This week’s Torah portion is Vayechi, Genesis 47:28-50:26.
In this week’s parsha, Jacob sends an unequivocal message to his sons – and to all of us – against the use of collective punishment.
On his deathbed, Jacob gathers his sons around him to hear his farewell words, and addresses each son individually. Jacob bestows prophetic blessings to most of his sons, but curses Simon and Levi because of the massacre they committed in Shechem:
“Simon and Levi are a pair. Their weapons are tools of lawlessness. Let my person not be included in their council, Let not my being be counted in their assembly. For when angry they slay men, And when pleased they maim oxen. Cursed be their anger so fierce, And their wrath so relentless. I will divide them in Jacob, Scatter them in Israel” (Genesis 49:5-7).
Why this terrible condemnation of his own two sons? Jacob never forgot the brutal killings carried out by Simon and Levi in response to the rape of their sister, Dinah. Simon and Levi had tricked the male inhabitants of Shechem into circumcising themselves, and, taking advantage of their weakness while they recovered, killed all the males of the city, capturing all the women and children and forcing them into captivity (Genesis 34:25-29).
In interpreting these events, we come upon two narratives: That of Jacob, who was appalled by the massacre, and that of Simon and Levi who responded: “Should our sister be treated like a whore?” (Genesis 34:31).
Jacob actually had two responses to the massacre. Immediately after it happened, he raised the pragmatic argument: The act is indefensible because it puts Jacob’s entire family at risk from the neighboring nations (Genesis 35:30).
Yet, when Jacob’s initial fears turned out to be groundless thanks to Hashem’s protection, the moral taint remained. At the momentous occasion of blessing his sons, Jacob does not hide his loathing for their act of revenge, and, instead of blessings, issues a curse, the likes of which we do not find in the entire Bible.
What was Simon and Levi’s justification? At first glance, it seems their motive was to avenge the “violation of family honor,” a concept apparently common at that time in the land of Canaan. But Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (Netziv, 1817-1893) finds an additional motive:
“Each of the two brothers had a separate motive for setting this fire: one came with the human emotion of avenging the family honor – such a fire is to be considered a foreign fire (esh zara). The other came with zealousness for God and without any personal considerations, and this fire is the fire of the Lord. Nevertheless, even with such a fire, one must take extreme care to direct its placement and timing, otherwise it can do incalculable damage” (Ha’amek Davar on Genesis 45:7).
In other words, only one brother was an avenger for Dinah’s honor, but the other was motivated by religious conviction and zealousness. Regarding that brother who acted “bearing God’s name in his mouth,” we must ask: How can a person purporting to have fear of heaven commit such violent acts?
Nahmanides (1194-1270) also rejects the use of religious justification for this act. He opposes Maimonides’ view that all the inhabitants of the city of Shechem were subject to the death penalty because they did not put Shechem, the individual, on trial for his rape of Dinah. In that way, they violated one of the Seven Noahide Laws (to establish a court system and judge criminals). Both Netziv and Nahmanides agree that justifying murder of so many innocents on halachic grounds is a gross misrepresentation of the Jewish law.
In his commentary HaMikra Kiphshuto, Shabtai Ben Yomtov (1848-1919) explains in a similar vein:
“The Torah gives the reason why Simon and Levi spoke with guile (bemirma); it was because they gave themselves a halachic permission, namely because Shechem had committed an outrage.”
In other words, Simon and Levi justified the spilling of innocent blood through twisted halachic reasoning. One should not explain the massacre with the simplistic notion that “Simon and Levi were barbarians.” Quite the contrary, they were religious, intelligent, and knowledgeable in the Torah. But even such people are liable to use religion to promote violence, and sink to a level where they wipe out an entire city without realizing that they committed a moral crime of the worst order.
Later in Jewish history, we find another example of pseudo-halachic justification for acts of violence. The Talmud relates that a priest committed murder in the Temple itself:
It once happened that two priests were both running up the ramp of the altar to offer sacrifices, when one of them came within four cubits of his kinsman and the one took a dagger and plunged it into the heart of the other … to teach you that the laws of defilement of garments was of more import to them than spilling blood (Yoma, 23b).
This unthinkable event symbolizes the moral downslide that took place in the time of the Second Temple, showing that even scholars and priests were subject to moral vacuity.
Simon and Levi are thus examples of those among our ancestors who used religious and other justifications for collective punishment. Jacob’s curse teaches us that we must unequivocally reject this form of behavior. Collective punishment is an act for which there is no excuse.
As 2015 begins, we should recommit to this basic principle of Judaism, and treat every human being as created in God’s image, deserving of respect, dignity and liberty.
Questions for discussion:
Do you think most people are capable of such rationalizations?
How do we guard against this danger of being able to rationalize violent behavior?
Shamai Leibowitz is programming and education director at Congregation Har Tzeon-Agudath Achim.