We read in Parashat Vayishlach of the deadly assault mounted by Shimon and Levi on the city of Shekhem after the city’s prince – who bore the name of the city, Shekhem – abducted and raped their sister, Dina. In telling of their attack on the city, the Torah refers to Shimon and Levi as “benei Yaakov” – “Yaakov’s sons” (34:25). Rashi, citing the Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 80:10), detects in this reference a subtle critique of Shimon and Levi’s bold action: “They were his sons, but Shimon and Levi nevertheless conducted themselves like other people, who were not his sons, in that they did not seek his advice.” By describing Shimon and Levi here as “Yaakov’s sons,” the Torah emphasizes the fact that they failed to act as Yaakov’s sons by acting independently, without consulting him and seeking his guidance for how to respond to the unfortunate situation that arose.
Rashi’s comments cast a degree of irony on his remarks a bit later, where he cites an explanation from the same Midrashic source for why Shimon and Levi are described as attacking Shekhem “confidently” (“betach”). The simplest reason, as Rashi notes, is that the men of Shekhem were physically frail as a result of their circumcision, and thus Shimon and Levi faced little or no resistance when they descended upon the city. The Midrash, however, explains, as Rashi cites, “They were confident in the strength of the elder one [Yaakov].” They launched their attack feeling assured that the merit of their saintly father would assist them and ensure the success of their campaign. From these two comments of Rashi it emerges that Shimon and Levi felt assured of their ability to access Yaakov’s merits, but felt no need to submit to his authority and seek his counsel. They assumed they could reap the benefits of Yaakov’s unique stature, without needing to turn to him for direction. The Midrash thus reminds us that our status as the descendants of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov entails both benefits and obligations. We enjoy zekhut avot – the merit of our patriarchs – and the promises included in God’s eternal covenant with our forebears, but we also bear the responsibility to adhere to their legacy and faithfully follow our ancestral traditions.
More generally, perhaps, we are reminded that we cannot enjoy the benefits of membership in Am Yisrael and the Jewish community without committing ourselves to the obligations entailed. If we want to access “the strength of the elder one,” we need to humbly accept and submit to the authority of “the elder one,” and work to fulfill all our obligations as part of the Nation of Israel.