Parashat VaYechi, the last Parashah in Sefer BeReishit, marks the culmination of the story of the Avot and springs forward into the story of Ya’akov’s children. Before Ya’akov dies, he gives a Berachah to his descendants—first to his grandchildren Ephraim and Menasheh (BeReishit 48:16), and then to all of his sons (49:3-32). Although the majority of Ya’akov’s Berachot seem to be wonderful blessings, some of them appear to be rebuke more than a Berachah. However, it is very difficult to believe that Ya’akov’s final words to his children would be harsh. Therefore, we must take an in-depth look at his words in order to understand the true meaning of his Berachot.
Especially when looking at the Berachot of Shimon and Levi, Ya’akov seems to be scolding his sons. A particularly troublesome part of their Berachah is when Ya’akov tells them, “Achalekeim BeYa’akov,” “I will separate them throughout Ya’akov” (49:7). Although this phrase seems to be a blatant curse, Rashi (ad loc. s.v Achalkeim BeYa’akov) interprets this phrase to be a complement by which Ya’akov is informing Shimon and Levi that their descendants will be great people in Eretz Yisrael, and therefore, they will scatter throughout the land to have a positive influence on the rest of the Jews. Why do Shimon and Levi deserve to merit this great Berachah, especially right after Ya’akov cursed them for their bad tempers (49:7)?
The meaning of Yaakov’s words to Shimon and Levi is a bit misleading at first. Although one might erroneously come to the conclusion that Ya’akov is cursing them for their anger, he is really cursing the attribute of anger, not his sons. He tells his sons “Arur Apam Ki Az,” “Anger should be cursed, for it is mighty” (49:7). Perhaps Ya’akov is trying to teach his sons about the importance of avoiding rage.
Whereas Levi’s temper is apparent early in his life when he wipes out the city of Shechem, it seems that he did Teshuvah and learned to use his anger in a positive way. After the Cheit Heigel, Shevet Levi uses their “anger” to exact justice upon all those who had sinned (Shemot 32:26-28). Although we can see that Ya’akov’s words to Levi became a Berachah, it is not apparent that Shimon took his father’s words to heart. Why is there such a drastic difference between Shimon and Levi’s outcome if they both received the same message from their father?
Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky explains that Ya’akov’s Berachot to his children were not just blessings, but they also pointed out his children’s strengths, weaknesses, and uniqueness. Each of his children had a choice to either use his talents to serve Hashem or for other destructive purposes. When Ya’akov gave his Berachah to Shimon and Levi, he was praising their passion in everything they do. The question was whether they would use their passion and zealousness for good or for bad. We see that Shevet Levi successfully controlled their rage and used it for the good, but we do not see the same regarding Shevet Shimon.
We can learn a very important lesson from the Berachah of Shimon and Levi. Each of us is given different attributes, and they can be used for the good or bad. It is imperative that we try to limit our bad characteristics and try to develop our good characteristics. More importantly, we must train ourselves to take our negative attributes and use them for the good. Hopefully, in doing so, we will fulfill the wish of Ya’akov Avinu and merit many Berachot.