“The Proper and Improper use of Zealotry”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Vayishlach, we encounter, in chapter 34, a very painful and distressing story — the rape of Dinah, daughter of Jacob and sister of the twelve tribes.

Jacob and his family settle outside the city of Shechem (today Nablus), and Dinah, daughter of Leah, goes out to see the women of the land. Shechem, the Prince of the region (don’t get confused, his name is the same as the city!), sees her, takes her, lays with her and violates her.

Shechem becomes deeply attached to Dinah and pleads with his father, Chamor, to approach Dinah’s family so that he can take the girl for a wife. Chamor, Shechem’s father, goes to negotiate with Jacob.

Since Jacob’s sons were in the field when the rape occurred, they were unaware of what had happened. When they learned about what Shechem had done to their sister, they were deeply distressed by the outrage that had been committed. Eventually, Jacob’s sons respond to Shechem and his father’s proposal with deceit, and suggest that only if all of the men of the city of Shechem undergo circumcision, then may Shechem marry Dinah. Chamor and Shechem accept the proposal and convince the people of Shechem to accept these terms as well.

On the third day after the mass circumcision of the males of the city of Shechem, two sons of Jacob, Shimon and Levi, who are called by Scripture, “Dinah’s brothers,” each take their sword, attack the city and kill all the defenseless males. They rescue Dinah from Shechem’s house. The remaining sons of Jacob then plunder the city which had defiled their sister, seize the flocks and cattle, and appropriate all the wealth of the city.

In response to the actions of his sons, Jacob says to Shimon and to Levi (Genesis 34:30): “Achartem oh’ti, l’hav’ee’shayni b’yosh’vay ha’aretz,” You have made me vulnerable and odious among the inhabitants of the land. Now the Canaanites and Prezites are going to attack me, and I am few in number and will be annihilated, I and my household. The brothers reply sharply (Genesis 34:31): “Ha’ch’zonah ya’as’eh et ah’cho’teinu?” Shall he treat our sister like a harlot?! In effect, the brothers respond by saying that “We are obligated to defend her honor. Could we have permitted Shechem’s behavior to go unpunished?”

Scripture does not relate any response on Jacob’s part. He obviously did not agree with his sons’ contention that their extreme violence was justified, but, at least at this point he did not express his anger. In fact, the Torah indicates that there may have even been a Divine omen that confirmed the brothers’ actions, or at least protected Jacob’s family from vengeance. Scripture reports in Genesis 35:5: “Va’yhee chi’tat E-lokim al heh’ah’reem asher s’vee’vo’tay’hem, v’loh rad’foo a’cha’rei b’nei Yaakov,” When Jacob’s family set out, there was a Divine terror on the cities which were around them, so that they did not pursue Jacob’s sons.

And yet, when Jacob lay on his deathbed, and offered his final blessings and predictions for his sons, when he speaks of Shimon and Levi, he says angrily (Genesis 49:5-7):”Shimon v’Levi achim. K’ley chamas m’chay’ro’tay’hem,” Shimon and Levi are comrades, their weaponry is a stolen craft. Into their conspiracy may my soul not enter, within their congregation do not join, O’ my honor, for in their rage they murdered people and at their whim they maimed an ox. Accursed is their rage for it is intense and their wrath for it is harsh. I will separate them within Jacob and I will disperse them in Israel.

Jacob, uttering his last words before he expires, condemns the brothers and condemns their violence, accusing them of unjustly murdering the people in Shechem, and coincidentally, of conspiring to get rid of Joseph. He curses their rage and their wrath, and says that he will separate them within Jacob and disperse them in Israel.

As we know, when the tribes of Israel entered the land of Canaan, they were all eventually given patrimony, tribal territories in the land of Israel, with the exception of the tribes of Shimon and Levi. Levi, being the clergy of Israel that served in the Holy Temple, had no patrimony, but were given forty-two Levite cities plus six cities of Refuge throughout the country, dispersed among the other tribes. The tribe of Shimon, however, never received its own land. Instead, the families of Shimon dwelt within the land of the strongest tribe, the leadership tribe of Judah, as if the tribe of Shimon had to be under the thumb of the authorities at all times.

It is odd that of all the twelve tribes, the zealous tribe of Levi is singled out and designated to serve as the religious leaders of Israel. On the other hand, the tribe of Shimon is put down, relegated to perhaps the lowest position of all the tribes. While Shimon and Levi were both zealous, their fates were quite different.

Perhaps the patriarch Jacob was saying, “Zealotry is an extremely dangerous passion. As we see in Shechem, zealotry can be terribly destructive, even though the basic intentions were indeed constructive. These two boys of mine must be watched and controlled.” It seems as if Jacob is saying that Shimon’s zealotry is not only genetic, but perfidious. He is a lost cause, and that unless he is kept under the watchful eye of the great leader Judah, he is likely to unexpectedly erupt and cause untold harm and destruction. Therefore, never ever grant the tribe of Shimon any temporal power.

On the other hand, Jacob feels that Levi’s zealotry was of a different sort, one that can be directed to a positive end. Yes, never give Levi temporal power, but in the spiritual realm there is room for “positive” zealotry.

I have often said that, if parents would like their children to grow up to be a moderate and balanced, given the blandishments of contemporary society, they must aim to be passionate, “fanatic” if you will, about their beliefs. If parents aim to be moderate in their beliefs, those children will grow up with weak convictions. If parents lack commitment in their own beliefs, they may very well wind up with Episcopalian grandchildren! Although there is such a thing as going overboard in the name of religion, when it comes to religious training, there is no such thing as over-dosing. Perhaps this is what Jacob is saying: Give the Levites the religious leadership, allow them to sublimate their destructive passions by expressing them as constructive religious passions, but don’t dare give them political or temporal powers. If they practice their spiritual leadership properly, than their zealotry can be a true and valid source of inspiration for my people.

The story of the rape of Dinah is surely a most intriguing way for the Torah to convey a very powerful message about passions, control and zealotry.

May you be blessed.