In Parshat Vayishlach, Shimon and Levi wiped out the whole city of Shechem because the Prince, also named Shechem, violated their sister Dina. At that point, the Torah describes Shimon and Levi as ‘brothers’, indicating that they acted together in the same way. In Parshat Vayechi, Yaakov Avinu also calls them brothers, but criticizes them for their zealotry, curses their joint anger and states that they must be separated.
Their fates do not again meet until the incident of Baal Peor, where they are on opposite sides – Zimri sins with the Midianite Princess, Kozbi, and Pinchas kills them both. In addition, Our Sages tell us that the Tribe of Shimon were also involved in the sin and protested after the killing of Zimri, but HaShem praised it as a justified action done for the sake of heaven. It is also evident from the numbers of the Tribes after this incident, that the main sinners in Baal Peor (idolatrous worship) were from the Tribe of Shimon as their numbers dwindled significantly after Baal Peor, indicating that many of them died in the plague, which was a punishment for the sins of Baal Peor.
The obvious question is how did the paths of Shimon and Levi divert so drastically, after their shared origins?
The key to answering this is based on the Netsiv’s explanation of the episode in Shechem. He asserts that even though the two brothers acted together in wiping out Shechem for their role in the incident with Dina, nevertheless, they had very different motivations. Shimon’s primary consideration was repulsion of what Shechem had done to Dina as a member of Yaakov Avinu’s family, and how it had brought shame upon the family.
In contrast, Levi was motivated by the outrage that Shechem had committed in defiling the holiness of the Jewish nation which at that time, only comprised of Yaakov’s wives, children and grandchildren, yet he already saw them as a nation. Thus, Shimon was driven by family loyalty, whereas Levi was driven by loyalty to HaShem and by extension to the holiness of His Chosen people.
Rav Uziel Milevsky zt”l demonstrates these two motives in the Torah’s description of the brother’s reaction to Shechem’s crime: “And the sons of Yaakov returned from the field, when they heard, the men were distressed and they seethed with anger, because [Shechem] had committed an outrage against Yisrael, to lay with the daughter of Yaakov, and such a thing is not done.”
Rav Milevsky explains that whenever the Torah refers to Yaakov as Yisrael, it is relating to his higher essence as a father of the Jewish people, thus, the expression; ‘an outrage against Yisrael’ expresses anger at the spiritual desecration of the holiness of the Jewish nation. In contrast, the use of the regular name, Yaakov, refers to him as an individual, thus the phrase, ‘to lay with the daughter of Yaakov’ alludes to disgust at the shame that had been brought on Yaakov’s family by this despicable act. Rav Milevsky explains, building on the Netsiv’s explanation, that Shimon was more concerned that Shechem lay with ‘the daughter of Yaakov’ whereas Levy was more focused on the ‘outrage against Yisrael.’
The Netsiv gives an example to prove the tribe of Levi’s overriding loyalty to HaShem with their actions during the Chet Haegel (sin of the Golden Calf), where the tribe of Levi answered Moshe Rabbeinu’s call to kill the sinners, even though some of them were members of their own families. In contrast, Rav Milevsky points out Shimon’s preponderant devotion to family loyalty over HaShem’s honor, by the tribe of Shimon’s staunch defence of Zimri despite his heinous sin, and their criticism of Pinchas after his righteous act of zealotry.
We can now understand how the paths of Shimon and Levi could diverse so drastically despite their seemingly identical initial behavior. Despite the fact that their actions were identical, their intentions were very disparate, and resulted in contrasting reactions to a situation where honor to HaShem conflicted with family loyalty. The Tribe of Levi emulated their ancestor, Levi, by putting HaShem’s honor above everything else, while the Tribe of Shimon followed the example of their ancestor, Shimon, by putting family honor before HaShem’s honor.
A specific lesson that can be derived from this idea is that although it is very important to respect one’s family, and especially one’s parents, this does not come at the expense of one’s relationship with HaShem. This is most clearly borne out by the halacha that although one must generally listen to their parents’ requests, this does not apply, if the request contradicts the Torah.
A more general lesson that we learn from the Netsiv the importance of the intention behind a person’s actions – Shimon and Levi did identical actions, but their root motivations were so different that they led to drastically divergent behavior on the part of their descendants.
The Ran makes this point with regard to Mitzva observance: He writes that it is conceivable that two people do the exact same action, and one of them will gain far more reward than the other. The only difference between the two is their intention when they performed the action.
In the context of the examples of Shimon and Levi, this idea plays out with regard to the reasons that we perform Mitzvot – it can be for common sense reasons, such as what drove Shimon, or for the sake of HaShem. As their example proves, the difference will have a massive impact on how we live our lives.