 19, 2011 9:11 AM

Reply to Andy

Those are good questions Andy. The source that the Levites were not slaves in Egypt comes from a Midrash (Shemos Rabbah, 5:16) that is quoted by Rashi in Parshas Shemos, Ch.5, verse 4. It points out that Moses and Aaron were free to move around becuase they were not slaves, and the reason they were not slaves is because they were from the tribe of Levi. The Ramban on the same verse expands on this, saying that each nation would have their Priests and teachers and the Levites were the Priests of the Jewish nation - therefore Pharaoh let them stay free. He says there that the Levites taught the people Torah which obvisouly implies tha they learnt Torah. The Rambam (bsed on other Midrashim) in his book on Idol Worship, Ch.1 Halacha 3 writes that the Levites did not worship idols whilst they were in Egypt, and that they kept the Torah - this also shows that they knew Torah, and it wouldn't be big jump to say they also learnt it.(see next comment for more)

Anonymous, July 19, 2011 9:11 AM

Continuation of answers to Andy

In terms of your question about how the Jews could be on the 49th level of impurity if the Levites were learning Torah, that's a good question - I guess one would have to either say that the Rabbis mean the rest of the nation without the Levites were on that low level, and that the higher level of the Levites wasn't able to elevate the other Jews from their low level. Or one can say that even with the Levites' higher level, nevertheless the level of the remaining majority was so high that it totally negated their potential postiive effect. In terms of your third question as to how the Levites could learn Torah in freedom whilst their brothers were suffering - I'm not sure what you mean - if you mean that they should have tried to help their fellow Jews then the obvious answer is that they were too weak to do anything. If you mean that they shouldn't have been learning in freedom whilst their fellows were suffering, the answer is that their learning would help the people at some point in the future, which it did, when the Jews went out and the Levites did indeed guide them. I hope that clears things up.

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