Vayichi: Ashes into hope

ashes in the skyI went to see the new Star Wars movie last Saturday night (loved it!) but the coming attractions made me really sad. Not only because there were so many….there were SO many!….but that out of the 7 trailers shown, all but one had to do with the very violent, very graphic destruction of worlds, things blowing up, people running for their lives, and everything brought to rumble.  Violence is everywhere.  Even the announcements before the movie reflect the danger that has become so awfully “normal”; look for the exits, if you see something or someone acting strangely, report it immediately, etc.

Violence is everywhere around us, it seems.  This is nothing new, of course.  Our response to it, however, is what’s notable. Jacob recognizes it in his own sons.  In this week’s parasha, Vayichi, the last before we start the book of Shmot (Exodus), we read that Jacob dying.  He’s been reunited with his beloved Joseph, and feels ready to die.  Jacob makes Joseph promise that he won’t bury his father in Egypt, but take him back to Canaan.  Jacob blesses his grandsons Menasseh and Ephraim, and then turns to his sons.  One by one, he speaks to them with a clarity of their individual personalities that belies his blindness (“his eyes had grown clouded with age” (Gen 48:10)  “Gather round and let me tell you what will befall you..”(Gen 49:1)

To Simeon and Levi he says they “…are partners, instruments of violence are their plan…cursed is their wrath, so fierce, and their fury is so harsh.  I will disperse them in Jacob, scatter them in Israel” (Gen 49:5-7) Simeon and Levi were the instigators of terrible violence, back in Chapter 34.  Dina, their sister, had been raped, and though the brothers had made peaceful overtures to the people of Shechem, “on the third day [after their circumcision] when they were in the greatest pain, the two sons of Jacob Simeon and Levi, Dina’s brothers, each took his sword; they went undisturbed into the city and killed every male.” (Gen 34:25)

What happened to the descendents of those violent sons?  We know that the Levites didn’t disappear; to the contrary, they became the Priestly class in the wilderness. They were given the highest positions.  Aaron, Moses and Miriam were all from the tribe of Levi, and God insisted that the Priests would come from the Levites.  Seems like an odd “punishment” for their ancestor’s violence.  And Simeon?  We read of him again in the story of Pinchas and Zimri (Numb 25)    One of the Israelite leaders brought a Midianite woman, and in front of God and everyone (literally), began “cavorting” with a Midianite woman.  Pinchas, Aaron’s grandson, took a spear and ran them both through, with one stab.  Who was the Israelite?  Zimri, son of the leader of the tribe of Simeon.

The violence in their two tribes culminated in killing, again.  A Levite killed a Simeonite for the sin of inappropriate sex, which was the crime back in Genesis.  At first, they were reacting to a harm done to their sister; ultimately, their violence made them turn on each other.  Yet Pinchas became High Priest, and the tribe of Levi continues to be the line of Priests (Cohanim).

The Rabbis said that Pinchas became High Priest because it was a way for his zealotry for God would stay channeled into appropriate channels, and keep him from facing the people with wrath. Perhaps.  But at this dark time of the year, and this dark time in the world, I prefer to think of it as hope that no matter how deeply violence is imbedded in one’s history, one’s people, one’s narrative, there is always a way to turn it to a more peaceful, spiritual focus.  We can turn our backs on destruction, hatred and killing.  We can scatter the fiery remains of violence so they become no more than ashes floating down from the sky after the fire is put out.

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