Vayishlach: The Killing of the Shchem Residents: A Torah Perspective

Two zealots are focused upon in our parsha: Shimeon and Levy. And the eternal question is if they were correct in their deed or not. This parsha has certainly been one of the more misinterpreted portions in the Torah in modern times, and as a consequence, so many improper conclusions have been drawn from it.

Why is that? Because indeed, there are verses in the Torah, which at first glance view the act of Shimeon and Levy as a mistake. One who reads Parshat Vayichi can easily reach the conclusion that the question is answered by Yaakov, when he says, “Cursed be their anger for it was fierce…” These words are directed at the actions of Shimeon and Levy in Shchem, and such words certainly seem to put the deed in a negative light. And so, this is how so many love to interpret the parsha, thereby condemning the brothers Shimeon and Levy as if they sinned in Shchem.

The Act of Shchem – The Pride of the Tribe of Shimeon!

But in contrast to this simplistic understanding, there are tremendous questions. Firstly, one who reads Parshat Vayishlach will notice that the Torah finishes the story with Shimeon and Levy having the upper hand. For in response to Yaakov’s argument that “you have troubled me, to make me odious among the inhabitants of the land”, Shimeon and Levy promptly answer him: “As a harlot should one deal with our sister?” And so the parsha ends, without a peep from Yaakov, with the brothers clearly putting the matter at rest. And indeed, the argument of Yaakov, that “you have troubled me to make me odious among the inhabitants of the land” seems to fall flat on its face, as the Almighty puts fear of G-d upon all the inhabitants of the cities from which Yaakov was afraid of. Could this not be a clear sign that the Almighty was giving an O.K. to the deed?

More than that, pay attention to the argument of Yaakov. He is not opposing them on a “moral” basis. He is not criticizing them for wiping out an entire city unjustly. No! This is not his argument. His is a PRACTICAL one – that all the goyim will come after us now. And if one is not yet convinced, know what it says in the Midrash – that on the flag of Shimeon was nothing more and nothing less than a PICTURE OF THE CITY OF SHCHEM! Now ask yourselves: How could one have on his flag a symbol of something that reminded him of his sin? But certainly the act of Shimeon and Levy was a correct and positive act, to such an extent that it waves proudly on the flag of Shimeon.

The fact is that none of the Jewish commentators condemn the act. Forexample, Rambam explains that Shimeon and Levy were justified because the people of Shchem did not put Shchem Ben Hamor on trial for his crime of raping Dina, thus violating the seven laws of Bnei Noach, and therefore being worthy of death. The Maharal argues with the Rambam, stating that one can’t expect a people to put it’s prince on trial, because they are afraid of him. He therefore offers an alternative explanation. The Maharal says that the children of Israel behaved as in all wars, where there is a law of collective punishment, and even though one is supposed to call for peace first, this is only when you were not wronged by them. But since in this case, they ‘broke the fence” first with their rape of Dina, one needn’t call them to peace. (Gur Aryeh, Vayishlach)

And so, all this makes us quite curious to know why Yaakov said in Parshat Vayichi: “Cursed is their anger for it was fierce”?

The Act – Good. The Motive – Not So Good.

The answer to this question touches upon the deep and delicate subjectconcerning the MOTIVE that stands behind the actions of a person. Yaakov, in his wisdom, evidently understood that while the act of Shimeon and Levy was a Kiddush Hashem, he also came to the conclusion later on that the motive standing behind the deed was not 100% pure. When did Yaakov understand this? When it became clear that the major culprits in the selling of Yosef were the same Shimeon and Levy (as the sages tell us in another place), Yaakov knew that their zealotry was not always
channeled in the proper direction. He said to them: “For in their anger they slew men, and in their self-will they houghed an ox”. Rashi tell us that the “men” they slew were Hamor and the men of Shchem, and the “ox” they houghed was Yosef, who was termed “ox”. This was the problem. After being zealous for a good cause, they went out later to hurt their brother. The act of plotting to kill Yosef shed light on their act in Shchem. It meant that their motive there was somehow flawed; and they were not acting solely “LeShame Shamayim”. It showed that there was a characteristic of anger in them, not always directed properly. And so Yaakov said “cursed is their anger, for it is fierce.” Yaakov did not curse them, but rather their anger, to tell us that they are not cursed, but only “their anger” is. That is, the use of the attribute of zealousness derived from anger, not “Leshame Shamayim”.

Interestingly enough, we see that the tribe of Levi indeed succeeded incleansing their motives, and acting “LeShame Shamayim”. It was they who slew their brethren for the sin of the Golden Calf, and it was Pinchas who was also zealous for G-d’s sake, slaying Zimri. Zimri Ben Salu, the Jewish leader who prostituted himself, was from the tribe of Shimeon. Pinchas, who was zealous against such lewdness came from the tribe of Levy. A zealot and son of a zealot – but this time with absolutely pure motives. The tribe of Levy succeeded in sublimating it’s attribute of
anger, thereby purifying it’s motives as Yaakov requested. Shimeon apparently could not straighten out his “middot”, falling victim to the very same sin he was once zealous for.

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