We read in Parashat Vayechi of the harsh words of criticism spoke by Yaakov before his death as he addresses his second and third sons, Shimon Levi. In his parting words to Shimon and Levi, Yaakov condemns their violence and declares that they must be “divided” and “dispersed” among the Israelite nation (49:5-7).
Yaakov begins his condemnation by stating the obvious fact that “Shimon ve-Levi achim” – these two men were brothers. Rashi explains this to mean, “Achim be-eitza achat al Shekhem ve-al Yosef” – “They were brothers with a single mind against Shekhem and Yosef.” According to this interpretation, Yaakov condemns the collaboration between these two brothers which led to acts of violence.
The Ramban, however, suggests a different explanation, claiming that Yaakov in these words expresses admiration for Shimon and Levi’s quality of “achva” – feelings of fraternity. The crime they committed against the city of Shekhem was driven by genuine feelings of devotion and commitment to their sister, Dina, who was abducted and defiled by the city’s prince. Even while condemning his sons for their crime, Yaakov also took note of their sincere motives.
This reading of “Shimon ve-Levi achim” reminds us that sincere, admirable motives and goals do not justify extreme and illegitimate measures. Certainly, we must follow Yaakov’s example of recognizing and appreciating noble motives even as we look critically upon improper behavior. At the same time, however, we learn from his words to Shimon and Levi that the behavior remains improper despite such motives. Idealism, while vitally important, can often pose the danger of blinding us to the need for discretion and careful consideration of our actions. We cannot assume that the vital, idealistic goal we pursue warrants resorting to extreme measures. Shimon and Levi’s admirable feelings of “achva” did not justify their murderous assault on Shekhem. Even as we pursue important and meaningful goals, we must ensure not to neglect our other moral and religious duties in the process.