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D'var Torah by Dr. Kalman Stein, Interim Head of School

Dr. Kalman Stein, Interim Head of School

Dear Hebrew Academy Community: 

The narratives recorded in the Torah are not just bible stories; they are included in the Torah so that we may learn from them. What, then, might we learn from the story we all know in this week’s Parasha (even if it was glossed over or even skipped back in our elementary school days). Dinah, the daughter of Yaakov Avinu, is kidnapped and sexually abused by Shechem the son of Chamor, the Chieftain of the Hittites. Chamor suggested to Yaakov that Dinah be permitted to marry his son and that Yaakov’s family and the Hittites begin to intermarry and form one nation. Yaakov’s sons reply that this would be possible only if all of the Hittite men were circumcised, and the townspeople agree to do so. On the third day after the circumcision, when the Hittites had not yet regained their strength, Shimon and Levi entered the city and killed all of the adult males.

Yaakov’s response to his sons? “You have troubled me, making me odious amongst the Canaanites and Perizittes; I am few in number and should they band together and attack me I will be annihilated….” To which Shimon and Levi relied, “Should he treat our sister as a harlot?” A very strange conversation. Yaakov’s objection to his sons’ action apparently is based solely on politics, demographics, and security. The sons’ response addressed none of their father’s issues and seemed to intimate inconceivably that perhaps Dinah’s father was less concerned with her honor than they were. 

Is it possible that Yaakov’s objection was based only on fear of negative repercussions rather than on the moral outrage in face of the murder of innocents that one would expect of Yaakov Avinu? Ramban explains that one must look at the blessing Yaakov gave to Shimon and Levi at the end of his life (in Parashat Vayechi) to appreciate the depth of Yaakov’s reaction. The blessing, argues Ramban, demonstrates that Yaakov was very distressed by the Chilul Hashem, the desecration of God’s name which occurs when a Jew acts in an unconscionable manner, caused by his sons’ action. Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch fleshes out Yaakov’s reaction: “If they had killed Shechem and Chamor {who had committed the crime} that would have been appropriate. But they showed no mercy on defenseless people….Our name and our honor, Yaakov reprimanded them, were pure as crystal and you have sullied and tarnished them.”

But we still understand neither why Shimon and Levi did this terrible thing nor why Yaakov’s response was a measured one. Rav Hirsch offers a striking explanation: Shimon and Levi believed that Dinah was treated and abused as she had been only because the Hittites saw her as the foreign, Jewish daughter of a powerless family. “This aroused in their hearts the recognition that there are moments when even the family of Yaakov must take the sword to defend the family honor. As long as the world only respects the rights of the mighty, the House of Jacob must at times gird its loins for battle.” Their intention was to instill fear in the hearts of the neighboring tribes so that none of them would dare to follow the example of the Hittites. Yaakov understood and appreciated his sons’ motive. “The sentiment that beat in their hearts was crucial for … a nation destined to suffer hardships and degradation.” But they had gone much, much too far. Yaakov understood the goal, but he cursed his sons for the means they chose, the murder of innocents, to achieve an otherwise justifiable end. 

The message is clear. How often have we told a child, “Yes, you are correct; yes, you have been wronged; but the way you responded is still completely unacceptable?” How often do we adults allow our righteous indignation or defense of a religious or ethical principle we justifiably hold dear to result in the humiliation or even ostracism of others? How often do we seem to forget that as important as are some religious principles we must not forget other equally important Jewish principles such as Kavod HaBri’ot—respect for others? Shimon and Levi’s motivation was undoubtedly pure but their action, nonetheless, was horrendous.

Dr. Kalman Stein
Interim Head of School

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