Perspective in Idealism

  • Rav Michael Rosensweig

Sicha for Shabbat from the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion



Perspective in Idealism

Based on a sicha by Harav Michael Rosensweig

Adapted by Dov Karoll

Following the rape of Dina (chapter 34), the Torah presents a disagreement between Yaakov and his sons, particularly Shimon and Levi, on how to respond to the offer of Shekhem and Chamor.

At first glance, it seems that Shimon and Levi, the younger generation, take the principled, idealistic response, not tolerating the wrong done to their sister. They wish to restore their family structure and to bring justice to evildoers. Yaakov Avinu, on the other hand, seems to take a pragmatic approach, expressing concern about how the surrounding nations will react to their actions.

This is evidenced in the verses themselves. The Torah tells us that Yaakov's initial response was silence:

Yaakov heard that he [Shekhem] had defiled his [Yaakov's] daughter Dina, but since his sons were in the field with the cattle, he [Yaakov] kept silent until they came home. (34:5)

His sons, on the other hand, immediately return from the field, and are very upset about the outrage that was done:

Meanwhile Yaakov's sons, having heard the news, came in from the field, and the men were distressed and angry, because he [Chamor] had committed an outrage in Israel by lying with Yaakov's daughter – a thing not to be done… (34:7)


This disagreement applies not only to their initial reactions, but also to their perspectives on the aftermath of the event.

Yaakov said to Shimon and Levi, "You have brought trouble on me, making me odious among the inhabitants of the land… My men are few in number, so that if they unite against me and attack me, I and my house will be destroyed!"

They [Shimon and Levi] responded: "Should our sister be defiled and treated like a harlot!?" (34:30-31)

The impression one gets from reading these verses is that Shimon and Levi are maintaining higher ideals. But how can it be that Yaakov Avinu, the "select among the patriarchs" (Midrash Sekhel Tov Bereishit 33), trades in his values for pragmatism? Far be it from us to say that Yaakov Avinu sacrificed his principles out of concern for what might happen diplomatically.

Regarding the question of whether the actions of Shimon and Levi were halakhically justified, there is a dispute between the Rambam and the Ramban.

The Rambam (Hilkhot Melakhim 9:14) explains that the last of the seven Noahide laws, dinim, civil law, requires the setting up of courts in every district to adjudicate cases regarding violation of the other six laws. Furthermore, he explains that any violation of any of the seven laws, including this last one, is punishable by death. It is for this reason that the people of Shekhem deserved to be killed: they knew that Shekhem kidnapped Dina and did not bring him to trial.

This approach seemingly vindicates Shimon and Levi. But it leaves a very serious question that the Radvaz raises on the spot (s.v. u-mippenei):

If this claim is correct, why did Yaakov reprimand his sons, saying "You have brought trouble on me," given that they were acting in accordance with the law?

One can answer that since they [the people of Shekhem] had accepted the command of [berit] mila, circumcision, they were considered to be converts, and one who converts is considered like a new person.

Many [other] things have been said to answer this question, but I will not discuss it at length.

The Radvaz's approach is similar to the Ramban's. The Ramban (34:13, s.v. va-ya'anu) offers a different explanation for the requirement of setting up courts, and, correspondingly, offers a different perspective on the actions of Shimon and Levi.

The Ramban explains that the command to set up courts is not limited to adjudicating the six other commandments. Rather, it demands setting up courts to judge a whole range of issues, parallel to, or perhaps including, the corpus of civil law mandated by Halakha, codified today in the section of the Shulchan Arukh known as Choshen Mishpat.

However, despite his more expansive explanation of the Noachide mitzva of setting up courts, the Ramban claims that its violation is not a capital offense. Yaakov rebuked and eventually cursed his sons for having done injustice to the people of Shekhem, for having taken advantage of them.

According to the Ramban's approach, we can understand Yaakov's critique and reproach. But how can we understand Yaakov's rebuke according to the Rambam's approach?

Let us turn back to the verses. At the end of his life, Yaakov again speaks out against Shimon and Levi's actions in Shekhem:

Shimon and Levi are brothers;

their weapons are tools of injustice.

Let not my person be included in their council;

let not my being be counted in their assembly;

for when angry they slayed men,

and when pleased they maimed oxen. (49:5-6)

It is noteworthy that the Torah refers to Yaakov in this section as Yisrael. The use of this name indicates that Yaakov is representing the Jewish national view, making it clear that this is not merely Yaakov's own view, but one approved by the Torah.

Yaakov, at the end of his life, rebukes Shimon and Levi for their inappropriate actions. This is beyond the silence of Yaakov when he first heard of the incident, where they took action while he did not. This is after the fact, and not merely at the moment, when he may have had pragmatic concerns. Yaakov apparently saw the actions of Shimon and Levi as problematic not merely because the surrounding nations might gang up against the small family, but rather for some more basic reason. But, according to the Rambam, what is this reason?

To answer this, let us return to the Torah's description of the dialogue between Chamor and Shekhem on one side, and Yaakov and his sons on the other (Bereishit 34:8-17). Yaakov's sons listen to the proposal made by Shekhem and Chamor, and then they make their offer. But the Torah tells us that their response was done "with guile" (13). The Torah immediately gives a justification for this approach, "because he [Shekhem] had defiled their sister Dina." Nonetheless, there is clearly some trickery going on here.

Not only that. After the plan is made, Chamor and Shekhem decide to act on it. When they present it to the people of the city, they describe the family of Yaakov as follows: "These are upstanding, peaceable people" (21). There is apparently great potential for kiddush ha-Shem here, for sanctifying God's name, as the people of Shekhem are thinking of joining the family of "shelemim" that is headed by Yaakov Avinu. While Yaakov did not suggest this plan himself, it seems that once it has been suggested, there is potential for great kiddush ha-Shem. What happened in the end?

The people of Shekhem made themselves vulnerable to the family of Yaakov, and they took advantage of this. This is a tremendous chillul ha-Shem, desecration of God's name, and this is what Yaakov is upset about. Let us examine his response to their action again:

You have brought trouble on me, making me odious among the inhabitants of the land, in the eyes of the Canaanites and the Perizzites. (34:30)

Yaakov is upset because they have made him look bad in the eyes of the surrounding people. And if Yaakov looks bad, this is a serious problem, given that Yaakov represents God. Thus, even according to the Rambam, who believes that according to the letter of the law Shimon and Levi were justified in their action, they failed on the matter of kiddush and chillul ha-Shem. When Yaakov did not react as they did, both at first and at the end, it was certainly not out of a lack of conviction or idealism, but rather it was out of a broader, more developed perspective.

[This sicha was delivered on leil Shabbat, Parashat Vayishlach 5763 (2002), during a visit to Yeshivat Har Etzion.]



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