Rabbi Michael Rosensweig
Rabbi Michael Rosensweig

Parshat Vayishlach - The Principled Pursuit of Principle

One of the central episodes in Parshat Vayishlah is the story of Dinah's ordeal and the subsequent attack against the family of Schechem by Shimon and Levi that it engendered. The Torah records Yaakov's unequivocal displeasure with the radical solution they promulgated. While they defended their actions with principled conviction(34:7,)- "ki nevalah asah be-yisrael...ve-khen lo yeiaseh", arguing that justice and family honor more than justified their behavior, it appears at first glance that Yaakov's harsh critique(34:30)- " akhartem oti le-havisheini be-yoshev ha-aretz...va-ani metei mispar ve-neasfu alai ve-hikuni ve-nishmadeti ani ubeiti" is rooted primarily in a sense of vulnerability and fear of isolation, purely pragmatic considerations. Shimon and Levi's succinct, yet powerful rejoinder (34:31)- "vayomru ha-kezonah yaaseh et ahoteinu"- suggests that they dismissed Yaakov's objections precisely on the grounds that a commitment to lofty principle justified even jeapordizing the security of the fledgling Klal Yisrael.

However, their interpretation of Yaakov's motivation in this matter appears to be untenable. Yakkov's use of sharp language such as "akhartem oti" and "lehavisheini", which according to a group of commentators (see, for example, Rashi, Seforno) implies an accusation that the brothers were guilty of compromising Yaakov's values and of tarnishing the idealistic image of Klal Yisrael, belies a purely pragmatic orientation. It is noteworthy that the passage of time did not dull the severity of Yaakov's condemnation of their actions notwithstanding the fact that the pragmatic consequences he feared never really materialized. Yaakov's entrenched disappointment in his two sons is reflected in the harsh words he directs to them in his final communication in the context of his parting prophecy to all the shevatim in Parshat Vayechi (49:5-7). The tenor and timing of his final evaluation reflects a profound and idealistic rejection of their values, as reflected primarily in the Shechem incident. Moreover, it is simply inconceivable that Yaakov Avinu, whose unique and ambitious blend of qualities (tiferet) qualified him as the bechir ha-avot and father of the shevatim would compromise idealistic values for the sake of security and condemn those who were willing to sacrifice for justice and loyalty. It was precisely Yaakov's courage and integrity in confronting and overcoming various formidable obstacles, including saro shel eisav, that earned him the title "Yisrael". How, then, are we to comprehend the debate between Yaakov and his two sons. Our understanding of the issues depends, in part, on the distinctive perspectives of the Rambam and Ramban.

According to the Ramban's analysis of this episode, Yaakov condemned the conduct of Shimon and Levi because it contravened the halachic norm. Ramban (34:13) argues that the obligation of "dinim", one of the seven Noachide laws whose neglect warrants the death penalty (Sanhedrin 56b), constitutes an obligation to establish a comprehensive system of civil law that parallels our own system of Choshen Mishpat. Ramban concludes that neglecting to prosecute individuals who violate the law, such as Shechem, does not constitute a sufficient violation of this comprehensive obligation to justify administering the death penalty. While Shechem and his cohorts had violated Dinah and compromised the dignity of Yaakov's family, the brothers response was not halachically justified. According to this perspective, Yaakov's outrage stemmed from his dedication to halachic principle even in the face of personal humiliation.

Rambam (hil. Melakhim 9:14) limits the Noachide duty of "dinim" to the prosecution of other Noahide offenses. He, thus, concludes that the citizens of Schechem who refused to take action against Schechem were halachically liable to the punishment of death, as Shimon and Levi insisted. Ramban challenges this view precisely because Yaakov's condemnation of his sons' initiative is puzzling if they were compliant with the halachic norm. Yaakov had previously proved himself to be fearless in pursuing his halachic-spiritual obligations. Even if he was personally reticent, why would he castigate his children who were admirably implementing Divine law? Indeed, some of the commentators have struggled to justify Yaakov's stance according to Rambam's scheme (see, for example, Radvaz, ad loc.).

A close reading of the pesukim in both Vayishlah and Vayechi may reveal several clues regarding Yaakov's position. The Torah contrasts the initial reactions of Yaakov and his sons. When Yaakov first confronts the highly disturbing evidence ("ki timei et Dinah bito"), we are told that he responds with silence(34:5)-"ve-Yaakov shama...vi-heherish Yaakov ad boam". Given his sense of outrage and of personal violation, his suppression of any external expression of anger or emotion undoubtedly reflects the attribute of "gevurah" (kovesh et yizro). As a matter of principle, Yaakov felt compelled to consult with the shevatim and to consider the long term implications of any action that might affect the destiny of Klal Yisrael, as well as the potential consequences for the reputation of Klal Yisrael and the system of halakhic values it embodies (chillul Hashem). His sons, on the other hand, react immediately, viscerally, and reflexively(34:7)- "u-benei yisrael bau min ha-sadeh ke-shamam, vayitazvu ha-anashim, vayihar lahem meod". It is interesting that Yaakov relates initially to Dinah as the personal victim of this crime and is still able to put the long range interests of Klal Yisrael ahead of personal or family considerations, while his children first perceive the matter in terms of its impact upon "bat Yaakov" and ("nevalah asah be) yisrael", and yet are unable to assimilate the broader potential implications of their actions! Later, when they, too, shift their focus to the personal aspect of this violation (34:14, 25,,27, 31), they are completely oblivious to the broader issues. Yaakov's condemnation of Shimon and Levi projected that the security and reputation of Klal Yisrael are not merely pragmatic matters, but themselves constitute significant values and ideals. The fact that the brothers acted on a matter of such gravity without more serious deliberation, and without even consulting Yaakov, their father and the ideal mentor of Klal Yisrael, presents a striking contrast with Yaakov's own reticence to even respond "ad boam". The implications of this breach of authority and hierarchy was disturbing, indeed.

Furthermore, the Torah emphasizes that the brothers used the device of "mirmah"(trickery) (34:14), even as Schechem was depicting Klal Yisrael as "sheleimim hem itanu" (34:21), which Rashi and Ramban interpret as a reference to sincerity and magnanimity. According to some commentators, it is this duplicitous methodology that Yaakov refers to when he charges the brothers of having sullied his (and by extension, Klal Yisrael's) reputation for idealism (akhartem oti), generating a chillul Hashem (le-havisheini) whose impact might endure far beyond this particular episode. [Ramban in Vayehi (49:5-6) also notes that chillul Hashem motivated Yaakov's critique.] The ironic fact that brit milah, the unique symbol of Klal Yisrael's special devotion, commitment and sanctity, and the obligation introduced initially to distinguish the Noachide and Israelite codes is the duplicitous mechanism that was used to avenge for the Noachide breach may also have contributed to Yaakov's ire.

Yaakov Avinu rejected Shimon's and Levi's brand of idealism, notwithstanding their sincerity and piety, because he believed that principle had to be pursued with a broader vision, through principled methods, and in a more idealistic manner. Yaakov, according to Rambam's scheme, projects the principle that halachic conformity alone is not always sufficient to justify radical conduct when other halachic principles and values are at risk. [Compare Ramban, beg. of Kedoshim's view of naval be-reshut ha-Torah.] In his final remarks to Shimon and Levi in Vayehi, Yaakov precisely emphasizes his rejection of immediate violent solutions- "Shimon ve-Levi ahim kelei hamas mekheiroteihem" and distances himself from the approach of secrets and plots ("besodam al tavo nafshi"). He refers obliquely (Rashi- 49:5) to the fact that Shimon and Levi's Shechem methodology ultimately led also to the misguided persecution of Yosef ha-Zaddik. It was necessary to channel the concentrated, narrow idealism of Shimon and Levi in a more constructive direction by diffusing it throughout the nation ("ahalkeim be-Yaakov ve-afizeim be-yisrael") so that it could contribute in a more balanced framework. Yaakov's wisdom and balance reflected by his ability to apply a principled approach even to the pragmatic world earned him the name and special stature of Yisrael- "ki sarita im elokim ve-im anashim va-tukhal".

Copyright © 2001 by The TorahWeb Foundation. All rights reserved.