“The Massacre of Shechem, Can it be Justified?”
(Updated and revised from Vayishlach 5760-1999)


by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

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

Jacob, however, does not go directly to Canaan, but first stops in Sukkot, where he builds Sukkot (booths), to provide 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 Esau, Jacob needs some time to “deprogram” himself and his family, and provide them with some “normal” time.

Eventually, Jacob arrives in the city of Shechem (Nablus), (Genesis 33:18), where he purchases 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 begin to contribute handsomely to the local economy. Although Jacob and his family are encamped on the periphery of the city, the Talmud (Shabbat 33a) depicts them as being deeply involved in Shechem’s culture and economy. They promote public cleanliness and hygiene in the baths, 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 new and lively 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 (yes, the son has the same name as the city), the Hivite 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, so that he may take Dina as his wife.

Jacob’s sons, who eventually learn about what Shechem had done to their sister, respond to the negotiations deceitfully, and demand that all the men of the city undergo circumcision, before they would give their sister to Shechem in marriage. 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, Simeon and Levi, come upon the city with their swords and kill every male in Shechem. They rescue their sister Dina from Shechem’s house, while the other sons of Jacob plunder the city, take the local people’s wealth, their wives, children, flocks and cattle.

When Jacob hears what Simeon and Levi have done, he summarily denounces them. Genesis 34:30: עֲכַרְתֶּם אֹתִי, לְהַבְאִישֵׁנִי בְּיֹשֵׁב הָאָרֶץ , “You have discomforted me, making me odious among the inhabitants of the land.” Jacob is fearful that the local inhabitants will band together and attack him, and that he and his household will be outnumbered and easily defeated. The brothers simply respond (Genesis 34:31): הַכְזוֹנָה יַעֲשֶׂה אֶת אֲחוֹתֵנוּ “Shall he treat our sister like a harlot?!”

This distressing story ends here, or so it seems. But, it really continues for much longer. The classical commentators, Rashi and Radak, suggest that the assault on Dina may have been Divine punishment for Jacob’s delay in fulfilling the vow he had made at Bethel. Remember, on his way out of Canaan, Jacob had promised to return to Bethel and worship in G-d’s name, but he delayed in doing so. Certainly, G-d did not make Dina suffer for Jacob’s neglect. But, because of Jacob’s slovenliness, the protection of G-d was absent for Dina. Previously we had noted, that 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 his failure to return to Bethel in a timely manner to offer gifts to the Al-mighty and to bring sacrifices.

Even more difficult to fathom is how two great Jewish men, Simeon and Levi, could wreak vengeance on an entire city for the deeds of one man, Shechem? Does the Jewish faith countenance this? Furthermore, is massacre ever justified under these, or any, circumstances? Jacob certainly doesn’t think so. That is why he condemns Simeon and Levi, and does not forgive them to his dying day. Even when he offers his “last will and testament,” Jacob curses these two sons, Genesis 49:7, אָרוּר אַפָּם כִּי עָז וְעֶבְרָתָם כִּי קָשָׁתָה, אֲחַלְּקֵם בְּיַעֲקֹב וַאֲפִיצֵם בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל , “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.”

Fortunately, 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 up his debt to G-d. The Al-mighty, subsequently, casts 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 much more recent vintage, the so-called “massacre” in southern Lebanon of Sabra and Shatila, in 1982. The Phalangists, who were a Lebanese Christian brigade, operating under the authority of the Israeli army, entered into the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila and massacred many men, women, and children. The United Nations and the nations of the world condemned this act, and held Israel responsible. Eventually Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Defense Minister at that time, was forced to resign, and the internal Israeli Kahan Commission found Prime Minister, Menachem Begin, “morally responsible” for the massacre.

Unfortunately, murders of this kind and magnitude are rather common in today’s world, and yet, no United Nations panels meet. In fact, massacres today are barely new–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 improper acts of his soldiers? Moreover, these deaths, after all, were not due to the actions of Israeli soldiers, but rather the Lebanese Phalangists. 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, a judgment that is often uncomfortable and singularly unfair, I would argue, that this “different yardstick” is necessary and even, ultimately, beneficial to the Jewish people. I dread the day when the nations of the world cease to judge the Jewish people by a different yardstick. They expect more of us, and they should expect more of us!! After all, we are the Children of Israel, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. For our people, even a marginal association with treachery may be considered treachery. If not, we would cease to be the special “Children of G-d.”

Shechem’s rape of Dina, of course, can in no way be excused or countenanced. It was entirely perfidious. But, killing, massacring, an entire city in response to the vile act of one man, is also not justified. As noble as the intentions of the brothers were, at least to Jacob, the ends did not justify the means, and Jacob condemns them, even curses 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 down upon with disfavor in Judaism. In their passion, Simeon and Levi acted as zealots, and when Jacob in his old age condemns them, he says (Genesis 49:7): אֲחַלְּקֵם בְּיַעֲקֹב וַאֲפִיצֵם בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל , “I will separate them [Levi and Simeon] 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–indeed, very bad, in temporal matters. “Levi,” says G-d through Jacob: “You want to be passionate? Be passionate in spreading the word of G-d! A temporal leader, however, must be deliberate, well thought out, never out-of-control. 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.