The Fall and Rise of Levi, Once and Future Priest

We discussed in a recent post (link) the motif throughout Bereishit of bechira over bechora – that in almost every instance, the firstborn is passed over in deference to a favored younger sibling. As Leah’s oldest two children, Reuven and Shimon should rightfully have received the priesthood and monarchy, but they were passed over due to mistakes they made (see 49:4-7), leaving Levi and Yehuda to share the national leadership. Levi, too, was castigated for his role in the Shechem and Yosef affairs (49:5-7), leaving Yehuda with the monarchy and Ephraim, the younger but preferred son of Yosef, with the priesthood, which then fell to the bechorim after makat bechorot.

What makes Yaakov’s castigation of Levi unclear is that it appears to be overridden by Hashem later, when He tells Moshe that the Levi’im will in fact replace the bechorim in the priesthood after all:

ספר במדבר פרק ג פסוק יב
וַאֲנִי הִנֵּה לָקַחְתִּי אֶת הַלְוִיִּם מִתּוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל תַּחַת כָּל בְּכוֹר פֶּטֶר רֶחֶם מִבְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְהָיוּ לִי הַלְוִיִּם

Was Yaakov wrong in assessing the relative merit of Levi? How did Levi’s descendants earn back the privilege which was taken from their ancestor at the end of Yaakov’s life? And why were Reuven and Shimon unable to earn back their lost glory, while Levi had no such trouble?

To answer this question, let’s look more carefully at Yaakov’s indictment of Shimon and Levi in Parshat Vayechi:

ספר בראשית פרק מט פסוקים ה-ז
שִׁמְעוֹן וְלֵוִי אַחִים כְּלֵי חָמָס מְכֵרֹתֵיהֶם
בְּסֹדָם אַל תָּבֹא נַפְשִׁי, בִּקְהָלָם אַל תֵּחַד כְּבֹדִי, כִּי בְאַפָּם הָרְגוּ אִישׁ, וּבִרְצֹנָם עִקְּרוּ שׁוֹר
אָרוּר אַפָּם כִּי עָז, וְעֶבְרָתָם כִּי קָשָׁתָה, אֲחַלְּקֵם בְּיַעֲקֹב, וַאֲפִיצֵם בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל

Yaakov’s two specific indictments of Reuven and Levi, bolded and underlined above, are that “in their anger they killed a man, and by their will they cut off an ox.” The man referenced here is Shechem, whom they deceived into making a peace treaty before killing when he was weak and defenseless after undergoing a circumcision (see Chapter 34, especially 34:25-31). The ox is Yosef, whom Shimon and Levi were involved in selling down the river (see especially 37:21 and 37:26, in which only Reuven and Yehuda come out looking relatively clean). Let’s take these two incidents separately.

After the killing of Shechem, Yaakov castigated Shimon and Levi for failing to take into account the threat that their action would constitute to Yaakov and his family in the future:

ספר בראשית פרק לד פסוק ל
וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב אֶל שִׁמְעוֹן וְאֶל לֵוִי, עֲכַרְתֶּם אֹתִי לְהַבְאִישֵׁנִי בְּישֵׁב הָאָרֶץ, בַּכְּנַעֲנִי וּבַפְּרִזִּי, וַאֲנִי מְתֵי מִסְפָּר ,וְנֶאֶסְפוּ עָלַי וְהִכּוּנִי, וְנִשְׁמַדְתִּי אֲנִי וּבֵיתִי

As Yaakov further reminds them at the end of his life, they acted באפם, in their anger, in haste and impetuosity rather than with thoughtful resolve. How interesting, then, that Levi’s descendant Moshe acts so differently when faced with a similar challenge:

ספר שמות פרק ב פסוקים יא-יב
וַיְהִי בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם וַיִּגְדַּל משֶׁה וַיֵּצֵא אֶל אֶחָיו וַיַּרְא בְּסִבְלֹתָם וַיַּרְא אִישׁ מִצְרִי מַכֶּה אִישׁ עִבְרִי מֵאֶחָיו
וַיִּפֶן כֹּה וָכֹה וַיַּרְא כִּי אֵין אִישׁ וַיַּךְ אֶת הַמִּצְרִי וַיִּטְמְנֵהוּ בַּחוֹל

Notice the three-time repetition of וירא, and he saw, in the Pesukim above. As opposed to Levi, who killed in haste, Levi’s descendant Moshe acted more thoughtfully, as Rashi explains:

ויפן כה וכה – ראה מה עשה לו בבית, ומה עשה לו בשדה
וירא כי אין איש – 
עתיד לצאת ממנו שיתגייר

Moshe took the time to consider all aspects of what the Egyptian had done previously and the possible ramifications of this killing for the future. Only after this period of reflection, when Moshe had concluded that this killing would be fully appropriate, did he kill the Egyptian. Rather than act in anger like his great-grandfather Levi before him, Moshe acted with premeditation and forethought.

Yaakov’s other indictment of Shimon and Levi is that ברצונם עקרו שור – by their own will, they maimed an ox, i.e., Yosef. How interesting, then, that Levi’s grandson Amram acts so differently. Rashi points out the length to which Amram went to preserve life, even in the face of great adversity:

פירוש רש”י – ספר שמות פרק ב פסוק א
ויקח את בת לוי: פרוש
 היה ממנה מפני גזירת פרעה, וחזר ולקחה. וזהו “וילך,” שהלך בעצת בתו שאמרה לו גזרתך קשה משל פרעה, אם פרעה גזר על הזכרים, ואתה גם כן על הנקבות. והחזירה ועשה בה לקוחין שניים

After Pharaoh issued his decree that all boys be thrown in the river, Amram and Yocheved divorced, for fear that they would have to disown their own child. Their daughter Miriam persuaded them to come back together, arguing that their actions were worse than Pharaoh’s, for their decree would destroy both the girls and the boys! The subsequent reunification of Levi’s grandson Amram with Yocheved resulted in Moshe, who was sent up the river in a basket of pitch and clay – so much the opposite of Yosef’s being sold down the river in a caravan of sweet-smelling spices. Once again, Levi’s descendant found a way to recompense the action of Levi, adding a soul to the world in place of the one Levi sought to snuff out. Amram and Yocheved used רצונם to create life at a time of great risk, rather than follow the path of least resistance in lieu of Pharaoh’s decree. (There is even a hidden Yosef reference when Amram and Yocheved are no longer able to hide Moshe: ולא יכלו עוד הצפינו. Yosef’s Egyptian name was צפנת פענח.)

Levi’s descendants found ways to close the gaps that their ancestor had left behind. Yaakov’s curse was not incorrect, but it provided a valuable progress report by which Levi’s grandchildren would know what needed to be repaired in order to receive the position Levi had always rightfully earned as the other non-oldest son of Leah alongside Yehuda. Once Amram, Yocheved, and Moshe showed they had learned those lessons, the priesthood could be taken back from the bechorim and given to Levi. Unlike the descendants of Reuven and Shimon, those of Levi identified the weaknesses in their lineage and worked to correct them through positive action.

Beracha is an expression of potential; nevuah is an opportunity to be used or squandered. Levi and his descendants faced the punishment of losing the priesthood, but they also realized that they were armed with the tools to change the future predicted for them. Levi’s descendants heard the call in the dire nevuot made to their ancestor, made amends, and earned back their lost glory. The Jews in Yirmiyahu’s generation heard his nevuot about the coming destruction of the first Beit Hamikdash, but they failed to change the future predicted in those ominous warnings. May we only have the ability to hear Hashem’s messages in our own lives – and the courage to act accordingly.

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