Recently, when walking the streets of Jerusalem, I stumbled upon a small synagogue, one room large. This synagogue of recent vintage had 12 windows, one for each tribe, as per ancient Jewish custom (OC 90:4), with a small image on each window representing one of the tribes, usually relating to the tribal blessings given by Yaakov (Bereishit 49) or Moshe (Devarim 33).
Most of the tribes had images marking moments of heroism for the tribes or their namesakes: Dudaim flowers for Reuven, the high priest’s breastplate for Levi, traders’ boats for Zevulun, olives and oil for Asher, and a military encampment for Gad, following the ancient images for each tribe which Bamidbar Rabba (2:7) imagines would have been used by the desert Jews. Marc Chagall’s stained glass windows at Hadassah Ein Kerem cover many of the same themes: flowers for Reuven, a boat for Zevulun, a menorah with oil for Asher, and military weapons for Gad. These themes have become part of the very fabric of Judaism for years as the Midrash’s selection of the emblems captures the essence of each tribe through a scientific, political, agricultural, or economic lens. Yehudah is the powerful and royal lion, Yissachar the wise master of the astronomy of the sun and the moon, Naftali the swift and fast deer.
Yet, as I prayed in this small synagogue in Jerusalem, I noticed a subtle shift in the portrayal of the tribes, recasting their ancient, worldly heroism into conventional-spiritual terms. Yehudah’s lion has become the king’s crown (the powerful, swift, and ferocious beast nowhere to be seen) while Yissachar’s sun and moon had become a Torah scholar studying over a book (a caption gives an oblique reference to Divrei Hayamim hinting to the fact that he studies the Halakha of astronomy). Binyamin’s emblem replaces physical prowess with spiritual connectedness by shifting from the wolf of Yaakov’s blessing into the temple of Moses’s blessing, while Dan’s snake from Yaakov’s blessing (symbolizing his pyrrhic victory), is replaced with the scales of the jurist or judge in a Jewish Court.
Most striking was the shift in the emblem for the tribe of Shimon. In the Midrash and in numerous synagogues, Shimon is captured by the city of Shechem; a sign of his valor, courage, and might – but also a hint to his impetuousness, his anger, and his errors. Yet, in this new synagogue, the emblem of Shimon is a scribe’s quill and scroll, with a caption indicating Shimon’s role as the scribe of Israel. Physical might and courage are replaced by a spiritual role, and a complicated heroism is replaced by a more conventional one, albeit one with little precedent in the Bible, Talmud, or earlier Midrashim.
[The choice is particularly ironic as the first and only source to discuss Shimon’s role as the scribes of Israel (Rashi and Targum Yerushalmi to Bereishit 49:3, contrast the major and earlier Midrashim in Bereishit Rabba 98:5 & 99:7 and Tanchumah Vayechi) presents his role as a scribe as a punishment, and not as a source of pride. It is also hard to imagine that the tribe that lived many years outside the borders of what is today Israel (Divrei Hayamim 1:4:24-43) and was exiled before the destruction of the first temple (Yoma 54a) would spend much time in the trade of scribal-craft].
As we read a lot about Shimon in the Torah portion this time of year, I think often about the lessons we are supposed to learn from Shimon: the dangers of anger, the importance of courage and decisiveness, the value of strength, and the weakness of quick-headedness. The emblem of Shechem reminds us of all of that, while the image of the scribe glosses over the complexity.
This observation dovetails with what many have written about the way Jews present our narratives today, glossing over the rich but complex stories of our nation’s past and replacing them with sanitized stories limited to spiritual heroism. Yet, in this case of Shimon, the way to be honest towards centuries of interpretive traditions around the Tanach is to preserve the more ancient way of representation the tribes. Let us return the image of Schechem as the true emblem of Shimon, in all of its thought-provoking complexity.