The Torah Portion devotes a number of verses outlining the genealogy of the first three sons of Yaakov: Reuven, Shimon and Levi. However, there is a significant difference in the extent of the lists of descendants. With regard to Reuven and Shimon, the Torah only lists their sons, whereas, with regard to Levi, the Torah also outlines his grandsons. The Seforno addresses this anomaly; he explains that the Torah only mentions the sons of Reuven and Shimon because they were great people, deserving of being explicitly mentioned by the Torah. However, their grandsons were not significant people, and therefore are omitted. In contrast, the grandson of Levi were also people of stature, hence their being named.

The Seforno continues to explain why the grandsons of Levi were greater than those of Reuven and Shimon. He writes that the grandsons of Levi merited to see Levi himself and develop a connection with him, because he lived a very long life, and it was because of this direct connection with the great Levi, that they became worthy individuals in their own right. In contrast, Reuven and Shimon did not live as long, and their grandsons did not merit to see them. Consequently, they were deprived of the benefit of seeing their righteous grandfathers.

The question arises of why this one difference had such a decisive effect on the level of the descendants of Reuven, Shimon and Levi. A Gemara in Eruvin1 can help shed light on this question. The Gemara relates that Rebbe Yehuda The Prince attributed his own greatness to the fact that he once saw the back of the great Rebbe Meir. He added, that had he seen Rebbe Meir’s face, he would have been even greater. This demonstrates the great significance of even seeing a great person, without even learning from him or serving him. Yet, it needs to be understood why this is the case.

Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz2 explains, based on another Seforno. In Parshas Vayechi, the Torah states that when Yaakov meets Yosef’s sons, the Torah states: “And the eyes of Yisrael were heavy from old age, he could not see and he brought them towards him and kissed them and hugged them3.” The Seforno comments on this verse: “He could not see in order that his blessing would be bestowed upon them, so he kissed them and hugged them, so that his soul would cleave to their souls, and through this, his blessing would be bestowed upon them.” Rabbi Shmuelevits explains that this teaches us that had Yaakov been able to see them, he would have been able to connect with them on a deep spiritual level. Since he could not, he cleaved to them through a different medium.

Based on this, we understand why the fact that Rebbe Yehuda saw Rebbe Meir was of such significance – the mere seeing such a great man, causes a deep connection, and through that connection with the Righteous man, he taps into a spiritual influence from Heaven, which in turn gives him the ability to become a greater person. Rabbi Shmuelevits further offers a fascinating interpretation of the fact that had Rebbe seen Rebbe Meir’s face, he would have been even greater. Rabbi Shmuelevitz suggests that while seeing a great man brings a great spiritual benefit to a person, he benefits even further if the great man sees him as well, because this causes an even deeper connection and a greater has. Returning to the grandsons of Levi – they merited to see and be seen by their righteous grandfather, and this played a fundamental role in their achieving greatness, something which eluded the grandsons of Reuven and Shimon.

It seems that one of the key areas in which experiencing and seeing great people, positively influences a person, is in the realm of Emunah. This is demonstrated by the following story4: The great Mashgiach (Spiritual Guide) of Yeshivas Mir, Rabbi Yerucham Levovits, once met a secular Jewish professor while on vacation in Marienbad. Rabbi Levovits engaged him in conversation, trying to draw him closer to Torah. After Rabbi Levovits had steered the conversation in the direction he desired, the professor asked him if he had read the works of the famous philosopher, Immanuel Kant. Rabbi Levovits answered in the negative. The professor then asked if he had read the works of Sigmund Freud, the famous psychologist whose views were far removed from Torah. Again, Rabbi Levovites answered that he had not read a word of Freud. The professor wondered aloud, “Well, if you haven’t read the works of these scholars, how do you know that their outlook is incorrect? If you aren’t familiar with their ideas, how do you plan to convince me that the truth is on your side? Maybe they are the ones who are right?”

Rabbi Levovits responded: “I know that our Torah produced an individual of the caliber of the Chofetz Chaim5 as well as a long succession of other righteous, great Jewish spiritual leaders…all of whom were products of the study of the holy Torah…Have any such individuals emerged from any of the value systems you mentioned? Of course not! So, they’re obviously a lot of nonsense! Why should I bother investigating them any further?!

Rabbi Levovits was teaching that a pillar of our Faith is that only a Torah lifestyle can produce people as righteous as the Chofetz Chaim. Rabbi Levovits saw the Chofetz Chaim in the flesh, yet it is more difficult for a person to tap into this resource of Faith if he just relies on second hand stories of their greatness. Seeing such righteous people is surely far more effective in instilling a belief that the Torah must be genuine if it can produce such a person. In this generation, we do not have the merit to see the Chofetz Chaim himself. Perhaps this is why there was a such a commotion when a few seconds of footage of the Chofetz Chaim were revealed a few years ago. Yet, in each generation, we merit to be led by tzaddikim. We learn from the Seforno, Rabbi Shmuelevitz, and Rabbi Yerucham that gaining as much exposure as possible to them, can do wonders for our spiritual level.

  1. Eruvin, 13b.
  2. Sichot Mussar, Maamer 41.
  3. Bereishit, 48:10.
  4. Cherished Conversations, by Rabbi Dov Eliach, pp.126-127.
  5. Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, the author of the seminal work on Jewish law, the Mishnah Berurah, and of the main work on forbidden speech – Shemirat Halashon. In addition to his incredible, knowledge, he was known by everyone as an outstandingly pious individual.