Summary of the Story
Parsha Vayishlach is filled with numerous important events. However, I would like to focus on one that pries at our modern sensibilities: the story of Shechem.
Allow me first to give a small summary. Yaakov temporarily settled before the city of Shechem. Dinah, his only daughter, went out to meet the other girls of the city. Shechem, the prince of the city whom it was named after, set his eyes on Dinah; he then took her, raped her, and kept her hostage. In the meantime, Shechem, “became deeply attached to Dina…and spoke to the maiden’s heart” (Bereishit 34:2). Subsequently, Shechem spoke to his father, Hamor, explaining to that he wanted to marry Dina.
Now, when Yaakov’s sons heard of this, they, “were distressed, and were fired deeply with indignation, for he (Shechem) had committed an outrage in Israel in Israel by lying with a daughter of Yaakov- and such a thing is not done” (Bereishit 34:6). In order to “alleviate” the anger of the brothers, Shechem told Yaakov and his sons to “inflate exceedingly the marriage contract…” (Bereishit 34:11) in return for Dinah as a wife.
Oh boy, Shechem didn’t know what he got himself into. You see, Yaakov’s sons proposed that the only way they would give Dinah away was if Shechem and all the men of the city would circumcise themselves. Now, that’s quite a marriage contract; not just Shechem, but all the males of the city had to suffer.
Shechem, frankly speaking, was a meshuganer; he accepted the offer! Mind you, on behalf of all the males of the city. However, if we take a look, Shechem was not as much of a meshuganer as it may have seemed. What did Shechem and Hamor tell their people? “…Only on this condition will the people acquiesce with us…that all our males become circumcised. Their livestock, their possessions, and all their animals-will they not be ours?” (Bereishit 34:22-23).
Aha! You see, he’s not a meshuganner. Shechem understood that if he and the males of the city give up a small piece of themselves (literally), they will receive everything that is Yaakov’s, and Yaakov was a rich man. So, on the third day after the mass circumcision fiasco, Shimon and Levi, two of Yaakov’s sons, “came upon the city confidently and killed every male…then they took Dinah from Shechem’s house and left.” (Bereishit 34:25).
Shechem thought he was being smart; oh how wrong he was. He and all the men had to give up not just their foreskin, but their life as well. Yaakov, however, wasn’t too happy about this; he exclaimed, “You have discomposed me, making me odious among…the Canaanite and among the Perizzite; I am few in number and should they gather together to attack me, I will be annihilated…” (Bereishit 34:30). How did the sons of Yaakov respond? “Should he treat our sister as a harlot? (Bereishit 34:31). The story seemingly ends here, but there is a reference to it a few passages later addressing Yaakov’s earlier fears of attack by local nations and showing his fears were unfounded: “Then they travelled, and the fear of God was upon the cities that were around them, so that they did not pursue Yaakov’s sons.” (Beireshit 35:5).
Decoding the Text
Let’s take a look at a few key passages that could later help us form an opinion of some sort around the actions of Shimon and Levi. I will explain how I see the passages, but I will not draw conclusive opinions quite yet.
When finding out about Dinah’s rape, the sons of Yaakov, “were distressed, and were fired deeply with indignation, for he (Shechem) had committed an outrage in Israel by lying with a daughter of Yaakov- and such a thing is not done” (Bereishit 34:6). Notice, it says that “such a thing is not done.” (Bereishit 34:6). With whom is such a thing not done? With a daughter of Yaakov; thus it became an outrage in all of Israel. We can deduce based off this passage (as well as basic history) that in other tribes and nations, rape was commonplace. There was no stipulation that rape was wrong or immoral in ancient societies. It was a matter of can one get away with it or can they not; no one’s conscience was bothered over rape. Our society was the first to truly protect women and label rape as an immoral, evil act.
Next, we find that Shechem and Hamor spoke to their citizens: “…Only on this condition will the people acquiesce with us…that all our males become circumcised. Their livestock, their possessions, and all their animals-will they not be ours?” (Bereishit 34:22-23). Wait a minute, so did Shechem want Dinah or did he want Yaakov’s livestock, possessions, and animals? You see, the same way as Shechem was perfectly fine taking Dinah and doing with her whatever he wanted, he and the whole city were also ready to take whatever else was Yaakov’s and doing with it whatever they wanted.
Shechem and Hamor invited Yaakov and his family to intermarry with their inhabitants, and as a result, welcomed them to share in wealth, possessions, etc. However, would it have been true sharing? Of course not. Allow me to explain through the following scenario. If Person A invites Person B to live with them and says his possessions will be Person B’s possessions and Person B’s possessions will be Person A’s possessions, Person B should not trust Person A for even one second. Why? Because as long as Person A is the one who owns the home, then none of his possessions can truly become Person B’s. Person A has constant access to them. As long as Person B is under the domain and rules of Person A, Person B’s possessions fall under Person A’s rulership. Essentially, Person B ends up owning nothing and Person A ends up owning everything. So, do not be fooled by Shechem. He and his city thought that their foreskin was a small price to pay for access to Yaakov’s wealth.
As we continue, we read that Shimon and Levi “came upon the city confidently and killed every male…then they took Dinah from Shechem’s house and left.” (Bereishit 34:25). We find out two things in this passage. First of all, we learn that Shimon and Levi saw collective punishment as a just solution to the issue at hand. They saw the crime of Shechem as representative of the entire city’s character, not just Shechem’s character. We also learn that Dinah was in Shechem’s home, being held hostage, which may give us a better understanding of why collective punishment was the moral consequence.
If you take a step back and think about it, you will understand the absurdity of the whole situation. Shechem raped Dinah. He then said that he loved her, tried to convince her father and brothers of his feelings, and tried to rip them off. To add to all of this evil, he kidnapped Dinah and kept her hostage, all while trying to convince everyone of his sincere intentions. Mind you, no one in the city of Shechem did anything about it. If you knew that a next door neighbor raped and kidnapped a woman, G-D forbid, would you just sit twiddling your thumbs as if nothing happened, and may be even benefit from the evil?
Yaakov’s reaction to all this was not so positive: “You have discomposed me, making me odious among…the Canaanite and among the Perizzite; I am few in number and should they gather together to attack me, I will be annihilated…” (Bereishit 34:30). The following question arises: was Yaakov chastising his sons on a moral basis? No, not at all actually. Yaakov was afraid of the practical implications of their actions. Yaakov, in this moment, was a realist, he was working within the confines of natural order. The way Yaakov was afraid of the Canaanites and Perizzites, Israel today fears the U.N., the U.S., and the Arabs. “I am few in number and should they gather together to attack me, I will be annihilated…” (Bereishit 34:30).
As we continue, one may wonder, what does the response of Yaakov’s sons mean when they say, “Should he treat our sister as a harlot?” (Bereishit 34:31). Yaakov’s sons are taking a principled position. They are essentially saying, Fine, maybe the Canaanites and Perizzites will want to attack us. But at what expense do we remain peaceful? At the expense of our sister? No, that is a boundary we cannot afford to cross. Our sister’s honor is not cheap. If a father’s daughter was G-D forbid kidnapped, would the father not do everything in his power to save his daughter? If he had to kill the kidnapper and any of his henchmen who stand in his way to saving his daughter, would he not do it? Even if it meant being jailed, or giving his own life for his daughter? Every father, brother, and male family member should unequivocally say yes.
Finally, we find a passage shortly after this story where the Torah alludes to the actions of the brothers: “Then they travelled, and the fear of G-D was upon the cities that were around them, so that they did not pursue Yaakov’s sons.” (Beireshit 35:5). Yaakov’s fear was that the nations surrounding them would attack them and annihilate them. However, the complete opposite occurred. When Yaakov and his family travelled through the different cities, the inhabitants had a fear of G-D. An important nuance to recognize is that it does not say they feared Yaakov’s sons, which would seem logical; after all they are the ones who did the killing. Rather, for once these pagan savages had a fear of Hashem. Shimon and Levi’s actions were a vessel through which they brought an awe of Hashem to the inhabitants of the region. Because of this fear of Hashem, they did not pursue Yaakov’s sons, since they had invoked His protection through their just actions (we will dive into that later). Yaakov feared that the Shechem massacre would bring destruction to his family, but the exact opposite happened; Hashem and His name was exulted.
Is Collective Punishment Just?
Were the actions of Shimon and Levi acceptable? Well, according to modern values, certainly not. But the Torah comes from Hashem, the Creator of the Universe; modern values come from Hollywood. Whom do you trust? Let’s take a look at this issue. Say Shimon and Levi came and only killed Shechem. Do you think for a second that the city wouldn’t defend their prince? Do you really believe that Hamor, Shechem’s father, would have thought to himself Eh my son’s a rapist and kidnapper, he deserves to be killed? Of course not! Hamor would send his army to destroy Yaakov’s family. Besides the fact that Hamor and the city would likely have loyalty towards their own prince, one also has to keep in mind that rape was not a big deal in those days. Why would Hamor or anyone else in Shechem think it would have been appropriate for Yaakov’s sons to kill Shechem? That would be a declaration of war.
Now one may understand why Shimon and Levi saw this as a collective crime rather than solely Shechem’s crime. If the city was willing to keep silent when Shechem raped and kidnapped Dinah, one can safely assume that the city would fight off anyone trying to mete out justice; especially since they did not see what Shechem did as particularly immoral. The inhabitants of Shechem were perfectly content with Shechem getting his way while they can get their way with the rest of Yaakov’s family and possessions, “Their livestock, their possessions, and all their animals-will they not be ours?” (Bereishit 34:22-23). They were as much ready to take advantage of all of Israel as Shechem took advantage of Dinah.
Let’s dig deeper and take a look at two of our sages: the Rambam and the Maharal. The Rambam explains that Shimon and Levi were just in what they did because the city of Shechem did not put their prince on trial. One of the seven Noahide laws, laws that apply to the entire world, Jews and non-Jews alike, is that a society must have just courts. Because Shechem did not have just courts, their society was corrupt, evil, and immoral, which was reflected in the fact that Shechem was not prosecuted for his evil actions. Therefore, the entire city was an accomplice in making sure Shechem got away with his act; as a result, they all had to go. We can be certain that a society that does not mind their prince raping and kidnapping a woman, and then circumcises itself in order to acquire the wealth of the people whose daughter their prince raped, had no justice, truth, or good in it, and would physically defend their prince if they needed to. Thus, Shimon and Levi were justified in their attack on the whole city.
On the other hand, the Maharal explains that it is unlikely that a city would put their prince on trial. Therefore, collective punishment was necessary as that was the way of the world. The Maharal is appealing to the loyalty argument. Rather than making it about Shechem’s lack of justice, he is essentially saying that the inhabitants of Shechem would defend their prince simply because he is their prince much the same way that a family member is more inclined to defend another family member even if the family member is in the wrong. I would argue that both the Rambam and the Maharal are correct. Due to the fact that Shechem was an immoral society, they saw nothing particularly immoral in what their prince did, and in fact they knew they would benefit from the prince’s actions. Naturally, because they saw nothing wrong with what he did, and even if they did see something wrong in it, it is likely that they would have defended Shechem as a family member would defend another family member.
Had Shechem been prosecuted by his city, the conflict would have been between the brothers and the prince, but because the whole city was immoral, rotten to the core, and ready to not only condone, but also benefit from Shechem’s evil, the conflict was between the two nations.