As members of the human race and particularly as Jews we believe that falsehood is something to be avoided. The Torah tells us “midvar sheker tirchak – steer clear of an untruth (Shemot 23:8)”. We are therefore surprised by the ongoing theme of falsehood and trickery found in the central parshiot of Sefer Bereishit.
First we read of Ya’akov and Rivka’s cunning plan to trick Yitchak into blessing Ya’akov rather than Esav. We then learn of various dubious deals between Lavan and Ya’akov. In this week’s parsha we hear of Shimon and Levi misleading the people of Shechem and ultimately killing the entire population of the city. The theme continues as the story of Yosef and his brothers evolves in next week’s parsha, Vayeshev.
Whilst on a superficial level all these episodes would seem to involve cheating or lying it is our duty to uncover the attitude of the Torah to these events. The story of the bracha involves the question of the different characteristics of Ya’akov and Esav and the attitude of their parents to the children. Without entering into a detailed discussion of this matter the Torah’s outlook on the final outcome is obviously affected by the prophecy given to Rivka during the pregnancy. If our forefather’s actions were to be governed by the prophecies they received, then Rivka would be deemed correct for switching the bracha to Ya’akov. As Rav Elchanen Samet writes in his collection of essays on Torah, in this case the good of the “clal” the community, and the future of Am Yisrael may override the need for complete honesty.
The events of last week’s parsha also involve untruths but in the final analysis Ya’akov and Lavan come to an agreement. Again, this whole episode is complex and requires further study but as Rashi comments at the beginning of Vayishlach, Ya’akov himself was not affected by the dishonest business dealings of his father in law. (See Rashi on Bereishit 32:4.)
Let us turn now to this week’s parsha and the negotiations between Shechem and Ya’akov. The dialogue in fact takes place involving Shechem and his father Chamor on the one hand, and the sons of Ya’akov on the other. Chamor offers to make an agreement with family of Ya’akov which will involve intermarriage, commercial relations and the joint use of the land. Ya’akov’s sons in response, say that they cannot allow their sister to be given to an uncircumcised man. They therefore propose that all the men in the city should undergo circumcision thus enabling marriage between the two tribes and harmonious living. A careful reading of chapter 34, verses 8-23 will show a large discrepancy between the agreement suggested and then presented to his people by Chamor, and that agreed to by Ya’akov’s sons.
The continuation of the story is well known. Shimon and Levi take advantage of the disabled males of the city of Shechem on the third day following the circumcision, killing the city’s inhabitants and taking the spoils of war.
How are we, readers of Torah, to relate to these events? Let us begin by examining the response of Ya’akov:
“ Ya’akov said to Shimon and Levi, you have brought trouble upon me, making me odious amongst the inhabitants of the land, the Cananites and the Prizites, I am few in number and they will unite against me and attck me and I and my house will be destroyed. (Bereishit 35:30)
This reaction seems lacking. On a strategic level, Ya’akov is most concerned but on a moral level Ya’akov is silent. Are we to assume that Ya’akov agreed with the violent actions of his sons? Many of the mefarshim discuss why the inhabitants of Shechem deserved to be put to death and therefore why Shimon and Levi were justified in what they did. However, Ya’akov himself admonishes his sons on his deathbed. In the context of his final words to his children Ya’akov harshly criticizes Shimon and Levi for allowing their temper and violent traits to affect their decisions. In return, Ya’akov decrees that they will be scattered amongst all of Israel. Rav Hirsch explains that Ya’akov believed that the zealous characteristics of Shimon and Levi should not be empowered with the ability to make decisions on behalf of the whole people. Rather they should be spread out amongst the other tribes so that their voice could be heard, considered but not acted on in isolation. In addition, Ya’akov may have delayed his paternal reaction to a stage at which he could make a calculated comment to his children. Although the strategic result of Shimon and Levi’s actions were immediately clear, Ya’akov preferred not to admonish his sons at a moment of anger but rather at a later stage after having given the matter more thought.
Let us return to our parsha. On hearing Ya’akov’s reaction, Shimon and Levi retort:
“Hachezonah ya’aseh et achoteinu? Should our sister be treated like a harlot?” (Bereishit 35:31)
Does this fact justify their actions? Again we are unsure. As we stated above, the mefarshim explain the guilt of the entire city of Shechem. The Maharal in Gur Aryeh explains that the capture of Dinah was actually viewed as an act of war thus allowing the morals of war to be applied. Despite these comments, we cannot ignore the fact that the Torah ends this episode with a question mark. Who was right, Ya’akov or his sons?
In portraying the proposal Ya’akov’s sons lay out before Chamor and Shechem the Torah tells us that they spoke “bemirmah”. This word was previously used by Esav as he described Ya’akov’s deceitful attainment of the bracha from Yitzchak. The context would therefore suggest that this word means deceitfully. Radak supports this explanation but not all the mefarshim agree.
Rashi explains the word “bemirmah” as “ bechochmah” – with wisdom. We could translate Rashi’s comment as cunning but the word chochmah seems to have positive connotations.
Chizkuni agrees that this was deceit. However, he goes on to say that the final result was correct.This would seem to imply that the question with which the Torah concludes this parsha is rhetorical: “Should our sister be treated as a harlot?” The implied answer is obviously NO and therefore the actions of Shimon and Levi were justified.
So were Shimon and Levi right or wrong? Let us suggest that the Torah leaves the answer to that question open for a reason. As we briefly mentioned above, Ya’akov lied to his father following the instructions of his mother Rivka. This act of deceit could be justified based on the greater need. The end justified the means. (This is not the only interpretation to this episode but merely the line we have adopted in this shiur.) In the case of Shechem, the jury is still out. Did the end justify the means? Here the stakes are high indeed for we are not only dealing with deceit but also with the slaughter of the inhabitants of the city. True, Rambam and Ramban (both found in Ramban on Bereishit 34:13) explain the guilt of the entire city. But we cannot ignore Ya’akov’s final words to Shimon and Levi. We must continue to question the actions of the sons of Ya’akov as we must examine our actions on a daily basis in order to discern whether they meet the ethical and moral standards required of the Jewish nation.
The question mark at the end of this perek remains as a symbol for us all.
Shabbat Shalom – Rav Yonatan