November 21, 2002
The Price We Pay
Parshat Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43)
Jacob spent 20 long years in the home of his father-in-law, Laban, before he could return to the land of Canaan, his home and homeland.
He had been threatened, cheated, tricked, attacked, injured and orphaned over the course of those years. Certainly, he was hoping to settle down and enjoy the rest of his years in peace. Unfortunately, that was not to be the case. Jacob's daughter, Dina, was spotted by Shechem, the prince of the land. He desired her, abducted her, raped her and then, in an odd twist, his aggression turned soft and he sought to make her his wife.
Shechem and Chamor, his father, approached Jacob and preposterously asked for his permission to marry Dina. It could be the start of a new relationship between the locals and Jacob's family, they reasoned. Sons and daughters would intermarry, they could do business together; it was a win-win partnership for everyone. Jacob and his sons listened incredulously as these men painted such a rosy picture, as if they would happily agree to an alliance with those who perpetrated such an ugly and violent act against their daughter and sister.
Unfortunately, Jacob's family had the weaker stance in these negotiations. Dina was still Shechem's prisoner, and their one objective was to bring her home safely. Instead of agreeing to or rejecting the proposition, the brothers devised a plan, and attached an unrealistic condition to the marriage; all of the men in the city of Shechem must be circumcised before they would allow Dina, or any of their daughters, to intermarry. If the men refused, the brothers could take Dina back and be released from any obligation to have dealings with these repulsive people. It was a clever plan, but it backfired. The brothers underestimated the power and persuasion that Shechem had over his people, and all of the males underwent circumcision.
What to do? It seemed that the brothers had backed themselves into a corner. Shimon and Levi, two of Dina's brothers, decided, independently, to take matters into their own hands. On the third day following the circumcision, when the men were weak and defenseless, they entered the town wielding swords. They killed all of the males, including Shechem and Chamor, took spoils and captives, and fulfilled their main objective, rescuing their sister and bringing her home.
They were successful in their quest, but were they justified? Were they allowed to kill so many people, to risk their own lives, to act with deceit? Their father seemed to think not. Jacob rebukes them sharply, both at the time that they act, and years later at the end of his life. He fears the repercussions of the inhabitants of the land, curses the anger of his sons and disassociates himself from their partnership.
But they have a defense. They have a response to their father's objection: "Hach'zonah ya'aseh et achoteinu. (Should he treat our sister like a harlot?") Shimon and Levi felt that Shechem acted so brutally against Dina because she was the daughter of Jacob, a Jewish girl. Jews are easy targets because no one stands up to protest when a Jew is attacked. Shechem feared no punishment, no backlash, no consequence to his actions, and, therefore, he was free to do to Dina whatever he pleased. But Shimon and Levi stood up to say an emphatic no. Jewish blood is not hefker (ownerless). It is not free for the taking. We can and will use the full force of our strength to defend the lives and honor of our own, even if everyone else turns a blind eye to the injustices carried out against us.
Is this not the story of our past and our present? Who stood up to defend those who lost their lives in the Crusades? In the Inquisition? In the pogroms? In the Holocaust? Atrocity after atrocity befalls our people, and why? Because the world does not cry over spilled Jewish blood. Thank God for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) who have, time and again, been blessed with the strength of Shimon and Levi, and showed the world that Jewish blood is accountable. As a nation, we can and will defend the lives of our citizens, and even if the world stands idly by while aggression is unleashed against us, it won't go unpunished.
For the past two years, daily and deadly attacks have been unleashed against the citizens of Israel, yet Israel gets condemned for exercising her right of self-defense. Women and children are targeted and killed in their cars, their restaurants, their own homes -- and the world seems to side with the perpetrators, not the victims. Were Shimon and Levi justified in wiping out the city of Shechem? Is the IDF justified in rooting out terrorists? Not everyone thinks so. The United Nations, the European Union and some in our own American government don't support the drastic measures Israel must sometimes take to defend her citizens, even her very existence. But despite the protest and the bad press, it is hard to condemn success and security. There is a price to pay for relying on others for help, and there is a price to pay for taking care of ourselves. Shimon and Levi force us to think about which is a greater price to pay.
Steven Weil is senior rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills.