To rebel in defense

Witness the curse of wild rebellion: “Their wares are weapons of murder. In their conspiracies, let not my soul enter. Into their congregations, let not my honor be joined.”

These are the words I heard in synagogue last Saturday listening to the weekly Torah portion. Jacob, on his deathbed, curses his sons Simeon and Levi with these words. His final message to them was one of division and distance, not unity and amity. Why? What did these two sons do to earn their father’s curse?

Our sages have a few answers. Some point to Simeon’s and Levi’s actions against Shechem, the leader of a city by the same name. After Shechem raped Dinah, the sister of Simeon and Levi, the two brothers responded by murdering not just Shechem, but all the men of the city. When they returned to their father, he rebuked them for their actions.

Other biblical commentators say that Jacob’s curse refers to the future rebellions of Korach, a leader of the tribe of Levi, and Zimri, a leader of the tribe of Simeon. Both of these rebellions occurred while the Israelites were still wandering the desert. Interestingly, though, they used radically different methods.

Korach used corrupted intellect by deliberately manipulating his interpretations of the Torah so that he could call into question Moses’s leadership, while Zimri used corrupted sexuality by engaging in an illicit sexual act on the doorstep of the House of the Lord in full view of Moses and the other leaders of the nation.

Both Korach and Zimri were rebels. But they were rebelling against something, rather than in defense of something. Neither of these two men had any ideals that they were fighting for. Instead, they were simply fighting against someone, namely Moses.

The same holds true for Simeon and Levi. There were not fighting in defense of Dinah. They were fighting against Shechem, and in the process rebelling against their father’s cautious approach to the situation.

The notion of rebellion seems particularly apt as we enter into 2018. Rightly or wrongly, a growing number of people in both of my homes – the US and Israel – believe that their leaders are no longer fit to lead. Battle lines are already being drawn. We continue to hear calls to upset, unseat, or overthrow these leaders. The spirit of rebellion is upon us. And I fear we are doing it wrong.

Amid all of the hashtags on resistance and impeachment, I fear that we have lost our way. Deafened by broadcasts of talking heads and sensationalist storytelling, I fear that we can no longer make out the signal from the noise.

These voices, to my ears at least, are calling for rebelling against our leaders. And this is wrong.

To save ourselves, we need to rebel in defense of our values, instead of rebelling against our antagonists. Ultimately, the result is the same, but the difference in mentality is crucial. Instead of rebelling against corrupt government, we need to rebel in defense of selfless leadership. Instead of rebelling against xenophobia, we need to rebel in defense of inclusivity. Instead of rebelling against criminals, we need to rebel in defense of their victims and those who may one day be victimized.

Not against hate, but in defense of empathy. Not against immaturity and incompetence, but in defense of experience and wisdom. Not against egotism, but in defense of humility. Not against the rush to judge, but in defense of the patience to listen.

The curse of Simeon and Levi is not about rebellion or violence. It is about masking anger and arrogance behind the guise of rebellion. The natural result of this behavior is expressed in the final elements of Jacob’s message to his wayward sons.

After cursing their anger and their transgression, Jacob tells them that they will be divided and dispersed throughout the nation of Israel. This is to be expected. Rebelling against something naturally producing divisiveness; rebelling in defense of something naturally producing unity.

When we rebel – and we will – we need to hold up our values as our banners in the fight. We need to remember what we are fighting for, and then rebel in defense of those ideals. To do anything less risks dividing our communities and degrading our credibility.

When we fight – both on the larger, national stages and on the smaller, more personal ones – we have to rebel in defense of the best versions of ourselves. That is how we will rise in 2018.

Happy New Year, one and all.

About the Author
Yitzchak Besser is a writer, researcher, and communications consultant. He was an editor at The Jerusalem Post for three years.
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