Vayishlach: Short-circuiting the violence

Vayishlach: Short-circuiting the violence

We live in troubling times. Kids grow up too fast. Even while they are living at home, the technology they wield can act as a michshol, a stumbling block leading to unforeseen and unforgivable consequences: texting on Shabbat; identity theft; indiscriminate and often unsavory selfies that can have a life of their own on the Internet; even social media shaming and harassment that has pushed young teens to suicide.

The technology, however, has only magnified problems that have always been with us. In our Torah portion, we read of a similar incident that tears apart Jacob’s family. (Gen 34:1) “Deena, Leah’s daughter (whom she had borne to Jacob) went out to see the girls of the area.” Such an innocent start to the eventual bloodbath that ensues! Echoes of the horror can be seen near the end of the book of Judges (chapter 19), in the incident of the concubine in Give’ah (also, not coincidentally, involving a descendant of Levi). The outcome is so horrific that Tanach decides that the current system cannot stand, making way for the institution of monarchic rule, which was neither simple nor anybody’s ideal solution.

Rashi asks the question, as we surely must, why Deena is called Leah’s daughter here. After she is raped and held captive, she is referred to as the daughter of Jacob and the sister of Shimon and Levi. Various rabbinic explanations shine light on aspects of this case. “She is called Leah’s daughter because what she did reflects poorly on her, unbecoming of a daughter of the righteous Jacob.” Blaming the victim after the fact, of course, does nothing to solve the problem of the violence and evil in the world, even if it demonstrates the mechanism by which it occurred. If you want to be safe, don’t engage in unsavory and risky behavior. But surely, even if a girl hangs out with the wrong people, she does not deserve to be raped, to be kidnapped, to be the matchstick that sparks a slaughter of thousands of innocents. Even today, colleges and universities across the board are being forced to review their hands-off treatment of similar incidents that happen within their jurisdiction. Blaming the victim might seem an easy way to get us off the hook, but as Emmanuel Levinas said regarding living in a civilization: few are guilty, but all are responsible.

One very strange explanation of Deena being called here “the daughter of Leah” was offered by Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev. “She is called ‘the daughter of Leah’ because when gestating she was supposed to be male, but Leah prayed for a daughter and God changed the sex of the fetus.” The law of unintended consequences. Be careful what you ask for, because you just might get it! To sway her husband to love her more, Leah had hoped that giving him a daughter (the only one out of thirteen children) might endear her to Jacob over her cute sister. Years later, however, it seems that for Deena being female is a liability and it affects the entire family’s fate with disastrous consequence. In this scenario, what is meant to happen is a finely calibrated web of events, the displacement of which can have reverberating unforeseen consequences.

Those consequences last for a very long time. Look dozens of generations into the future and you will notice that the “tribes of Israel” no longer correspond directly to the sons of Jacob/Israel. You can search in vain, but you will find only a vestigial tribe of Shimon (swallowed up within Judah) and no tribal area of Levi. The brothers of Deena who “defended her honor” by massacring ever male inhabitant of the city of Shechem are not only chastised by their father Jacob at the time, but are eventually to suffer the consequences of their harsh actions, even if they were justified in doing what they did!

The problem is a deep one. How can we live in a world that is so dangerous? How can we make peace treaties with people who do not share our values? Whether the consequences are terror tunnels, raining rockets, or machete massacres as at Har Nof a few weeks ago, are we destined – as descendants of Jacob – to a never-ending struggle with the Esaus and the Shechems of the world? In what way – and I ask this in all seriousness – is this life a blessing from God?

A solution can be found, however. It’s not all bleak. Rabbeinu Bachya noted how Shimon and Levi told Chamor, Shechem’s father, that in order for his son to keep their sister, the people of the town must be circumcised. Rabbein Bachya explained that while Chamor wanted the two peoples to become one, the Israelites insisted that they could only become one by the other becoming like them. We – the Israelites – can’t “uncircumcise” ourselves. The people of Shechem must come to our level. The struggle must never force Jews to come to the immoral level of their enemies. Even though they may not have realized the import of their own words, these two violent brothers show us the way to a better world. Violent retribution – even if justified – will not be the path to a future of blessing. Only by finding ways to short circuit a ‘cycle of violence’ will Jacob truly come into his blessing, and be deserving of being called Israel. That is a tough pill to swallow, but we so dearly need that medicine!