The parsha begins with Hashem rewarding Pinchas greatly for his act of zealousness in killing Zimri and Cozbi. Pinchas was from the tribe of Levi whilst Zimri was from the tribe of Shimon. This is not the first time in the Torah that these two tribes are associated with one another - Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky zt”l provides an illuminating account of the history of these two tribes and how they developed in such different ways .
In parshas Vayishlach, we are told of how Shechem kidnapped Deena. All of the brothers conspired to bring her back - their plan was to persuade the people of Shechem to undergo bris mila and then they would come and retrieve Deena whilst the people were still recovering. However, Shimon and Levi planned a more drastic course of action - they believed that all of the people of Shechem were chayav misa for their part in the taking of Deena and proceeded to wipe out the whole city in the process of saving her. Yaakov Avinu strongly disagreed with their course of action, fearing that it would greatly damage the reputation of his family. Shimon and Levi defended their actions, saying, “should our sister be treated like a harlot?!”
It was only many years later that Yaakov gave his final tochacha to the two brothers. In parshas Vayechi, in his brachos to his sons, he criticized Shimon and Levi for their impulsiveness. Moreover, he punished them, saying, “I will separate them in Yaakov and disperse them within Yisroel. ” The simple understanding of this onesh it that its purpose was to separate the two brothers in order to prevent them from further violence. However, Rav Kamenetsky notes that Rashi provides a different explanation - that Shimon and Levi will be sofrim and melamdei tinokos who will travel from city to city to fix the tashmishei kedusha and to teach the Bney Yisroel Torah . Why was the future Torah education of Klal Yisroel put davke in the hands of Shimon and Levi?
He answers that Yaakov saw that they possessed a positive mida that the other brothers did not. He recognized their motivation in destroying Shechem - they were willing to risk their whole lives in order to defend the kavod of their sister. The other brothers also saw the terrible situation in which Deena was in, but only Shimon and Levi felt the pain as if it were their own pain. Rav Kamenetsky writes: “Yaakov saw that their actions stemmed from an inner pain and genuine empathy with the pain of another, and this motivated them to a burning zealousness that was without limit, to the point where they could not find menuchas nanefesh until they destroyed the whole city. Only men of this character, who feel the pain of their fellow as if it is their own pain - only they would … be moser nefesh and give up their physical resources, in order to wander from city to city to spread the Torah of Hashem in the world and to teach the children of Bnei Yisroel.”
Yaakov Avniu saw in Shimon and Levi a zealousness that could potentially be used for a very positive purpose, spreading Torah in Klal Yisroel. However, in this week’s parsha we see how the descendants of these two Bnei Yaakov, followed very different paths: Pinchas, a member of the Tribe of Levi, was able to channel his zealousness to doing the ratson Hashem - his act of violence brought an end to the plague that killed thousands of people. Hashem rewarded him highly to show that He acknowledged that Pinchas was acting purely leshem shamayim. However, Zimri, a Prince of the Tribe of Shimon, expressed the zealousness of his ancestor in a forbidden way, breaking boundaries that the Torah forbade. How did these two tribes divert so drastically from each other? Rav Kamenetsky explains that whilst most of Klal Yisroel were slaves in Mitzrayim, the tribe of Levi was free to learn Torah. It was this period of internalization of Torah values that enabled the Leviim to channel their zealousness in the right way. In contrast the members of Shevet Shimon never had the opportunity to learn Torah in the same way. Consequently their zealousness was without guidance and therefore expressed itself in forbidden ways. Rav Kamenetsky observes: “When zealousness is guided and bound by the limits of the Torah then it will succeed…. But without guidance, boundaries, and the hanhagas haTorah… it [zealousness] does not have the power to succeed and ultimately will remove the kanai from the world.”
There are a number of lessons we can derive from Rav Kamenetsky’s explanation. One is that extreme character traits should only be applied if they are harnessed by Torah guidance. A person that acts and speaks out against people in the name of ‘kano’us’ risks being guided not by the Torah, but by base motivations such as lust (as in the case of Zimri) or love of machlokes.
Another vital lesson is the novel understanding of how zealousness should express itself. The ‘kanoi’ may on occasion, be forced to resort to extreme behavior, however this should clearly be the exception to the rule True zealousness should bring a person to a tremendous feeling of pain at the Chilul Hashem caused by aveiro or lack of Torah learning. This pain should drive him to strive to rectify the problem by spreading Torah. This is the form of zealousness that the Leviim express on a permanent basis, as is borne out by the words of the Rambam: He asks why the Leviim were not zocheh to their own inheritance in Eretz Yisroel. He answers, “because they were separated to serve Hashem and to teach his just ways and righteous laws to the rabim, as it says, ‘they will teach the laws to Yaakov and the Torah to Yisroel. ’” The tribe of Levi possessed the mida of kano’us and were able to direct it to positive effect - they channel the pain they feel at Chilul Hashem to spread Torah and mitzvos throughout Klal Yisroel.
Of course this role is not limited to the Leviim. Many of our Gedolim have expressed the mida of zealousness: One Simchas Torah, Rav Yisroel Salanter zt”l was looking uncharacteristically gloomy. When asked why he looked so sad on such a happy day, he answered, “today is the time to rejoice over our precious holy Torah. But that is just what makes me sad - for Torah is dying today. Few people follow it, even fewer learn it, and their numbers dwindle from day to day. The more I think about the wonderfulness of the Torah, the more upset I become about the low state it is in today. ”
Rav Salanter’s great talmid, the Alter of Kelm zt”l emulated his Rebbe in this area: On one occasion he and Rav Zvi Broide zt”l noticed a Jew taking hay from a gentile’s wagon. After that the Alter was sad, and went about all day with a long face. That evening Rav Broide asked what the matter was. The Alter seemed surprised at the question. “How can a person be at peace when he sees so much sin in the world? ”
Of course, feeling pain is not sufficient - the true zealot will act upon it. How? By acting to remove the Chilul Hashem caused by aveiro and lack of Torah study. Indeed, our leaders were not restricted to feeling bad about the matsav of Klal Yisroel. Rav Salanter, the Chofetz Chaim zt”l and the Alter of Novardok zt”l as well as many others, all went to great lengths to teach Torah to those drifting from Torah. There are many accounts of their desperate efforts to stem the tide of secularization that was becoming rampant in their times.
Thus we have seen that a person that has the kanao’us sanctioned by the Torah will, in the long-term, direct it, not to destruction, but to building. We live in a time where Chilul Hashem is rampant - our avoda is twofold. Firstly, to develop a sense of deep pain at the sheer number of Jews with no connection to Judaism, and second to act upon this pain. But, as the Chazon Ish writes, nowadays the way we can achieve this is not through force but through love - by teaching them the ways of Hashem we can erase the Chilul Hashem . May we all merit to be true kano’im leHashem.