On his deathbed, Yaakov gives a final message to each of his sons. Throughout the Berachot, Yaakov’s tone is primarily positive, but his statement to Shimon and Levi is quite negative. He admonishes them for their violent behavior, and says that he will divide them and spread them out, presumably to keep their anger in check. The predominant view among the Meforshim is that the violent act referred to by Yaakov is the massacre of the inhabitants of Shechem carried out by Shimon and Levi. It would appear that Yaakov’s criticism is a fundamental one, indicating his rejection of violence as a means to achieve justice. However, if we look at other places in the Chumash, we see a very different attitude emerge.
First of all, at the time of the Shechem incident, Yaakov himself (34:30) seems more concerned with its practical implications than with its moral implications. Aside from expressing concern about a possible attack from the Canaani or Perizi, Yaakov does not censure Shimon and Levi. In addition, later in the Torah, there are several clear indications of support for violence, even extra-judicial violence, in order to keep law and order. In Sefer Bemidbar, Pinchas is praised for killing Zimri and Kazbi while they were committing an immoral act. At the end of Sefer Devarim, when Moshe is giving his Berachot to the Shevatim in Parshat Vezot Haberacha, Moshe praises Shevet Levi for not ignoring family members while keeping and guarding the Torah (Devarim 33:9). Rashi quotes the Sifrei which explains that this is a reference to the fact that the Leviim willingly executed fellow Jews for the Chet Haegel. Why, then does Yaakov chastise Shimon and Levi on his deathbed?
What seems to emerge from these incidences of violence is a distinction between violence for a just and moral cause and violence to defend the family or its honor. Let us recall that the response of Shimon and Levi to Yaakov was, “Should our sister be made into a harlot?” (34:31). Also, Yaakov focuses not only on the violent tendencies of Shimon and Levi, but on the fact that they are violent as brothers, saying “Shimon Velevi Achim” (49:5). The Rashbam claims that the word “Mecheroteihem” in that Pasuk also refers to brotherhood. Finally, let us recall the fact that Zimri ben Salu was a Nasi of Shevet Shimon, and according to the Midrash he took Cazbi into his tent in order to defy Moshe in defense of his constituents within Shevet Shimon, who apparently were disproportionately involved in that sin. Pinchas is then praised for using violence in order to defend Torah authority and what is morally correct, especially in the face of such effrontery by Zimri on behalf of his fellow family members, namely Shevet Shimon.
This then explains why Shevet Levi is praised by Moshe in his blessings for placing moral correctness above family connections. Incidentally, Shimon is the only Shevet that is totally excluded from Moshe’s blessings. Perhaps this is because Shevet Shimon, represented by Zimri, does the exact opposite of what Shevet Levi does. It seems that whereas Shevet Levi had been able to channel its violent nature to the right cause, Shevet Shimon remained mired in the approach to justice that Yaakov repudiated.
Yaakov was not worried about the violence itself, but its use to bolster the family name and to defend the family honor. Perhaps that is why he expresses fear of attack from the Canaani and Perizi. It is not the attack itself that concerns him as much as his children’s venture into the lawless world of bloody family feuds, where the focus is on turf and not on morals.