As the end of his life drew near, Jacob assembled his twelve sons to share his final thoughts with them. Although the Torah refers to these comments as blessings, they are mostly varying degrees of harsh criticism. Two brothers that were recipients of perhaps the most severe comments were Simon and Levi, who teamed up to kill the residents of Shechem to avenge their sister’s honor. After Jacob chastises them for their violent aggressiveness, and says he wants to have no part of their partnership, he gets more specific. When he finally mentions their killing the inhabitants of Shechem, he uses two different and seemingly repetitive phrases. “For in their anger they murdered men, and with their will they lamed an ox” (Bereishit 49:6). What is the meaning of the end of the verse?
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808 – 1888), the leader of German Orthodoxy and the originator of the Torah Im Derech Eretz philosophy, writes in his commentary to Bereishit that this part of the verse alludes to the way that Simon and Levi carried out their attack. “With their will” actually refers to their feigned benevolent attitude towards their victims and should be translated as “with their good, benevolent, and friendly attitude.” “Ox” refers to ox-like strength, and “they lamed an ox,” means that they weakened the strength of the inhabitants of Shechem by persuading them to be circumcised. The verse is therefore saying that as reprehensible as their anger and the loss of control that followed was, the severity of their actions was even more pronounced because of the way it was carried out. Instead of executing their attack directly and giving the intended victims a chance to defend themselves, they displayed a false smile in order to cunningly paralyze their strength.
As human beings, we unfortunately can sometimes wrong or hurt others. By faking and lying, it’s easy to make a bad situation even worse. Dishonesty, whether it stems from a malicious intent or serves as a defense mechanism, can often compound the pain and hurt that we cause. Jacob’s emphasis, even on his very deathbed, on acting truthfully and honestly serves as a potent reminder of the importance of this trait in his legacy.