We read in Parashat Vayechi Yaakov’s parting comments to each of his sons moments before his death. Addressing his second and third sons, Shimon and Levi, Yaakov harshly condemned them for their violence, referring, presumably, to their deadly assault on the city of Shekhem after the city’s prince abducted and violated their sister. (According to Rashi, Yaakov refers here also to the sale of Yosef as a slave, an action which, in Rashi’s view, was perpetrated mainly by Shimon and Levi.) Yaakov charges that “kelei chamas mekheiroteihem” (49:5) – a phrase generally interpreted to mean that Shimon and Levi were guilty of unwarranted violence.
Rashi, however, offers a different interpretation of this verse, explaining that Shimon and Levi “stole” this violent tendency from those outside the family. The word “chamas” in this verse, Rashi writes, means not “violence,” but “theft,” and Yaakov thus accuses Shimon and Levi of taking for themselves the violent tendency of their uncle, Esav, who was, by nature, violent and vengeful. Shimon and Levi’s fierce character, Rashi explains, was a “foreign import,” something which has no place in Yaakov’s family and was brought in from the outside.
Rav Yerucham Levovitz (Da’at Torah) finds it significant that Yaakov formulated his condemnation of Shimon and Levi in such terms. According to Rashi’s interpretation, Yaakov censured Shimon and Levi not only for their violent character itself, but for the fact that they “stole” a foreign trait. We should endeavor not to imitate other people, but rather to cultivate our own natural, ingrained qualities and characteristics. Our goal must be to become the best possible version of ourselves, not to become somebody else. And thus, in Rav Yerucham’s view, Shimon and Levi would have been deserving of Yaakov’s criticism even if they had “stolen” a neutral trait from somebody else. We must recognize our unique potential, skills and natures which make us uniquely suited for roles which no other person can fill, and work to fill those roles to the very best of our ability. If we try to mimic other people, then we are guilty of “theft,” encroaching upon other people’s territory, as it were, by usurping the roles assigned to them by virtue of their skills and characters. Rashi’s interpretation of this verse thus reminds us to work towards maximizing our own potential, rather than try to “steal” other people’s roles.