Parshat Vayishlach 5779: The Actions of Shimon and Levi Against Shechem: Condonable or to be Condemned?

Shalom Friends;

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Moshe Burt
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Parshat Vayishlach 5779: The Actions of Shimon and Levi Against Shechem: Condonable or to be Condemned?

by Moshe Burt

After Yaakov’s confrontation with Esav, he brings his family to Shechem in Cana’an.

Yaakov bought a field in Shechem and Torah relates a sequence of events (Sefer Breish’t, Perek 33, posuk 20 through Perek 34, posukim 1-4, 6-7):

“He [Yaakov] set up an altar there and he called it ‘G’d is the G’d of Israel.’” (Sefer Breish’t, Perek 33, posuk 20)

“Now Dinah — the daughter of Leah, whom she had borne to Yaakov — went out to look over the daughters of the land. Shechem, son of Chamor the Hivvite, the prince of the land, saw her; he took her, and he lay with her, and violated her. He became deeply attached to Dinah, daughter of Yaakov; he loved the maiden and spoke to the maiden’s heart. So Shechem spoke to Chamor, his father saying, ‘Take me this girl for a wife.’” (Sefer Breish’t, Perek 34, posukim 1-4)

“Chamor, Shechem’s father, went out to Yaakov to speak to him. Yaakov’s sons arrived from the field, when they heard; the men were distressed. and were fired deeply with indignation, for he had committed an outrage… by lying with a daughter of Yaakov — and such a thing is not done.” (Sefer Breish’t, Perek 34, posukim 6-7)

Rashi notes on this last posuk (Perek 34, posuk 7 as rendered to English in The Sapirstein Edition, “The Torah: with Rashi’s Commentary”):

“And such a thing is not done” To violate virgins; for the nations of the world restricted themselves from sexual immorality because of the flood. (cited from Breish’t Rabbah 80:6, “And such a thing is not done” implies a widely accepted restriction… One of the sins for which Hashem destroyed the world at the time of the flood was sexual immorality.)

After the mabul (the Great Flood), Hashem hands down to man a universal moral code which Rabbi Shmuel Goldin discusses in his sefer, “Unlocking the Torah Text” (Sefer Breish’t, Parshat No’ach pages 51-53):

This code, referred to in rabbinic literature as Sheva Mitzvot B’nai No’ach (the seven mitzvot of the children of No’ach), or the No’achide code, is derived from a passage found…[near] the end of… [Parshat] No’ach and consists of seven basic commandments. (referencing Sefer Breish’t, Perek 9, posukim 2-6) Taken together, these commandments form a moral blueprint for all civilizations.

The seven No’achide laws are the following; do not steal, do not kill, do not eat the limb of a living animal, do not commit acts of sexual immorality, do not practice idolatry, do not blaspheme Hashem, and establish courts of law.

Sefer Shem Mishmuel (Shem Mishmuel, by Rabbi Shmuel Bornstein, the Sochaczever Rebbe, as rendered to English by Rabbi Zvi Belovski, Parsha Vayishlach, pages 57-60) describes Torah’s account of the capture and violation of Yaakov’s daughter Dinah by Shechem ben Chamor:

…Chamor… was the ruler of the area. After the rape [of Dinah by Shechem], Shechem and Chamor negotiated with Yaakov’s family for Shechem’s right to marry Dinah. The condition of acceptance was that Shechem and all of his male townsfolk had to circumcise themselves. Shechem was only too eager to carry out the operation “…because he desired the daughter of Yaakov, although he was the most honored of all of his father’s household.”

Torah relates regarding Yaakov’s sons’ reaction to Shechem’s abduction of Dina:

“Yaakov’s sons answered Shechem and his father Chamor with cleverness… They said to them, ‘We cannot do this thing, to give our sister to a man who is uncircumcised, for that is an insult to us. Only on this condition will we acquiesce to you, if you become like us, to have every male among you become circumcised.'” (Sefer Breish’t, Perek 34, posukim 13-15)

Shem Mishmuel goes on to note that Dinah’s name is not mentioned here, but is referred to as “the daughter of Yaakov,” indicating that Shechem wanted Dinah, not simply for his physical desires, but because she was Yaakov’s daughter!

Shem Mishmuel goes on to comment:

Shechem wanted to be associated with Yaakov and his family, to be part of Yaakov’s… world. Indeed, Shechem actually means “segment” or “portion”…

We could say that Shechem wanted a portion in Yaakov’s life; he wanted not just Dinah, but also to share… [Yaakov’s] greatness. Indeed, this is the opposite of the generally correct position to be taken by a potential convert. The Gemara informs us that the convert should feel that he is privileged to join the Jewish people, even though he is unworthy. (Yevamos 47a) Instead, Shechem felt that he deserved a place within Yaakov’s family.

Rav Goldin, in “Unlocking the Torah Text” (page 194) summarizes what happens next (Sefer Breish’t, Perek 34, posukim 25-31):

On the third day after the mass circumcision, Yaakov’s sons, Shimon and Levi, enter the city and, taking advantage of the weakened state of the inhabitants, slaughter all the males. They then lay waste to the entire city.

Yaakov criticizes his sons, claiming that their actions have made the family vulnerable to attack from the surrounding nations. Shimon and Levi respond: “Shall our sister be treated as a harlot?”

Rav Goldin asks several questions regarding the actions of his two sons and provides approaches (ibid, pages 194-199):

Are Shimon and Levi morally justified when they avenge the assault upon their sister? Can the destruction of an entire city be condoned as a response to the crimes of its prince? ….Was Yaakov complicit in the planned deceit of the Shechemites? If so, why does he later criticize his sons Shimon and Levi? If not, how could he [Yaakov] have possibly agreed to a plan that would have allowed for the assimilation of his family into Shechemite society? Yaakov only reprimands Shimon and Levi for making their family vulnerable to attack. Did Yaakov object to his sons’ actions on moral grounds as well?

….The commentators struggle with the moral dimensions of this difficult episode. The Rambam… finds legal grounds to justify both the deceit of the citizens of Shechem and the violent actions of Shimon and Levi.

The nations of the world, says the Rambam, are responsible to observe the seven Noachide laws upon pain of death.

Dina’s assailant clearly transgressed the Noachide law that prohibits abduction [i.e. sexual immorality]. The entire society of Shechem, however, incurred guilt as well. One of the seven Noachide laws mandates the establishment of courts of law…. obligates all… [other] societies to establish judicial systems to enforce the entire Noachide code. When the citizens of Shechem failed to maintain this legal standard by bringing the prince to justice, they, themselves, became liable to the death penalty. Shimon and Levi were, therefore, justified in exacting punishment upon the city. (Rav Goldin citing Rambam, Mishne Torah, Hilchot Melachim 9:14)

The Ramban objects to the Rambam’s interpretation of the Noachide code on two… levels. Firstly…, the requirement to establish courts of law refers to monetary issues and not to enforcement of the other Noachide laws. Secondly, one is guilty of a capital crime under the Noachide code only if an action is actually committed…. Although Shechem himself was certainly guilty of a punishable offense under the Noachide code, in this instance the citizens of the city were not.

The population of the city… was certainly guilty of other capital crimes unrelated to the event before us, such as idolatry and sexual immorality. Yaakov [if one presumes that he knew his sons’ plans to put all men of Shechem to death] and his sons had no legal right to exact punishment [on the population of Shechem] for those crimes. (Rav Goldin citing Ramban on Sefer Breish’t, Perek 34, posuk 13)

Rav Goldin then writes, as this author understands and attributed to the Ramban, that when Yaakov’s sons demanded that all the males in Shechem be circumcised in exchange for the family’s acquiescence to Shechem’s marrying Dinah, they truly believed that the Shechemites would not agree, thus nullifying the agreement, and that Dina would be returned unharmed. The Ramban further understands that Yaakov’s understanding of his son’s plans was, that if by some chance the Shechemites agreed to to mass circumcision, Yaakov’s sons would enter the city of Shechem on the third day, while the men were in pain and weakened, and free their sister without further violence.

Rav Goldin writes citing the Ramban:

Shimon and Levi, however, took matters into their own hands, violently avenged their sister’s honor and incurred their father’s reprimand. (This and the above paragraph: Rav Goldin citing Ramban on Sefer Breish’t, Perek 34, posuk 13)

Rav Golden writes further that other commentators suggest various takes on Shimon’s and Levi’s actions, such as; that “…on the third day, when they [the Shechemites] were in pain” refers not to the pain of the circumcisions, but to remorse over their agreement with Yaakov’s family. Shimon and Levi recognized the Shechemites’ change of mind and acted preemptively. ( Rav Goldin citing Da’at Zekeinim, Miba’alei Hatosafot, Sefer Breish’t, Perek 34, posuk 25)

Another commentator’s take, which builds on a Midrashic source ( Rav Goldin citing Pesikta Zutrata, Sefer Breish’t, Perek 34, posuk 22-23) indicates on the words of Chamor in convincing the Shechemites to undergo circumcision: “Their [Yaakov and his family’s] livestock, their possessions and all of their animals, will they not be ours?” (Sefer Breish’t, Perek 34, posuk 23)

Rav Goldin concludes (for purposes of this Parshat HaShevua):

Clearly, these scholars [the latter two] maintain that the Shechemites were only going along with the agreement for personal gain at the expense of Yaakov and his family. At the first opportunity, Chamor and his subjects would have turned against Yaakov. Shimon and Levi acted to forestall such an eventuality. (Rav Goldin citing Sforno, Sefer Breish’t, Perek 34, posuk 25)

While the biblical commentators struggle over the moral issues involved…, pashut pshat seems to render a verdict, of sorts, of its own…. The overarching message of Parshat Vayishlach: Life is often painted in shades of gray, rather than in black and white, and issues of right and wrong are not always clearly defined.

Nothing can mitigate Shechem’s guilt over his abduction and assualt of Dina. By no means should we ever blame the victim of a violent crime. Nonetheless, the Torah reminds us that, at all times, we contribute to our own downfall. Surrounded by a dangerous world, Dina should have been more careful. Her tragic misstep alerts us to the care that must be exercised in each era as we and our children relate to an often perilous environment.

To repeat, the opening posuk of the parsha of Dina and Shechem:

“Now Dinah — the daughter of Leah, whom she had borne to Yaakov — went out to look over the daughters of the land.” (Sefer Breish’t, Perek 34, posuk 1)

Obviously, Rav Goldin is alerting us to important lessons which relate to the perils of our times, i.e. the rampant, catastrophic intermarriage rate in Chutz L’Arutz as well the growing, dangerous phenomena of Jew/Arab relationships here in Israel.

And on a different level, we have a national survival lesson to learn in Israel in our times. When confronted with the murderous terror attacks of our adversaries seeking our destruction, we must act “with cleverness” (Sefer Breish’t, Perek 34, posukim 13), with boldness and with a fight-to-win attitude and mindset, rather than no-win stalemate acquiescence, dependence upon bogus UN buffers or a super power.

May we, the B’nei Yisrael be zocha that our brethren — the refugee families from Gush Katif be permanently settled and be made totally whole — be totally restituted for all that was stolen from them and that the twice expelled families of Amona be restored to their rebuilt homes, at government expense; both due to alt-leftist-agendized, supreme court legalized Yassamnik gunpoint. May our dear brother Jonathan Pollard be liberated and truly free — only upon his return home to Israel, and that the MIAs be liberated alive and returned to us in ways befitting Al Kiddush Hashem, as should the remains of the two chayalim from the Gaza War of four years ago. May we have the courage and strength to stand up and physically prevent the possibility of Chas V’Challila any future eviction of Jews from their homes and prevent Chas V’Challila the handing of Jewish land over to anyone, let alone to enemies sworn to Israel’s and Judaism’s destruction and eradication. May we fulfill Hashem’s blueprint of B’nai Yisrael as a Unique people — an Am Segula, not to be reckoned with as with “the nations” and may we be zocha to see the Moshiach, the Ge’ula Shlaima, as Dov Shurin sings; “Ki Karov Yom Hashem Al’Kol HaGoyim”, the Ultimate Redemption, bimhayrah b’yamainu — speedily, in our time”, — Achshav, Chik Chuk, Miyad, Etmol!!!

Good Shabbos!
Moshe Burt, an Oleh, is a commentator on news and events in Israel and Founder and Director of The Sefer Torah Recycling Network. He lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh.