By Chaplain Muriel Dance, PhD, BCC


Amid Israel’s war, Vayishlach might help us to pause and examine what is the Jewish attitude toward violence and military force. We have Jacob’s distress as he approaches Esau and his 400 men, and we have Dinah’s rape followed by the violence Simeon and Levi perpetrate against the inhabitants of the city responsible. One a story of fear and one a story of violence; I was curious about why these two episodes are juxtaposed.

Jacob begins the parsha about to confront his brother Esau, from whom he has been estranged after he stole his brother’s blessing. He has heard that Esau is coming toward him with four hundred men (Genesis 32:7), and the Torah tells us “Jacob was greatly afraid and was distressed” (Genesis 32:8). Rashi notices this doubling of language and asserts that it is more than just an “intensification” of feeling. He points out that in Hebrew “was distressed” is a mistranslation because it is a Hiphil verb which makes it causative. Jacob was afraid of being killed and distressed
because he himself might have to kill. While commonly we expect people to feel more afraid of being killed, Jacob holds both fears at the same time; both outcomes disastrous. Jacob’s fear seems to inform his polite refusal to accompany Esau home after the two of them meet and Esau accepts Jacob’s gift.

Immediately after Jacob’s meeting with Esau and the two taking their separate paths, comes Dinah’s rape and the story of Simon and Levi’s reaction to this violation. Jacob’s response to the news of her rape: “Jacob kept silent until they (his sons) came home” (Genesis 34:5). Jacob’s sons “were distressed and very angry” (Genesis 34:7). According to Abarbanel, distress is inner-directed, anger is outer-directed. However, Jacob’s sons are not so overcome by their anger that they cannot hatch a plan: “speaking with guile” (Genesis 34.13). In their guile, they are indeed Jacob’s sons. Nahmanides argues that the brothers did not think that the men of the city would agree to be circumcised. If per chance they did agree, then the brothers would come on the third day, when they were in pain, and take Dinah out of Shechem’s house. Jacob had approved this plan. However, Simeon and Levi wanted revenge and killed every male. Jacob tells Simeon and Levi immediately that they have put him in danger (Genesis 34:30). At the end of Genesis, Jacob curses them: “Simeon and Levi are a pair;/their weapons are tools of lawlessness./Let not my person be included in their council./Let not my being be counted in their assembly./ For when angry they slay men…”(Genesis 49:5). This story reveals another instance of Jacob’s aversion to violence.

The Jewish tradition is far from a tradition of pacifism. The Talmud teaches “if someone comes to kill you, hasten to kill him first (Berakhot, 58a). Jacob thought Esau might kill him and he was aware too of his own impulse to kill, but he used strategy to manage these negative impulses. When he sees killing performed by his sons Simeon and Levi, he must curse them. They responded with violence to their sister’s rape even though their brothers had worked out plan that resulted in self-inflicted injury to Schechem’s people. The Dinah, Simeon and Levi story is a commentary on Jacob’s, albeit at a different level of violence. Jacob’s is only anticipated killing. While Dinah is not
killed, she is violated. Jacob clearly judges Simeon and Levi’s violence as unjustified. What do these two stories have to tell us today as we watch terrible violence initiated by Hamas against Israel and now Israel is taking revenge. Even justified violence is tragic. As Shai Held writes, “justified violence is . . . a manifestation of a world still agonizingly far from perfection” (Heart of Torah, Vol. I, p. 71).