“Remove the Foreign Gods”

  • Harav Mosheh Lichtenstein

Summarized by Immanuel Meyer

Translated by Kaeren Fish


Flight from Esav and from Lavan

Our parasha recounts Yaakov’s journey back to Eretz Yisrael, escaping the clutches of Lavan, who seeks to swindle him of everything he possesses. He is also evading Esav, who wants to destroy him physically. At the same time, he is fleeing from the spiritual influence of both personalities.

Lavan’s worldview is centered around commerce. He commercializes his son-in-law, his daughters, and his grandchildren, all with a view to obtaining more money. Along the way he causes them suffering; he treats his daughters as strangers, as they themselves testify; all that matters is increasing his estate and his assets. Of course, he will not pursue this aim through outright lies. He will explain everything in terms that make sense – “local custom,” and other, similar “white collar” lies.

Esav’s worldview is centered around power: “You will live by your sword” (Bereishit 27:40). The problem he has with Yaakov has a simple and clear solution: “When the days of mourning for my father are at hand, then I will slay my brother Yaakov” (27:41).

Yaakov has to flee from both views: the violent, aggressive approach of Esav, and the deception and pretend innocence of Lavan. It would seem that some of Lavan’s influence remains with Yaakov, as the Torah testifies: “And Yaakov outwitted (literally, ‘stole the heart of’) Lavan the Aramean, in that he did not tell him that he was fleeing” (31:20). Yaakov chooses to trick Lavan.

Rachel, too, adopts part of Lavan’s legacy by stealing his terafim. We can certainly understand that Lavan’s idolatry disturbed Rachel – especially since she knew that Lavan did not believe in his idols wholeheartedly, but rather viewed them as just another way of achieving wealth. Nevertheless, Rachel did not need to steal her father’s terafim. Indeed, Yaakov does not imagine for a moment that they are to be found with anyone who is part of his camp.

Arrival in Shekhem – Dina

Yaakov chooses to leave. This decision arises from his understanding of the attitude of Lavan’s sons towards him, as well as the attitude of Lavan himself. And so Yaakov manages to leave Lavan, evade Esav, and settles in Shekhem, where he purchases a plot of land.

Why does Yaakov settle specifically in Shekhem? The text seems to sketch a clear route in the inheritance of the land: Avraham passes through Shekhem, moving on from there to Beit-El and to Chevron. Bnei Yisrael, when entering the land, likewise reach Shekhem, then move on to the altar at Mount Gerizim and Mount Eval, near Beit-El, and later to Chevron.

Yaakov follows the same route. He arrives in Shekhem, with the aim of continuing to Beit El. Having returned from his exile, he wants to realize the blessing to Avraham concerning the inheritance of the land. But it is at this point that Dina goes out:

“And Dina, daughter of Leah, whom she bore to Yaakov, went out to see the daughters of the land. And when Shekhem, son of Chamor, the Chivvi, prince of the land, saw her, he too her and lay with her and defiled her. And his soul was drawn to Dina, daughter of Yaakov, and he loved the girl, and spoke kindly to the girl.” (34:1-3)

The midrash (Bereishit Rabba 80) elaborates:

“Since it is written, ‘And Leah went out to meet him [Yaakov]’ (Bereishit 30:16) – implying that she went out adorned to meet him like a harlot, therefore it is written, ‘And Dina, daughter of Leah, went out…’”

According to the midrash, Dina herself was not entirely innocent. The text compares her to Leah, her mother, concerning whom the Torah testifies, “And Leah went out to meet him, and she said, ‘You must come to me, for I have hired you with my son’s mandrakes’” (Bereishit 30:16).

The midrash portrays Leah in a negative light, as adorning herself ‘like a harlot’ to meet Yaakov, in an attempt to win his love. Dina is presented in a comparable way, as going out in an immodest way, towards Shekhem. The midrash goes on to say that Dina took a liking to Shekhem and was in no hurry to leave him. We might say that Dina was influenced in a negative way by the culture of Canaan, her new home.

The midrash holds Yaakov partially to blame for the situation in which Dina finds herself. Yaakov had sought to prevent Dina from marrying Esav, his brother, who was at least from his family, and circumcised. As a result, she ended up becoming intimately involved with the foreign, uncircumcised Shekhem.

The foreskin represents unrestrained bodily pleasure. The removal of the foreskin through circumcision turns the organ of pleasure into an organ of commitment, building, and covenant. Shekhem is uncircumcised not only in the physical sense, but also inwardly, in his essence.

Chamor comes to Yaakov and tells him, “The soul of my son Shekhem desires (chashka) your daughter” (34:8). The term “chashka” is a most blunt, even vulgar, term. And it aptly sums up Shekhem, who desires Dina, daughter of Yaakov. Shekhem will later agree to physical circumcision in order to attain his uncircumcised heart’s desire.

Money is the answer to everything

At this point there are negotiations between Shekhem and Dina’s family, concerning the forging of a covenant between them. Shekhem comes from a culture in which everything has its price. What they seek to discuss is what the price in this case will be; but they are sure that anything can be obtained at the right price.

We are familiar with this mindset among the people of Canaan from the story of Avraham’s negotiations with Efron. Efron, too, sought to exploit his opportunity for maximum benefit. Although he treats Avraham with the utmost respect, proposing that he bury Sara for free, he ends up taking four hundred shekels of silver for Me’arat ha-Makhpela.

In our parasha, Chamor and Shekhem encounter an obstacle. Aside from the question of the price, there is also the problem of combining the two peoples. If the two groups mingle, which culture will prevail? Which will be dominant, pushing the other to the sidelines? Chamor and Shekhem’s capitulation as to the price is at the same time a capitulation in terms of culture and values. They are prepared to perform circumcision, representing a relinquishing of their ideology, their past, and their identity – all for the sake of Dina.

Arrival in Shekhem

Yaakov reacts to the story of Dina with silence, just as he had remained silent in the face of Lavan’s swindling, and just as he had avoided fighting with Esav.

Not so his sons. They hear what has happened and are incensed. Shimon and Levi adopt, in effect, Esav’s strategy – certainly not with the same motives or out of the same ideology, but nevertheless the same style of response. They give Shekhem and Chamor a deceptive answer, and then kill all the men of the city.

Were their actions justified? Is this killing the proper response to the problem that has been created? From the perspective of the midrash that describes Dina as wishing to remain with Shekhem, this is certainly not a good solution. Beyond this, though, the actions of Shimon and Levi are problematic in and of themselves.

As noted, circumcision is supposed to symbolize self-control. In addition, it represents a covenant – concerning the land and progeny. Circumcision remains with a Jew at all times, representing a constant mitzva. King David, bathing in the bathhouse, is dismayed to find himself bereft of all the commandments – and is comforted when he realizes that his circumcision remains with him (Menachot 43b).

In our parasha, Shimon and Levi use circumcision for different purposes, as a mere tactic. This is not proper for a covenant given by God.

In addition, their action represents something of a chillul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name, the severity of which we shall not elaborate upon here. In fact, Yaakov decries this chillul Hashem:

“And Yaakov said to Shimon and to Levi, You have brought trouble upon me, to make me odious among the inhabitants of the land, among the Canaanites and the Perizites.” (34:30)

The fear of committing chillul Hashem is so strong that, according to the Rambam (Hilkhot Melakhim 6:5), it is the reason the Israelites were forced to keep their promise to the Giv’onim even though it was taken under false premises.

A third and most plainly obvious problem is that their act was one of killing. The Rambam notes the severity of the sin of bloodshed, which is one of the three cardinal sins:

“Although there are other sins more serious than murder, they do not overturn civilization as murder does. Even idolatry – and all the more so forbidden sexual relations or desecration of Shabbbat – are not comparable to murder. For these [latter] sins involve man’s relationship with God, while murder belongs to the category of his relationship with his fellow man. Anyone who commits this sin is completely wicked, and all the mitzvot that he has performed his whole life cannot outweigh this sin and save him from judgment.” (Hilkhot Rotzeach 4:9)

This is the sin that weighs down on Shimon and Levi. This is the act of Esav that is adopted by the brothers of Dina.

Following this episode God speaks to Yaakov:

“And God said to Yaakov: Arise, go up to Beit-El, and dwell there, and make there an altar to God, Who appeared to you when you fled from the face of Esav, your brother.” (35:1)

God tells Yaakov: Leave off your involvement in settling the land. You have gone too far with your ideology; you have neglected your children’s education. Arise, go up from Shekhem, return to Beit-El, and go back to involvement with your family. Make an altar there to the Lord your God – for you and for your family. Following God’s command, the Torah describes Yaakov’s actions:

“And Yaakov said to his household, and to all who were with him: Put away the strange gods that are among you, and make yourselves clean, and change your garments. And let us arise and go up to Beit-El, and I will make there an altar to God, Who answers me in the day of my distress, and was with me in the way on which I went. And they gave Yaakov all the strange gods which were in their hand, and all their earrings which were in their ears, and Yaakov hid them under the oak which was by Shekhem.” (35:2-4)

Here the Torah reveals explicitly the problematic reality of Yaakov’s household. We encounter foreign gods that are being maintained. Yaakov turns his focus back to the issue that should be his first priority – the education of his children. He understands that he must climb down the tall tree of his ideology and come back to education.

Yaakov commands his household to rid themselves of the foreign gods in their midst: the sword that is in the hands of Shimon and Levi, and the earrings in their ears – symbolizing the story and feelings of Dina. 

(This sicha was delivered at seuda shelishit, Shabbat parashat Vayishlach 5772 [2011].)