“The Massacre of Shechem, Can it be Justified?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

As this week’s parasha, parashat Vayishlach commences, Jacob prepares for the fateful confrontation with his brother Esav (Esau). The confrontation ends peacefully, each goes his own way, and Jacob begins the trek back to the land of Canaan.

Jacob, however, doesn’t go directly, but stops first in Sukkot, where he builds booths, for protection for his family and the flocks. Say the Rabbis, after 20 years of being in close proximity with Laban and now, after the recent confrontation with Esav, Jacob needs some time to deprogram himself and his family, and provide them with a little time for normalcy.

Eventually Jacob arrives in the city of Shechem (Nablus), where he buys a parcel of land outside the city, upon which he pitches his tent and builds an altar proclaiming the name of G-d.

So the Jews come to town, and they begin to contribute handsomely to the economy. Although Jacob and his family live on the periphery of the city, the Midrash depicts them as being deeply involved in its culture and economy. They promote public cleanliness and hygiene, open banks and stock exchanges, boutiques, and exotic food emporiums. Clearly, once the Jews arrive, Shechem becomes a far more exciting place to live. And perhaps as a result of that environment, Dina, Jacob’s daughter (who was born to his wife Leah), goes out to see the daughters of the land, to check out the action, so to speak.

Shechem, the son of Chamor, the Hivvite prince of the region, sees the lovely Dina, abducts and violates her. After the rape, he claims to be deeply in love with her, and sends his father, Chamor, to negotiate with the Israelites to take Dina as his wife.

Jacob’s sons respond to the negotiations deceitfully, and demand that all the men of the city undergo circumcision, before they would give their sister to Shechem. Because of Shechem’s lust for Dina, he agrees to the terms. But on the third day after the circumcision, two of Jacob’s sons, Shimon and Levi, come upon the city with their swords and kill every male in Schechem. They rescue their sister Dina from Shechem’s house, while the other sons of Jacob plunder the city, take the local people’s wealth, wives, children, flocks and cattle.

When Jacob hears what Shimon and Levi have done, he denounces them. (Genesis 34:30), “Achartem otee, l’haveeshaynee b’yoshavay h’aretz,” You have discomforted me, making me odious among the inhabitants of the land. Jacob is fearful that the inhabitants of the land will band together and attack him, and that he and his household will be annihilated. The brothers simply respond (31), “Ha’ch’zona ya’aseh et achotaynu?!” Shall he treat our sister like a harlot?!

This truly distressing story ends here, or so we think, but it really carries forth for much longer. The classical commentators, Rashi and Radak suggest that the assault on Dina may have resulted because of Jacob’s delay in fulfilling the vow he had made at Bethel. Remember, on his way out of Canaan, Jacob had promised to come back and worship in G-d’s name, but he delayed in doing so. Certainly, G-d did not make Dina suffer for Jacob’s oversight. But, because of Jacob’s slovenliness, the protection of G-d was not there for Dina. We see that previously when Laban tried to injure Jacob and his children, Jacob was protected because of his merits. But now, Jacob no longer had merits upon entering Canaan, because of the delay in coming to Bethel to offer up sacrifice.

But even more difficult to fathom is how two Jewish men, Shimon and Levi, could wreak vengeance on an entire city for the deeds of one man, Shechem? Does Judaism countenance this? Is massacre ever justified under these, or any, circumstances? Jacob certainly doesn’t think so. That is why he condemns Shimon and Levi, and never forgives them until the day he dies. Even in his last will and testament he curses them, (Genesis 49:7) “Arur apam kee az, v’evratam kee kashata, a’chalkaim b’Jacob, v’afeetzaym b’Yisrael.” Cursed is their rage for it is intense, and their wrath for it is harsh. I will separate them within Jacob, and disperse them in Israel.

Because of the “G-dly fear on the cities which were around them” (Genesis 35:5), Jacob’s concern that the local nations will attack him for the treachery, never materializes. The Rabbis say that G-d’s intervention was perhaps due to the fact that Jacob had gone to Bethel and had paid his debt to G-d. So G-d cast fear upon all the cities, and they were no longer a danger to Jacob, but this in no way indicates G-d’s approval of the massacre.

The story of the massacre of Shechem brings to mind another massacre of contemporary vintage — the “so-called” massacre in southern Lebanon of Sabra and Shatila, in 1982. The Philangists, who were a Lebanese Christian brigade, operating under the authority of the Israeli army, entered into the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shetila and massacred many men, women, and children. The United Nations and the nations of the world condemned this act, and held Israel responsible. Eventually Arik Sharon, the Israeli Defense Minister, was forced to step down, and the internal Israeli Kahan Commission found Prime Minister Menachem Begin morally responsible for the massacre.

Unfortunately, murders of this kind and magnitude are not uncommon in today’s world. And yet no United Nations meet, the massacres are barely news, no one is condemned, and certainly no country ever conducts an internal review to find and punish those who are responsible for these perfidious acts. Who can recall a Defense Minister removed for the acts of his soldiers? And these after all were not the actions of Israeli soldiers, but Lebanese Philangists. Yet, the Israelis were held responsible and condemned broadly for the actions of others. How unusual?

While it is true that Israel, and the people of Israel, are often judged by a different yardstick by the nations of the world, which is often uncomfortable and singularly unfair, I believe that this different yardstick is necessary, and even beneficial. I fear for the day when the nations of the world cease to judge us by a different yardstick. They expect more of us, and they should expect more of us!! After all, we are the Children of Israel! And for us, even a collaboration with treachery may be considered treachery. If not, we would cease to be the children of G-d.

Shechem’s act, of course, can in no way be tolerated or countenanced. It was truly perfidious. But killing, massacring, an entire city in response to the act of one man is also not justified. As noble as the intentions of the brothers were, the ends do not justify the means, and Jacob is correct in condemning them, even cursing them, at the end of his life.

There is a fascinating conclusion to the story. After all, is zealotry ever countenanced? In general zealotry is almost always looked upon with disfavor in Judaism. In their passion, Shimon and Levi acted as zealots, and when Jacob condemns them at the end of his life, he says (Genesis 49:7): “Achalkaym b’Yaakov, v’afitzaym b’Yisrael,” I will separate them within Jacob and disperse them in Israel. How intriguing that the Levites, the religious leaders of our people, are dispersed throughout Israel. Jacob is, in effect, saying that passion is good in spiritual matters. Zealotry, however, is bad in temporal matters. Levi, says G-d trough Jacob: Do you want to be passionate? Be passionate in spreading the word of G-d! A temporal leader has to be deliberate, well thought out. Levi, go ahead, fulfill your role with passion, bring the word of G-d to Israel, but stay out of politics.

May you be blessed.