5756 - #7

The Balance of Nationhood

The destruction of Shechem by Shimon and Levi presents a most difficult problem for the commentators. Yaakov Avinu's obvious displeasure, as evidenced by Bereishit 34:30 and 49:5-7, indicates that this behaviour was incorrect. However, the fact that these actions were undertaken - and defended - by Shimon and Levi[1], points to the opposite, suggests that this behaviour was proper. Were Shimon and Levi's actions correct or not? As arguments are developed to show why the attack upon Shechem was proper, the question of why Yaakov was disturbed by this behaviour grows in perplexity. Yet, as the commentators explain the reason for Yaakov's displeasure, we are again bothered by the need to explain Shimon and Levi.

One strategy is to describe the disagreement as not lying within the ethical but in the practical realm.[2] Yaakov agreed that the men of Shechem were deserving of death; his argument against Shimon and Levi was that their actions placed the family in danger. It was this practical issue of sakanah that was in question, not the moral essence of the act itself. Within this framework, in the face of Yaakov's disagreement, Shimon and Levi's righteousness is maintained although their actions may have been practically unwise. The language of Bereishit 34:30, in fact, can support such an approach; yet, the language of Bereishit 49:5-7 seems to imply that Yaakov's disagreement was rooted in a much deeper concern. In actuality, this approach inherently fails for the lack of sensitivity to sakanah is not simply a practical defect but is a moral weakness. This argument would not simply be Yaakov's practical contention but his moral one; the placing of the family in danger was not ethically correct even if the men of Shechem were deserving death. Describing the argument between Yaakov and his two sons as a disagreement in regard to whether sakanah should or should not override just retribution, advances us no further in our attempt to solve the dilemma.

Rambam[3] argues that the men of Shechem were deserving the death penalty for they violated the Noachide law to administer justice. While Ramban[4] disagrees with the specifics, he also admits that the people of Shechem were deserving of the death penalty for their violations of the Noachide Code. Yet, Ramban adds that Yaakov was upset with Shimon and Levi's actions for the people of Shechem may have returned to G-d. Yaakov believed that, while strict justice demanded punishment, mercy and, most importantly, the hope for growth and positive change, should have mitigated in favour of clemency. Indeed, Rabbi Yosef Eliyahu Henken[5] argues that under the Noachide Code's provision for justice, there is much flexibility in the hands of judges in regard to the extent of punishment and even whether to punish at all. Shimon and Levi were totally within their right to determine that Shechem was deserving of punishment and to so act. Yaakov, on the other hand, felt that this judgement determination was incorrect and expressed his opinion as such. Yet, Yaakov's strong words in attacking his sons, still implies that Yaakov's criticism lay much deeper than a disagreement in acceptable judgement.

Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch[6] argues that the dispersion of the children of Shimon and Levi amongst the nation was, in fact, not only a penalty[7] but rather was also intended to serve a positive purpose. Even as Yaakov curses it, he recognizes that a little bit of Shimon and Levi's fury and anger towards evil, spread amongst the Jewish people, must be maintained. Are we now to see, though, an understanding Yaakov who, while disagreeing with his two sons, simultaneously acknowledges that their judgement was also legitimate? If Yaakov believed Shimon and Levi's behaviour to be fully unacceptable, howcould he accept, within klal Yisrael, the existence of any individuals with these attributes, even if they were diluted amongst the entire nation? The verses, though, continue to point to Yaakov's total unacceptance of these actions.

Yaakov Avinu, as an individual, demonstrated perfect balance. With the birth of the twelve sons, though, the objective, the ideal changed. While there is a personal perfection for which we must all strive, the goal of perfection of pure balance no longer rested in the individual, but rather passed to the nation. It is not in the composite of similar individuals with similar views - all walking the same mean - that klal Yisrael is to be formed, but rather in the meshing of individuals with differing views, each passionate in their stand, believing it to be absolutely correct. The ultimate correct act, thus, does not arise from any one individual but rather from the interaction of the nation.

Yaakov Avinu, the personal reflection of ultimate perfection for which the nation must now strive, understood that the perfect balancing of all factors would not have decreed the destruction of Shechem. Yet, for the nation to achieve perfect balance, there must be individuals such as Shimon and Levi. Who they were indeed does represent the perfection of individuals within the nation - who would act as did Shimon and Levi - but Yaakov's concern was that it not be allowed to dominate the nation. Yaakov knew Shimon and Levi and recognized that this was who they were - and this fury and anger was their proper addition to the mix that is am Yisrael. Yet cursed be this anger and fury if it, as it did at Shechem, acts for klal Yisrael, independent of the balance of the forces of the other tribes.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail


[1] As Ramban, Bereishit 34:13 writes: bnei Yaakov hatzaddikim, "the righteous sons of Yaakov."

[2] See, for example, the description of this approach in Rabbi Yehudah Nachshoni, Hagot B'Parshiot HaTorah, Vayishlach 4.

[3] See Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Melachim 9:14.

[4] See Ramban's Commentary to Bereishit 34:13.

[5] See HaDarom, Number 10, Keitz Hayamin (footnote p. 8).

[6] Commentary to Bereishit 49:7. See also Nechama Leibowitz, Studies in Bereishit, Vayehi 3, Shimon and Levi.

[7] See, for example, the Torah Temima and Yalkut Me'am Lo'ez, on the verse, which clearly point to the punitive nature of Yaakov's decree.

Return to top