Sign In Forgot Password

VaYechi 5784 | Rabbi David Wolkenfeld

01/26/2024 10:27:16 AM

Jan26

Instruments of Cruelty

Before we were married, before we were even formally engaged to be married, Sara and I each spent a portion of the summer of 2001 studying Torah in Israel. The terror wave that characterized the Second Intifiada was still ongoing - I’m sure some of you remember the bombings at Sbarro’s in Jerusalem that summer. As a way to reassure her parents, Sara promised that she would not ride on any city buses that summer and I made the same commitment. After we were married, Sara and I lived in Israel for two years, in 2004 and again in 2008. Although by then there was dramatically less violence and risk, we decided we would continue to avoid riding buses within Jerusalem which was something that we were able to do by walking very long distances and taking an occasional taxi. And because I love walking so much, and was only in Israel for very brief trips once I started working full time, I never saw a need to change these practices.

And then, five years ago, Sara received a fellowship from the Hartman Institute that enabled our entire family to spend three weeks together in Jerusalem. And, Baruch Hashem, we had too many kids to fit into a taxi. And, Baruch Hashem, with the integration of public transit into Google Maps and Jerusalem’s very extensive network of buses, the most efficient way for our family to get from place to place, and really the only tenable way we could see or do much of anything, was by taking local buses. When Hartman brought us back to Jerusalem 18 months ago, our kids even learned how to use the light rail by themselves to get where they wanted to go.

All of this was possible because of the suppression of the wave of suicide bombers that had made so many people so scared of riding buses. At some point, as we were hopping on and off buses and exploring Jerusalem, I realized that the years of debates and deliberations and controversy about the security barrier and the checkpoints and the detentions that were all part of Israel’s efforts to bring this deadly wave of terrorism to an end, were now debates and deliberations and controversy about policies designed to keep me and my family alive. That realization didn’t resolve any of the moral or political debates about Israel’s strategies and tactics, but I realized that I was implicated by them and that they had an immediate relevance for me during those weeks of the summer when I rode the buses with my family in Jerusalem. And, the counter-point was also true. During the remaining 49 weeks of the year, I had no immediate connection to any of those debates. My life was not on the line and I could entertain any moral or political position that seemed compelling to me and risk absolutely nothing.

Moral principles that don’t put us at some risk can remain abstract and vague and are often little more than virtue signaling. Virtue signaling is a lot better than vice signaling, but we learn what values are truly commitments when we face some pushback or encounter some risk in upholding them. 

I experienced this dynamic in a much less dramatic way when I went on the job market last year. I have taken part in many rabbinic interviews as part of many rabbinic search-processes over the past 16 years, but last year was the first and only time I have been interviewed for  rabbinic positions at shuls after having already served a congregation as their rabbi. I knew, from my own professional experience,  what values I was willing to promote even if it entailed negative consequences. And I knew what causes I was not willing to promote if it entailed any significant risk to my career. I experienced that self-knowledge as a tremendous asset.

As the curtain falls at the end of Sefer Bereishit, Yaakov is at the height of his self-awareness and at the height of his awareness of his children. Unlike his father Yitzhak, whose blindness left him unaware of the reality right in front of his face, even as he feels and listens and smells Yaakov-or-is-it-Esav, Yaakov’s blindness somehow gives him a deeper insight into a reality that cannot be apprehended through the senses alone.

Yaakov dispenses hard truths and he bestows blessings and words of encouragement. Events that occurred years earlier are mentioned with a focus on the future. Reuven, Yaakov’s firstborn, is revealed to be too unreliable to assume a leadership role within the family. Yehudah, whose sense of responsibility for his family grows over the course of his life and over the previous parshiot, is given the mantle of leadership within the family.

And when Yaakov returns to Shimon and Levi he revives a debate with them from the distant past. Way back in Parashat VaYishlach, Shimon and Levi organized a massacre of the entire village of Shehem when they rescued their sister Dinah who was being held captive there. Yaakov immediately condemned Shimon and Levi, but did so in a pragmatic way:

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יַעֲקֹ֜ב אֶל־שִׁמְע֣וֹן וְאֶל־לֵוִי֮ עֲכַרְתֶּ֣ם אֹתִי֒ לְהַבְאִישֵׁ֙נִי֙ בְּיֹשֵׁ֣ב הָאָ֔רֶץ בַּֽכְּנַעֲנִ֖י וּבַפְּרִזִּ֑י וַאֲנִי֙ מְתֵ֣י מִסְפָּ֔ר וְנֶאֶסְפ֤וּ עָלַי֙ וְהִכּ֔וּנִי וְנִשְׁמַדְתִּ֖י אֲנִ֥י וּבֵיתִֽי׃

Yaakov said to Shimon and Levi, “You have brought trouble on me, making me odious among the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites and the Perizzites; my men are few in number, so that if they unite against me and attack me, I and my house will be destroyed.”

Yaakov’s stated objections to the massacre of Shechem was that his reputation among his Canaanite neighbors would be damaged by an act of such seemingly unjustified violence. And Yaakov’s reputation as a peaceful neighbor was of vital strategic importance. As Yaakov said, a small minority necessarily depends on the good will of neighbors who could easily unite against it. This too is an utterly pragmatic argument which did not convince Shimon or Levi. The Torah gives them the last word as they ask, “how can we allow our sister to be treated this way.” They do not try to defend the morality of their slaughter of an entire town, but they respond with emotional power to Yaakov’s fearful and pragmatic objections.

With the passage of time, on his deathbed, Yaakov gains the ability to circle back to this episode and offer a full throated condemnation of the wanton violence of Shimon and Levi:

שִׁמְע֥וֹן וְלֵוִ֖י אַחִ֑ים כְּלֵ֥י חָמָ֖ס מְכֵרֹתֵיהֶֽם׃

בְּסֹדָם֙ אַל־תָּבֹ֣א נַפְשִׁ֔י בִּקְהָלָ֖ם אַל־תֵּחַ֣ד כְּבֹדִ֑י כִּ֤י בְאַפָּם֙ הָ֣רְגוּ אִ֔ישׁ וּבִרְצֹנָ֖ם עִקְּרוּ־שֽׁוֹר׃

Simeon and Levi are brothers;

Their weapons are instruments of cruelty.

Let not my person be included in their council,

Let not my being be counted in their assembly.

For when angry they slay men,

And when pleased they maim oxen.

Rashi points us towards one explanation for Yaakov’s new ability to condemn his sons in forceful language. Shimon and Levi are אַחִ֑ים they are brothers, they are a pair. This alludes to Parashat Vayeshev when the brothers conspire against Yosef with similar language:


וַיֹּאמְר֖וּ אִ֣ישׁ אֶל־אָחִ֑יו הִנֵּ֗ה בַּ֛עַל הַחֲלֹמ֥וֹת הַלָּזֶ֖ה בָּֽא׃

And one brother said to one another, ‘the dreamer is coming.’

By process of logical deduction, Rashi proves that the brothers who hatched the plot against Yosef must have been Shimon and Levi. It couldn’t have been Reuven or Yehudah who tried to spare Yosef’s life. It couldn’t be the sons of Yaakov’s concubines. Yoseph treated them with special kindness and they had less reason for hateful jealousy. Binyamin was too young and was always Yoseph’s closest ally. The youngest of Leah’s children, Zevulun and Yisacher would not have deigned to hatch a murderous plot if their older brothers had not instigated. This leaves Shimon and Levi as the quintessential אַחִ֑ים, The Brothers. 

When Yaakov says שִׁמְע֥וֹן וְלֵוִ֖י אַחִ֑ים he is alluding to וַיֹּאמְר֖וּ אִ֣ישׁ אֶל־אָחִ֑יו.  The close solidarity between Shimon and Levi enabled them to massacre Shechem and enabled them to conspire to murder Yoseph. The same ferocity that they unleashed against Shechem was later focused on their own brother. 

Surely it is not a coincidence that Yoseph was captured by his brothers after searching for them  אֶת־אַחַ֖י אָנֹכִ֣י מְבַקֵּ֑שׁ -, after searching for brotherhood, in, of all places,  Shechem.

And this is an element of human psychology that has not changed. Those who are willing to kill foreigners and outsiders without restraint, will turn on their own brothers when they feel threatened. As the Talmud says in Bava Kama:

כֵּיוָן שֶׁנִּיתַּן רְשׁוּת לַמַּשְׁחִית, אֵינוֹ מַבְחִין בֵּין צַדִּיקִים לִרְשָׁעִים.

Once permission is granted to the forces of destruction, there is no longer any distinction between righteous and wicked victims.

Yaakov was always suspicious of the self-righteous justifications offered by Shimon and Levi after the massacre of Shechem. But at the moment, he could not articulate a clear objection because he was confronted by Shimon and Levi’s righteous fury and their clear statement of standing up to protect their sister. But the passage of time revealed the shallowness of Shimon and Levi’s concern for their family. You cannot take on the mantle of the protector of the family and also conspire to kill your brother. If one is willing to go to war to free a sister, one has to learn how to tolerate feelings of jealousy towards a brother. 

Our values are revealed to be true commitments when we are willing to suffer for them. Shimon and Levi were not willing to tolerate their jealousy of Yoseph and that undermined all of their righteous fury on their sister’s behalf. 

It is always valuable to scrutinize professions of morality to distinguish true commitments from virtue signaling. There are scoundrels or people who lack self-awareness who, consciously or not, confuse us and present vice as being virtue or who confuse rage with a passion for justice. But it is even more important to gain clarity for ourselves about what we do and do not believe and to whom we are loyal. We might discover that we have fewer firm commitments than we thought and we should learn to keep quiet about values to which we have no deep commitments.. But when we realize that we are truly committed to our values, we must do all that we can so that our commitments can change the world.

Last week I bought tickets for a seven day trip to Israel in February. I’m going as a representative of this community’s love and concern and solidarity. And I’m hoping to bring back inspiration and stories of resilience for the benefit of this community. I expect to find ways to volunteer, as your emissary, and on behalf of our brothers and sisters in Israel. 


But, in truth, one does not have to travel across the world to be kind to Jews. One can do that right here with the people seated next to you. The first months of 5784 have been so depleting and exhausting and filled with grief and anxiety most of all for our brothers and sisters in Israel who do need our love and support and solidarity. But, when we sing Acheinu Kol Beit Yisrael and pray for “our brothers and sisters, the whole house of Israel” we should have in mind Acheinu. Kol. Beit Yisrael. The entirety of the House of Israel who are in distress. Of course those in distress include those mourning the deaths of loved ones or those consumed by worry for their children or spouses serving in Tzahal. But tzarah can also be a neighbor hoping for a Shabbat invitation, or a local colleague plunged into existential distress over the isolation of the Jewish community and international vilification of Israel. Everything we would do for Israel we owe to one another as well.

Mon, July 22 2024 16 Tammuz 5784