Our parsha opens with Ya’akov worried about his upcoming encounter with Eisav. He says to G-d, “Atah amarta heiteiv eitiv eimach v’samti es zaracha k’chol ha’yam…” You promised, G-d, that things would be good! Flip back a few parshiyos to the akeidah, and you won’t find there a similar pasuk – you won’t find Avraham saying to G-d, “You promised ‘ki b’Yitzchak yikarei lecha zarah’ and now I have to kill him?!” Why the difference?
I haven’t really seen anyone ask this question. Maybe it’s not a good question -- what do you think? (See Sefas Emes at the end of 5637)
In past years I think I’ve written a lot about the opening of the parsha but never got around to discussing the episode with Shechem. The story presents a few problems, chief of which is m'mah nafshach: can it be that Shimon and Levi are guilty of duplicitousness, or worse, unjustly killing the inhabitants of Shchem? If not, why is Ya'akov critical of their behavior? The stronger your answer to question #1 and your defense of Shimon and Levi, the harder the second question is to answer, and vica versa.
Rambam famously writes that the residents of Shchem were guilty of violating the ben noach obligation of dinim because they had no court to bring Shchem to justice. Ramban rejects this view. Why focus on dinim, asks Ramban, when the Canaanite societies were guilty of so many other ben noach violations -- e.g. idolatry, arayos, etc. Secondly, and this brings us back to the point above, if they were indeed guilty of some issur ben noach, why did Ya'akov himself not mete out justice? Thirdly, writes Ramban, a ben noach is chasyav misah only for violating a negative commandment, but not for failure to fulfill a positive commandment like dinim.
Ramban disagrees fundamentally with the Rambam’s whole definition of the mitzvah of dinim. The mitzvah, writes Ramban, is not about creating a court system to enforce law, but rather is about creating the system of law. I imagine Rambam might argue that laws sans a mechanism of enforcement are essentially meaningless.
Ramban offers a different, simpler reason to justify killing the inhabitants to Shchem: it was a wicked place. Idolatry, arayos, and more -- it was a corrupt society, much like the rest of Canaan. Ya’akov protested only because the people of Shehem had committed to doing milah, which, in his estimation, raised enough of a doubt in his mind that perhaps they were on the road to teshuvah. I think this particular point in the Ramban is significant. Achronim debate whether there is a concept of teshuvah for an aku”m, or whether Yonah’s message to Ninveh was a propehtic hora’as sha’ah. It would seem from the Ramban that teshuvah is possible.
Later meforshim point out a few linguistic nuances in the story that they use to address these same issues:
When Chamor speaks with Ya’akov, he reports that his son “chashkah nafsho,” for Dinah (34:8). However, when Shchem actually does the milah, the Torah says “ki chafeitz b’bas Ya’akov.” (34:19) Malbim explains that “cheshek” is a personal desire, a lust; “cheifetz” is a utilitarian want. Shchem’s desire had cooled off, but he realized that hooking up with Ya’akov’s family was a good idea for pragmatic reasons – wealth, prominence, etc. There was no “lishma” to his actions; it was a superficial and false conversion.
It’s worth nothing that the Bnei Ya’akov did not just ask the people of Shechem to do milah. What they asked is, “Im ti’hiyu kamonu l’himol lachem.” (34:15) Become like us -- milah is a symbol of their willingness to adopt the culture of Bnei Ya’akov as their own, not just a surgical operation. Rashi comments on the word “b’himol – l’hiyos nimol.” Sefas Emes explains that Rashi is shifting our focus from the act of milah, the operation, to the state of being after the milah, this attitudinal and cultural shift that Shchem would have had to undergo. That is what the people of Shchem failed to accept.
Rashi explains that the Bnei Ya’akov attacked specifically on the third day after milah, “b’heyosam koavim,” because on that day the pain was most intense and the people would be unable to fight back. The Rishonim (e.g. see the Tur) prove from sugyos in Mes. Shabbos that the pain on the first two days is no less intense than on the third day (nafka minah for chilul Shabbos). So why did Shimon and Levi wait? The Ksav v’Kabbalah answers that the key word is “koavim.” What kind of pain are we talking about? “Yosif da’as yosif machov” – the same root as “koavim.” A person doesn’t feel physical pain from too much knowledge -- what he/she feels is psychological pain, worry. On the third day after the milah the people of Shechem were in no more pain than on the first two days, but their attitude, their psychology, changed. They were now “koavim” because they had buyer’s remorse and regretted the whole deal. Shimon and Levi were attuned to this shift in attitude that proved the whole conversion was false, and therefore they attacked.
The common denominator to all these ideas: the people of Shchem were not serious in their commitment to the culture of morality required by the Bnei Ya’akov.
One final point: The She’eiris Menachem quotes that the Rebbe of Biala asked what Ya’akov was thinking when he heard his sons tell Shchem that they would have to do milah. Did he not realize that this was a ruse, that there was no way his sons would turn over Dinah to Shchem after what he had done? Did he have a hava amina himself of turning her over? The Rebbe explained that of course Ya’akov was not prepared to do that. The Ibn Ezra famously gives a mashal to explain the mitzvah of “lo tachmod”: a pauper entertains no illusions of being able to marry the king’s daughter; in reality, the beast knows he will never marry the princess. The knowledge that it can never happen curbs any desire. The same is true of all desires and wants – they can be controlled. Ya’akov thought that this concept is true for his children, but what could one expect from the people of Shchem, who lived in an immoral, debased society? How could they be expected to realize that in ruchniyus, his daugther is like a princess and they are on a different level entirely? The answer is through the mitzvah of milah. Ya’akov’s intent was that through the mitzvah of milah, Shchem would come to taste just enough spirituality so that he would realize who Dina was, who he was, and how impossible and ridiculous the suggestion that they remain together was. Such is the power of milah, of just one mitzvah, to awaken a person and cause him/her to see the world in a different way!