“When a Jew Comes to the City”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayishlach, Jacob sends a most impressive tribute consisting of goats, ewes, rams, camels and donkeys to appease his brother, Esau, before they meet. The night before the great encounter, Jacob wrestles with an angel and is renamed “Israel.” After the dramatic reunion with Esau, the brothers part ways, and Jacob resumes his journey to the land of Canaan.

Even though G-d had instructed Jacob to go back to the land of his fathers and to the land of his birth (Genesis 31:14), Jacob instead goes to Succot, where he remains for a year and a half. Speculating on the reason why Jacob might delay his return to the land of Canaan, the rabbis suggest that Jacob was still concerned that Esau might attack him. To further appease Esau, the Midrash states that during his stay in Succot, Jacob sent gifts to Esau each month.

When Jacob finally feels sufficiently secure, he enters the land of Israel, arriving in the city of Shechem (the present day city of Nablus). Jacob purchases a homestead in Shechem, and, as his forefathers had done before him, builds an altar and calls out in the name of G-d. Again the commentators are perplexed by the fact that Jacob remains in Shechem and does not proceed directly to meet his aged father. They explain that Jacob could not return until the full blessing that Isaac, his father, had bestowed on him had been completely fulfilled. Only after Benjamin is born, (Genesis 35:17) and the text states that Jacob had twelve sons (Genesis 30:23), does scripture report (Genesis 35:27) “Va’ya’vo Yaakov el Yitzchak ah’viv,” that Jacob came to Isaac, his father.

That Jacob’s sojourn in Shechem will be unusually eventful, is alluded to, as we shall see, in the verse describing Jacob’s arrival in the city. Scripture states (Genesis 33:18): “Va’ya’vo Yaakov sha’laym eer Sh’chem, ah’sher b’eretz Canaan, va’yee’chahn et p’nay ha’eer,” Jacob arrived intact at the city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan, and he encamped before the city.

While the story of Jacob’s sojourn in Shechem reaches its dramatic climax with the horrific rape of Dinah, it is important to understand the relationship between the Jews and the local citizens prior to this terrible attack. The Midrash elaborates extensively on the role that the recently-arrived Jacob played in Shechem.

While the word “va’yee’chahn” describing Jacob’s arrival in Shechem literally means to “settle” or to “encamp,” the rabbis dwell on the root letters of the word–“chayn,” which means “goodness and kindness.” They suggest that since Jacob had derived much benefit from his sojourn in Shechem, he felt obliged to render many acts of kindness to the city’s citizens.

According to the Midrash, Jacob started sending gifts to “Pnay Ha’eer”–literally, the face of the city, meaning, the leaders of the city. In addition, when Jacob saw that the people of the city were unclean (physically and spiritually), he built baths for them in the hope that after they had cleaned their bodies, they would refrain from their detestable deeds. When he saw that their system of barter was very inefficient, Jacob established a local coinage to serve as the currency for Shechem. Jacob also built marketplaces for the local merchants to enable the citizens to purchase a wide array of goods with greater ease. When Jacob saw that the local people’s desire for meat was great, but that distribution was difficult and inequitable, he established a central butchery where everyone could buy as much meat as they needed. All this, Jacob did for the sake of the residents of Shechem in the hope that they would see what he had done for them, and assume the initiative for their own prosperity and well-being. Through this, Jacob hoped that the people would learn to refrain from their despicable behavior and cease their murderous ways.

Unfortunately, the residents of Shechem did not appreciate what Jacob had done, and failed to learn from his deeds and his example. Instead of seeing the goodness in Jacob’s household, the people of Shechem focused their lecherous gaze elsewhere–on Jacob’s beautiful daughter, Dinah. As soon as the people saw the beautiful girl in Shechem, they reported it to Shechem, their leader (his name was the same as the city’s name). As we had already learned from Abraham’s sojourn in Egypt and from Isaac’s stay in Gerar, it was often the custom of the king or the leader, to “test” any recently-arrived female visitor. Shechem therefore abducts Dinah to test the new arrival.

What then could possibly be the point of this intriguing Midrash that focuses on Jacob’s singular contributions to Shechem? Could it be that the rabbis were uncomfortable with any negative portrayal of Jacob and his family? That a Jew had come in to Shechem, had bought substantial real estate, exploited the people, and not made any significant contribution to the people? Is the purpose of the Midrash to simply portray Jews as great contributors to the local culture and welfare? Could it be that the Midrash was just trying to inject a dose of reality into the narrative? After all, it is quite common that, when Jews arrive in a city, they soon become successful merchants, prosperous boutique owners, builders of malls and supermarkets. Is it possibly due to the fact that the rabbis were truly uncomfortable with the murder of all the men in Shechem and scriptures’ subsequent support of that act?

The Midrash, in fact, attempts to emphasize the great efforts that Jacob and his sons made to civilize and humanize the local Shechemites, but to no avail. All of Jacob’s efforts seem to have fallen on deaf ears, having little or no impact on the people’s sense of morality. The people of Shechem have no interest in what the stranger wants to give to them. They are far more interested in what there is to take from the stranger. Perhaps, the Midrashic background is really the beginning of the rabbis’ justification for the attacks that were later made on the Canaanite nations in the time of Joshua. Less than 300 years later, Joshua was to lead the Israelites into the land of Canaan and declare war on all the local people who refuse to abide by the Noachide principles. Without the contextual setting of Shechem, these attacks would be totally uncomprehensible.

The Jews’ arrival and integration in to an established culture is never a simple matter. When the local culture is completely antithetical to Torah values, efforts may be made to influence the local citizens and to inspire them to lead lives of greater morality. However, if the decadent culture is deeply entrenched, efforts at reform are not at all likely to succeed.

Jacob’s sojourn in Shechem has much to teach us about contemporary living conditions for Jews, not only in galut, in the diaspora, but also in Israel. We must heed the lessons that are being taught to us by the ancient events in Shechem.

May you be blessed.