By Adam Eliyahu Berkowitz
The Torah is not really a very large book. In a mere 79,976 Hebrew words, the Torah (Five Books of Moses) covers all of history from the creation until the Jews were ready to enter the Land of Israel. With such a wide-reaching agenda, it seems that the Torah would not have the spare room for repetition. But when it comes time to bless the individual sons of Jacob, the Torah repeats itself.
When he is about to leave this world, Jacob bids his sons farewell by blessing each of his sons individually. Hundreds of years later, Moses follows suit by blessing each tribe individually and by name before his death.
But was Moses’ blessing really a repetition of Jacob’s? Moses and Jacob were both gifted with prophecy and their blessings gave a glimpse into the future of the tribes. But a closer look at each of the blessings reveals that they were not identical. What are some of the differences between them and why are they significant?
Moses’ blessings are, in some respects, a continuation of Jacob’s blessings. The sages connect these two blessings based on a textual nuance. Jacob’s blessings end with the Hebrew word which means “and this”: “and this is what their father said to them as he bade them farewell, addressing to each a parting word appropriate to him” (Genesis 49:28). Moses’ blessings begin with the same word: “And this is the blessing with which Moshe, the man of Hashem, bade the Israelites farewell before he died” (Deuteronomy 33:1). Based on this, the sages taught that when Jacob blessed his sons he told them: “In the future, a man like me is destined to bless you; and from the place I end, he will begin” (Sifrei on Deuteronomy 33:1).
Yet their blessings are not the same. The biggest difference between them can be found in the blessings given to the tribes of Simeon and Levi.
Jacob ‘blesses’ them by chastising them for how they dealt treacherously with the men of Shechem after the rape of their sister Dinah. In contrast, Moses praises the tribe of Levi, referring to their future service in the Tabernacle and Temple. And in a glaring and perplexing omission, Moses does not mention Simeon in his blessings at all!
Why does Moses bless Levi when Jacob seemed to chastise him, and why did he leave out Simeon?
Some suggest that the tribe of Simeon is omitted by Moses because it did not receive a land inheritance of its own, as the tribe was voluntarily subsumed within the boundaries of Judah. Since Moses’ blessing dealt, in part, with the division of the land, Simeon was left out.
The problem with this explanation is that Levi also did not receive their own inheritance in the land. Rather, the tribe of Levi was spread throughout Israel since the Levites’ role was to teach Torah and serve in the Temple.
Rabbi Shmuel Goldin suggests another reason for the omission of Simeon, which also explains why Moses blessed Levi though Jacob had rebuked him. According to the sages, the tribe of Levi made up for its sin with the inhabitants of the city of Shechem at the time of the Sin of the Golden Calf. Not only did the tribe of Levi not participate in the sin, but they responded to Moses’ call to take action in defending God’s honor (Exodus 32:26). Furthermore, it was Phinehas from the tribe of Levi who defended God’s honor and killed Cozbi and Zimri at the time of the sin with Baal Peor. In contrast, the tribe of Simeon added to their sins with the incident of Baal Peor. It was Zimri, a prince from the tribe of Simeon, who brought idolatry into the heart of the camp and sinned with Cozbi, a priestess of Midian (Numbers 25).
Simeon and Levi both took part in murdering the men of Shechem, driven by their natural zealousness to protect the family’s honor. After being chastised by their father, the tribe of Levi channeled this zealousness toward serving God and defending His honor. As a result, they received a beautiful blessing from Moses and became the spiritual leaders of the Jewish people.
Simeon, however, seems not to have learned this lesson. Instead of channeling his tendencies for good, the members of the tribe continue to sin. Therefore, they did not receive a blessing from Moses and lost their inheritance in the Holy Land.
Through his blessings Moses taught a difficult lesson. Zealousness for God is an important trait. But it is not enough to focus outward on others as Simeon did. Zealousness to serve God must also be focused inward. This is actually more important. While Simeon was quick to serve God when it meant punishing others, he did not remove the stain of idolatry from within. Only Levi did so, thereby saving all of Israel.
God creates each of us with certain traits, talents and tendencies. These can all be channeled for good or for bad. How we use them, and what we choose to do with them, is in our hands.