Rabbi Ari Kahn
Parashat Vayishlach 5776
For Yaakov, life is never simple. After being abused by his father-in-law Lavan, Yaakov finally makes a break, only to be chased down and confronted by Lavan. After they reach an understanding, Yaakov continues his journey home, but he must contend with his long-estranged brother Esav, who, last we heard, had sworn to kill him. As Yaakov heads toward what he imagines will be a vicious and blood-soaked showdown, he receives a report from his scouts that Esav is on his way to “greet” him, with a force of 400 men to back him up.
Somehow, the fraught and frightening meeting with Esav passes peacefully; the tension between them is defused, the enmity is neutralized. Yaakov returns to his ancestral home in Israel (Canaan), and takes up residence in the environs of Shechem. And then, just when he thinks he can relax, the reality of being a stranger in his own land shakes him to his core. Yaakov is the head of a single family, a small clan living among larger, more powerful tribes. Although one day this land would be his, now it is no more than as-yet unrealized potential; the Promised Land is just that - a promise. Yaakov is a stranger, a minority in his own land.
The trouble begins innocently enough: Dina, the only daughter in Yaakov’s large family of boy, longs for the company of young women. She ventures out, hoping to strike up friendships with the local girls. Unbeknownst to her, she is spotted by Shechem, the prince of the land, whose lustful gaze is soon followed by action: He kidnaps and defiles Dina. Here, the story takes an unexpected turn: Shechem, an abusive, impetuous and over-indulged lad, falls in love with his victim. Smitten, he turns to his father to help him make the matter right; Shechem, son of the powerful Hamor, now wishes to marry Yaakov’s daughter Dina.
Let us look at this turn of events in context: One of the reasons Yaakov had left Israel in the first place (aside from the matter of his murderous brother) was to find an appropriate wife. For Yaakov, as for his father Yitzchak, the locals were off limits. Avraham’s descendants were not to marry Canaanite women; this was of primary importance. Intermarriage with the locals would mean the loss of their distinct national identity and would therefore jeopardize their unique destiny. This new nascent nation had to remain focused on their mandate, and, therefore, on their “otherness.” This was brought home most forcefully by the separation from Lavan, who failed to grasp the fundamental nature of this division. Lavan was nonplussed by Yaakov’s departure; he envisioned the melding of the various branches of the family into one people. Yaakov had a different vision altogether; he knew that the future of the nation awaited him and his children in the Land of Israel. His mission, as the recipient of the blessings God had given to Avraham, set him and his descendants apart.
For this reason, the Torah is completely silent regarding Dina’s feelings: This is not a love story, it is a book about Jewish destiny. Dina’s feelings are not pertinent to the course of Jewish history.
Hamor is as insensitive to the great gulf that divides them as Lavan was, and the offer he makes in the hope of gaining Dina’s hand for his son speaks volumes: Hamor addresses precisely the issues that Yaakov cannot accept: Let our families intermarry, he says. Let our sons and daughters become one people. In this context, the brothers’ response is all the more loaded – with significance, but also with deceit, and perhaps with some cynicism. In order to assimilate among the descendants of Avraham, they explain, circumcision is required. Hamor’s family must adopt the sign of the covenant God made with Avraham. This is the very sign that sets them apart. Did the brothers hope their demand would deter the Canaanites? Did they perhaps hope that Shechem and Hamor would begin to realize that this union would not be what they had hoped? Or did the brothers simply use circumcision as a means to the end they had already plotted for Shechem and his family – annihilation?
Whatever the brothers’ motivation may have been, Hamor and Shechem are not deterred. They return home, and explain the plan to their kinsman: For a small price indeed, we will be permitted to marry into the clan of Yaakov, and gradually subsume this people. The family of Yaakov will cease to exist as a distinct entity, and all their possessions will be ours (34:23). In today’s parlance, we may say that they envisioned a more or less hostile takeover of Yaakov’s interests: eradication through assimilation. Just as Shechem had already taken what he wanted in all but name, he now advocated that all of his countrymen do the same.
The story devolves into vengeance and massacre: The city of Shechem is eradicated by Shimon and Levi in defense of their sister Dina’s honor, but their father Yaakov deplores their violent behavior. For millennia, Jewish thinkers have debated the morality of their actions. Were Shimon and Levi no more than loathsome killers? Were they vigilantes? Had they upheld or violated the law? Were they justified, or had they overreacted? Were their goals and motivations at odds with those of their father, or only the methods they employed to achieve those goals? While exegetes, jurists and moralists continue the debate, one simple truth emerges: This was not what Yaakov hoped for when he headed home. He dreamed of peace, not bloodshed. He sought tranquility, not drama. He wanted to return to the Promised Land and to actively bring about the fulfillment of Jewish destiny – the unique destiny that he would bequeath to his children and their descendants.
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