search
David Curwin
David Curwin

Between Vayechi and Shemot

The gap between the end of Parashat Vayechi (and the end of the book of Bereshit) and the beginning of Parashat Shemot is enormous. The thematic dissonance between the special status Bnei Yisrael held in the time of Yosef and the descent into slavery is unmistakable. There is no clear description of the events that transpired between the former and the latter. And it’s not even clear how much time has passed – is it decades or centuries?

The nature of these “dark ages” is perplexing. But it also helps to hide one of the major riddles of the transition between Bereshit and Shemot.

Throughout the later chapters of Bereshit, Shimon and Levi appear as the most zealous sons of Yaakov. They take the lead in avenging the kidnapping of their sister Dinah, even challenging their father’s authority. They likely had a major role in the plot against Yosef as well. In Bereshit 37:9, “one said to his brother” that they should kill Yosef. Rashi (in his commentary on Bereshit 49:5), asks, who could have been the two brothers who made that suggestion? It couldn’t have been Reuven or Yehuda, since they had other plans for Yosef. Shimon and Levi were the two oldest remaining brothers – so it was likely it was their idea, as fitting their violent nature in the story of Shechem.

Yaakov, on his deathbed, criticized Shimon and Levi for their fanaticism, saying “Their weapons are tools of lawlessness … Let not my person be included in their council … Cursed be their anger so fierce…” (Bereshit 49:5-7). And he opens this reproof by emphasizing that they operate as a pair: “Shimon and Levi are brothers.”

And yet, in Shemot, we see an entirely different story. Shimon has no notable role in Egypt, whereas the text focuses on the family of Levi, the tribe from which Moshe is born. Levi’s prominence goes beyond just Moshe and his immediate family. According to tradition, unlike the other tribes, Levi wasn’t enslaved in Egypt. And certainly after Israel left Egypt, Levi acquired a key role in the Sanctuary service, while Shimon only gained notoriety for their involvement in the disgrace at Baal Peor. They weren’t even mentioned in Moshe’s final blessing to the people.

How did these two brothers, who were such a pair in Bereshit, take such different paths starting in Shemot? How did Yaakov not recognize Levi’s future greatness in his blessing?

Perhaps to ask the question is to answer it. While previous behavior can predict future outcomes, it’s not a guarantee. Shimon and Levi behaved in a problematic way in Bereshit, and Yaakov recognized that. But ultimately, everyone has free will – the cornerstone of personal responsibility. Despite their background, the Levites took a different path, and used their energies to positive ends. Shimon did not. And as a result, Levi took a leadership role that continues to this very day.

About the Author
David Curwin is a writer living in Efrat. He has been writing about the origin of Hebrew words and phrases, and their connection to other languages, on his website balashon.com since 2006. He has also published widely on topics relating to Bible and Jewish philosophy.
Related Topics
Related Posts
Comments