American football fans are all abuzz about the dramatic transformation made by the San Francisco 49ers. In 2018 they were at best a struggling mediocre team, and in 2019 they are NFC champions heading for the Super Bowl this coming Sunday.
L’havdil, we find in the most recent parshiyot a dramatic turnaround (of dramatically greater importance) on the part of Shevet Levi. In Sefer Shemot, Shevet Levi are league leaders. Moshe Rabbeinu and Aharon HaKohen lead the nation. Chazal teach that their father, Amram, was the gadol hador, the leader of his generation. Shevet Levi are the ones who not only refrain from serving the Egel but also enthusiastically respond to Moshe Rabbenu’s post-Egel call of “Mi laHashem elai.”
What makes this so shocking is that in Sefer Bereshit, Levi the son of Yaakov is last in his class. He, together with Shimon, controversially eliminated all the adult males of Shechem in the wake of the rape-kidnap of Dina, raising the ire of Yaakov Avinu (and in later generations the Ramban; though, the Rambam disagrees). In addition, Rashi teaches that it was none other than Levi who once again partnered with Shimon in placing Yosef in the pit and his subsequent sale into slavery.
Finally, of all of Yaakov Avinu’s children, Levi along with Shimon were the recipients of the harshest words uttered by the patriarch on his deathbed. Yaakov Avinu refers to them as violent, curses their anger and pronounces their destiny to be scattered amongst the Jewish people.
How did Shevet Levi make such a dramatic turnaround in such a short amount of time from the end of Sefer Bereishit to the beginning of Sefer Shemot?
We will answer based on imagination. Imagination plays a role in Jewish life, for example, at the Seder where we are bidden to imagine as if we ourselves left Mitzrayim.
I picture in my mind the scene of each Shevet entering Yaakov’s abode for their final bracha. Each Shevet is surrounded by their children and grandchildren as they enter to interact with their father for one last time. After each Shevet enters Yaakov’s home, the rest of their immediate family anxiously waits to hear what Yaakov Avinu had to say.
Each Shevet emerged excited to relate the bracha Yaakov Avinu tailored specifically for them. However, picture the scene when Levi exited from Yaakov’s home. Imagine the dejection and pain felt by Levi.
We suggest that just at that time someone in Levi’s family leaped up and shouted, “Listen carefully to Yaakov Avinu’s words. It does not have to mean a curse!” The destiny of being scattered amongst the Jews can mean that they will serve as the spiritual leaders of our people.
Levi and all his descendants react with enthusiasm. They respond that indeed Yaakov Avinu is telling Shevet Levi that they are to decide and shape their own destiny. They can choose to be scattered because they are failed and down and out, but they can also choose to be scattered due to their being the spiritual leaders of Am Yisrael.
Levi and his family resolved to dramatically up their game and be the best they could be. And they were a smashing success! They did indeed emerge as the spiritual leaders. They took the harsh words of Yaakov Avinu to heart and used them to propel their Shevet to greatness that lasts until today.
Sadly, Shevet Shimon did not engage in such a conversation. They wound up failing miserably in Sefer Bamidbar, serving in leading roles in the terrible sins with the Midianite women at Pe’or. Shevet Shimon are stripped of their status of a Shevet as evidenced by the absence of a bracha for them in Moshe Rabbeinu’s closing words recorded in Parshat V’Zot HaBracha. Sefer Yehoshua records that Shimon received no independent portion in the Land of Israel. They lived merely as an adjunct to Shevet Yehuda.
The lessons for us are obvious. Those who take to heart worthy words of admonishment and improve themselves are on the road to greatness. I was told that, l’havdil, Tom Brady of the New England Patriots has achieved sustained football ultra-success because even after he established himself as one of the greatest players in NFL history, he still eagerly embraces the constructive criticism he receives from his coach Bill Belichick.
Let’s face it: football is meaningless. It is at best just a pleasant diversion. However, we can derive some critical lessons to be implemented in the areas of life that are most meaningful. As did Shevet Levi and the 49ers, we can transform ourselves from mediocre to great and from good to great and from very good to great. All it takes is an open mind to appropriate constructive criticism, a dream, determination and grit: learning the Daf Yomi, bettering relationships with our family and improving our chesed and tefilla. We can go from good to great in all of these areas. We just have to really want it. Like Shevet Levi and, l’havdil, the 49ers.
Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.