The two sons of Yaakov Avinu most closely associated with each other are Shimon and Levi. Yaakov describes them as “brothers” because they always act together. Many years later, their descendants meet again, but far less amicably: Pinchas, of the tribe of Levi, kills Zimri, prince of Shimon. Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky, ztz”l, illuminates the divergence of these two tribes.
In parashas Vayishlach, we are told of how Shechem kidnapped Deenah. Her brothers conspired to bring her back. Their plan was to persuade the people of Shechem to perform bris milah, and then the brothers would retrieve Deena while everyone was still recovering. However, Shimon and Levi blamed all the people of Shechem for Deenah’s abduction and wiped out the whole city in the process of saving her. Yaakov Avinu denounced this course of action, fearing that it would ruin his reputation. But Shimon and Levi countered, “Should our sister be treated like a harlot?!”
Many years later, in parashas Vayechi, Yaakov criticized Shimon and Levi’s impulsiveness. Moreover, he punished them, saying, “I will separate them in Yaakov and disperse them within Yisrael.” The simple understanding of this punishment is that its purpose was to separate the two brothers in order to prevent further violence. However, Rav Kamenetsky notes that Rashi explains otherwise: Shimon and Levi would be scribes and teachers, traveling from city to city to provide religious articles and teach Torah. Why was the education of Klal Yisrael entrusted to Shimon and Levi? What is the “measure for measure” aspect of this role?
According to Rav Kamenetsky, Yaakov saw that Shimon and Levi possessed a virtue unique among the brothers: They risked their lives to defend their sister’s honor. The other brothers also saw Deenah’s terrible plight, but only Shimon and Levi felt the pain as their own. 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, to the point where they could not rest until they had destroyed the whole city. Only men of this character, who feel the pain of their fellow as if it were their own pain – only they would… show so much self-sacrifice and give up their physical resources in order to wander from city to city to spread the Torah of HaShem in the world and teach the Children of Israel.
Yaakov Avinu saw in Shimon and Levi a zeal that could be used to spread Torah throughout Klal Yisrael. However, in parashas Pinchas we see how the descendants of these two sons of Yaakov followed very different paths: Pinchas, a Levite, zealously performed HaShem’s will, violently ending a plague that had killed thousands. HaShem rewarded him handsomely to show that he had acted purely for the sake of Heaven. Zimri, prince of Shimon, zealously violated the Torah. How did these two tribes diverge so drastically?
Rav Kamenetsky explains that while most of Klal Yisrael was enslaved in Mitzrayim, the tribe of Levi was free to learn Torah. The resulting internalization of Torah values enabled the Leviyim to channel their zealousness in the right way. In contrast, the members of the tribe of Shimon never had this opportunity to learn Torah. Consequently, their zealousness was without guidance and expressed itself in forbidden ways. Rav Kamenetsky observes: “When zealousness is guided and bound by the limits of the Torah, then it will succeed…. But without guidance… [zealousness] cannot succeed and will ultimately remove the zealot from the world.”
There are numerous lessons we can learn from Rav Kamenetsky’s explanation. One is that extreme character traits should be expressed only with Torah guidance. Anyone who zealously acts and speaks against others risks being guided not by the Torah but by base motivations such as lust (as in the case of Zimri) or contentiousness.
Another vital lesson concerns the zealot’s attitude. One may on occasion have to resort to extreme behavior, but this conduct should be the exception to the rule. A true zealot feels tremendous pain at the chillul HaShem caused by sins or lack of Torah learning, and he strives to rectify the problem by spreading Torah. Such is the zealotry of the Leviyim. As Rambam explains, the Leviyim lack their own portion of Eretz Yisrael “because they were separated to serve HaShem and teach His just ways and righteous laws to the masses. As it says, ‘They will teach Your laws to Yaakov and Your Torah to Yisrael….’”
Of course, this role is not limited to Leviyim. Many gedolim have been zealous. One Simchas Torah, Rav Yisrael Salanter, ztz”l, was uncharacteristically gloomy. “Today is the time to rejoice over our precious, holy Torah,” he explained. “But that is just what makes me sad – for Torah is dying today. Few people follow it, even fewer learn it, and their numbers dwindle from day to day. The more I think about the wonderfulness of the Torah, the more upset I become about its lowly state.”
Rav Salanter’s great disciple, the Alter of Kelm, ztz”l, emulated his rebbe in this area: He and Rav Tzvi Broide, ztz”l, once noticed a Jew taking hay from a gentile’s wagon. The Alter was sad for the rest of the day. That evening, Rav Broide asked what the matter was. The Alter seemed surprised at the question. “How can a person be at peace,” he replied, “when he sees so much sin in the world?”
The true zealot does not just feel pain, he acts upon it. Rav Salanter, the Chafetz Chaim, ztz”l, the Alter of Novardok, ztz”l, and many other gedolim all went to great lengths to teach Torah to those drifting away from it. There are many accounts of these great rabbis’ desperate efforts to stem the tide of secularization.
Torah-true zealotry is generally constructive rather than destructive; as noted, Pinchas’ act of violence was an exception to the rule. As the Chazon Ish writes, nowadays we must rectify the desecration of G-d’s Name not through force but through love, by teaching the ways of HaShem. May we all learn from Shimon, Levi, Pinchas, and Zimri how one should and should not be zealous.
From the book “Beacons of Light”