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    Levi: the last survivor

    Let’s take a look at another of the more-or-less second-ranking characters in the Biblical story – Levi, third son of Jacob.

    The Torah tells us he was 137 when he died (Ex. 6:16). According to Rashi, quoting earlier sources (Ex. R. 1), so long as even one of Jacob’s sons was alive, no slavery was imposed upon the Israelites: and Levi was the last son of Jacob to die.

    The name Levi is from a root that means “to be joined”. Leah gave her son this name in the hope that it would improve her marriage: “this time will my husband be joined to me” (Gen. 29:34).

    Levi and his brother Shimon smote the Shechemites to avenge a wrong done to their sister Dinah, but their father Jacob castigated them for taking the law into their own hands (Gen. 34:25-30, 49:5-7). Levi’s daughter Yocheved was the mother of Moses.

    Rabbinic tradition accepts that Levi’s name comes from a root that means “to be joined”, but prefers to understand it as denoting “the one who joins the children to the Father in heaven” (Gen. R. 71:5), an allusion to the fact that Levi was the ancestor of the priests and Levites.

    The Torah (e.g. Deut. 33:8-10) calls Levi ish chassidecha – “Thy pious one”, from which the sages deduce that his piety was greater than that of the rest of his family, and that he was the ancestor of the original Chassidim (Num. R. 3:2 etc.).

    It is said that even in Egypt the family of Levi observed the whole Torah (Ex. R. 15:1 etc.).

    The name he gave his daughter emphasises his piety, since Yocheved means “God gives glory”.

    How this squares with the act of violence carried out by Levi and Shimon is explained by Nachmanides (see Gen. 49:5).

    In calling Levi and Shimon brothers, the Torah is not merely stating the obvious, Nachmanides says. It is almost praising them for the fact that brotherly feelings led them to become their sister’s champions, but Jacob nonetheless had to say, “Cursed be their anger, for it was fierce” (Gen. 49:7); they were entitled to feel affronted by what had been done to Dinah, but they should not have resorted to violence.

    Rashi points out that Jacob did not curse them; he cursed their anger. Ibn Ezra thinks that “cursed be their anger” may be a euphemism for “may their anger subside”.

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