Thursday, 08 Oct 2020

Written by Iris Ferreira

Simchat Torah

 Our annual cycle of Torah readings is coming to an end, in a parashah where Moses is about to be reunited with the Eternal. During the past cycle, we have read again what the Hebrews experienced in the desert: we saw them dancing with joy after crossing the Sea of Reeds, or trembling, full of awe and wonder, at Mount Sinai. But we also witnessed their moments of exhaustion, fear and rebellion. More than once, we may have felt close to them, compassionate towards them, or angry at them. Maybe, in a way, we have crossed the desert with them during the past year.

Leading the Hebrews to the Promise Land has not been an easy task for Moses. More than once, the covenant between the Eternal and the Hebrews has been endangered. Too often, they refused to go forward but rather went astray, unaware of all the worries they caused to Moses.

However, after all these eventful years in the desert, Moses blesses the twelve tribes of Israel. Despite all their sins and mistakes, their covenant with the Eternal is still standing.

However, a troubling fact tarnishes the beautiful scene of Deuteronomy 33: the tribe of Simeon is not mentioned among the others in the blessings.

Would it mean that this tribe sinned more than the others, and committed transgressions that could not be atoned for? Or that this tribe was bound to disappear and no longer had its place in the people of Israel? Why did the Simeonites not have their own blessing?

Ibn Ezra, in his commentary on Deuteronomy 33:6, holds that the Simeonites were not granted a blessing because they were the ones who worshipped Baal Peor, in Numbers chapter 25.

However, Nachmanide does not agree. In his commentary on the same verse, he affirms that the Simeonites did not sin more than the other tribes, and that the whole people of Israel was involved in Baal Peor’s worship.

So, if the Simeonites were no guiltier than the other tribes, why did Moses not bless them before like the others?

According to Nachmanides, the Simeonites did not have their own blessing because Moses needed to bless both tribes of Manasseh and Ephraim, coming from Joseph, as they had become clearly distinct. In addition, Moses needed to bless the Levites with the other tribes because of the prominence of their priestly function among the people. So, if the tribe of Simeon had been included in the blessings, there would have been thirteen tribes – which would have broken the symbolism attached to the number twelve, representing the twelve constellations, the twelve months of the year and so on.

For that reason, one tribe had to be taken out: thus Simeon’s tribe was not granted a blessing.

However, this explanation does not seem satisfying. Why was the tribe of Simeon deprived of a blessing and not any other one? Would it mean that some tribes are more important than others? Was the number twelve so critical that it justified the fact of leaving aside an entire tribe?

We may find another explanation in the book of Genesis, chapter 49. When Jacob blessed his sons, he actually cursed Simeon and Levi’s anger, for they had killed all the men of Shechem when they took back their sister Dinah, who had been raped by the prince of Shechem. For what they did, Jacob said that they shall be dispersed in Israel.

Maybe the fact that the tribe of Levi did not inherit a specific part of the Promise Land, but was instead dispersed among the other tribes and consecrated to the service of the Eternal, had something to do with these words of Jacob. Maybe the Levites’ priestly functions were a kind of atonement for the excessive acts of their ancestor Levi at Shechem.

However Simeon was not offered any specific function as a way of atonement. If we look at the map of the repartition of the tribes on the Promised Land territory, we can see that Simeon’s portion was included in Judah’s.

So it seems that, thanks to the tribe of Judah, the Simeonites were not dispersed across the face of the earth, but could remain a single, individual tribe.

This fact has led some biblical commentators, like Sforno and Keli Yaqar, to say that the Simeonites’ blessing was actually included in Judah’s one, because Judah had prayed to the Eternal on behalf of the Simeonites, that they shall not be dispersed on the earth.

As a conclusion, we cannot know for sure why the Simeonites were not blessed like the other tribes in Deuteronomy chapter 33. However, whichever explanation we prefer or justification we give, the fact is that they have been left aside.

In the same way, in every society, some people are marginalised because they do not conform to the established norms, or because of some actions they did, or because life has been hard with them. Whatever the reasons, these people may be in precarious situations, lacking support, and not being able to ask for help. It may have happened to Simeon’s tribe, had not Judah taken care of them, preventing them to be dispersed in Israel.

Maybe we can go further, and assume that the twelve tribes who were blessed could be granted their blessings because it was known that they would not leave aside the tribe who would not be blessed. In other words, the blessings that we find in our lives may depend on our efforts to share them with other people, especially the most vulnerable ones.

May we all, with the new beginning of our Torah reading cycle, start again a new cycle of trying our best to support each other.

Iris Ferreira LBC rabbinic student


The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.