After the murder of all the males of Shechem, Yaakov thoroughly reprimands Shimon and Levi for their actions. They quickly respond: “Can we let them treat our sister like a harlot?” And Yaakov responds with…well, nothing. He doesn’t say a word.
So, why didn’t Yaakov have an answer? Were Shimon and Levi right? If they were, how come he still was angry that they, ‘dirtied my name, made me despised amongst the nations’ (34; 30)? Truly, Shimon and Levi were right. Shechem, having kidnapped Dena, now held her captive in his house and there was only one way to get her out, for no ‘deal’ was going to help. They simply had to kill Shechem and his father. Also, if they did not teach the people of Shechem a lesson then the rest of the nations would understand that they could do what ever they wanted to the ‘weak and defenseless’ Yaakov and his family. This was a matter of survival, for without a reputation of strength during this age you were lost; the times were too wild to allow such an affront to go unpunished.
If we understand that Yaakov, the strategist, understood this too (as expressed by the absence of a response), why was he angered nonetheless? Why did he worry about the dirtying of his name when this is exactly why Shimon and Levi did it in the first place- to prevent future attacks from other nations who would have otherwise despised them!
In Yaakov’s blessing/’curses’ for Shimon and Levi at the end of his life, he says: ‘…In your anger you killed man, and with your desire you uprooted oxen’ (49, 6). R. Hirsch understands this phrase to mean that their act was a deceitful one. In other words, what angered Yaakov was not that they killed all the males, for that mission was valid; rather, it was a problem because they did it deceitfully, this just is not the way his people, the Jews, behave!
But ‘you have dirtied my name’? ‘You have made me hated and despised?’ This seems very harsh for having completed a mission, although deceitfully, that had to be performed (and probably the only way it could have been done)! People make mistakes, people sometimes overstep their bounds (although here it was the only way, anyway) why was Yaakov so angered and dismayed (enough to curse, instead of bless them, at the end of his life)?
What Yaakov was truly unhappy about was the action of the rest of the brothers. For after Shimon and Levi finished their rescue of Dena and left, the rest of the brothers went in and pillaged the whole city: corpses, women, children and livestock wherever they could be found (27-29). The Torah exaggerates these horrible actions describing every single thing they plundered (using three (!) pesukim). In addition to the exaggeration of the gory details, the Torah also uses the word ‘Va’Yavozoo’ to describe these actions, which, unlike ‘Va’yeshalelu’ for example, is the more despised, disgraceful form of plundering (this word is also used to describe the action Esav did to the ‘Bechora’ in the beginning of Toldot) Also, even the seeming innocuous word of ‘Lakachoo’ ‘they took’ (28) Onkolos translates as ‘Va’yavozoo’! This is what Yaakov was unhappy about. This is what besmirched their name and may have brought them into trouble with and being despised by the other nations- for as important as what Shimon and Levi did to make sure they were still known as a chosen, special people not to be messed with, the action of the rest of the brothers served to totally negate this message. Bnei Yisrael are supposed to be better than the rest; they must be holier. While surely they must fight to make sure of their future safety, to accomplish it by acting like any other nation (and perhaps worse) and pillage the whole city ‘besmirches their name amongst the other nations’, lowering their status.
If the fault is really in the behavior of the other brothers, why are Shimon and Levi nevertheless blamed? The answer: the brothers, having seen how the surreptitious Shimon and Levi acted, felt that they too had a right to ‘defile’ this city, to treat them inappropriately. Even though it was all the brothers who originally hatched this devious plan, ultimately it was Shimon and Levi’s independent ‘jumping before the rest’ to facilitate the plan that opened the door for the other brothers’ independent, blameworthy actions. This is why Yaakov had no answer when he was talking to Shimon and Levi because he agreed with them! He understood that their sister, a daughter of Yisrael, could not be defiled and treated like a harlot. His problem was with the rest of the brothers; he had nothing to answer Shimon and Levi when they protested – for truly, he agreed with what needed to be done. However, the ‘blessing’ to them at the end of his life was blaming them and not the rest of the brothers, because it was their deceitful act and how they went about carrying it out, that ‘allowed’ the other brothers to act as they had.
This is a tremendously important lesson for future readers of this event. There will be times when actions must be taken; there will be times when the decision of how to go about performing these actions will have to be made. More than just deciding how it will relate to the performer of the action, the decision must also take into account the witnesses of these actions. How will it affect me and how will it affect them? This is the elevated behavior Jews are commanded to uphold, “Kedoshim Tihiyu”: not only do we have to be careful to avoid the ‘wrong’ because of the sin that might be transgressed, but also because of how it affects others watching these actions! This is the lesson Yaakov teaches his sons and the lesson the future generations of Jews need to understand.
**See Haftarah (and JPS explanation) concerning retribution in kind – ‘normal thieves at least leave a little bit; normal harvesters at least leave behind some grapes – you, who destroyed all will be destroyed yourself’ just like the remaining brothers – Shimon and Levi did just what they needed to do and no more; they, looted and kidnapped everyone and that’s exactly Yaakov’s reprimand.**