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Torah Sparks

November 23, 2002 - 5763

Annual Cycle: Genesis 32: 4 - 36:43 (Hertz, p. 122; Etz Hayim, p. 198)
Triennial Year II: Genesis 34:1 - 35:15 (Hertz, p. 127; Etz Hayim, p. 206)
Haftarah - Obadiah 1:1 - 21 (Hertz, p. 137; Etz Hayim, p. 221)

Prepared by Rabbi Lee Buckman
Head of School, Jewish Academy of Metropolitan Detroit

Department of Services to Affiliated Congregations
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director

Torah Portion Summary

(32:4-24) Jacob nervously prepares for his meeting with his brother Esau.

(32:25-33) Jacob wrestles with a "man," and receives from him a blessing and a new name, Israel, at the cost of a lame thigh.

(33:1-15) Jacob meets his brother Esau, who receives him warmly. They go their separate ways in peace. (33:16-20) Esau returns to the land of Edom and Jacob arrives at Shechem.

(34) The rape of Dinah and her brothers' revenge.

(35:1-15) Jacob builds an altar at Bethel, fulfilling his vow from many years before; God renews His promise of the land to him.

(35:16-20) Rachel dies giving birth to Benjamin and is buried on the road to Bethlehem.

(35:21-26) Reuben's sin; a review of the sons of Jacob.

(35:27-29) Isaac dies and is buried in the Cave of Machpelah.

(36:1-43) A genealogy of Esau's descendants.

Torah Text Being Considered

"Now Dinah, the daughter whom Leah had borne to Jacob, went out to visit the daughters of the land. Shechem son of Hamor the Hivite, chief of the country, saw her, and took her and lay with her by force.

On the third day, when they were in pain (from circumcision), Simeon and Levi, two of Jacob's sons, brothers of Dinah, took each his sword, came upon the city unmolested, and slew all the males. Jacob said to Simeon and Levi, "You have brought trouble on me, making me odious among the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites and the Perizzites; my men are few in number, so that if they unite against me and attack me, I and my house will be destroyed." But they answered, "Should our sister be treated like a whore?" (Gen. 34:1,2, 25, 30-31)


  1. "Simeon and Levi are brothers, weapons of violence are their stock-in-trade. Into their company let me not come, in their assembly let me not rejoice. For in their anger, they killed a man; and when in a good mood, they maimed an ox! Cursed be their anger, so fierce, and their wrath how unyielding! I will divide them up in Jacob and scatter them in Israel." (Gen. 49:5-7)
  2. Each of the two brothers had a separate motive for this "fire" (anger): one came with the human emotion of avenging the family honor - such a "fire" is to be considered a "foreign fire" (esh zarah), i.e. an unacceptable (alien-type) motive. The other came with zealousness for God and without any personal considerations, and this "fire" is the fire of the Lord (shalhevetya). Nevertheless, even with such a fire one must take extreme care to direct its placement and timing, otherwise it can do incalculable damage. (Netziv in Ha'amek Davar)
  3. The "sons of Noah' (Gentiles) are commanded to observe certain commandments. Thus, they are required to appoint judges in each and every district to give judgment. And the Noachide who transgresses one of the laws is subject to the death penalty by the sword. If he sees a person transgressing one of these seven Noachide laws and does not bring him to trial for a capital crime, he who saw him is subject to the same death penalty. It was on account of this that the people of the city of Shechem had incurred the death-penalty because Shechem (the person) committed an act of violence and they saw and knew of it, but they did not bring him to trial. (Rambam, Mishnah Torah, Book of Judges 9:14)
  4. The Torah gives the reason why Simeon and Levi spoke with guile (b'mirmah) to the inhabitants of Shechem; it was because they gave themselves a "halachic hetter" or permission. Rashi calls their guile "wisdom" and then says that in fact there actually was no guile as such because of their right to protect the honor of the sons of Jacob. (Shabbtai ben Yomtov in Hamikra Kifshuto)

For discussion:

  1. How do you interpret this story about the violence done in the city of Shechem and Jacob's reaction to it? Would you consider Simeon and Levi heroes or hotheads for protecting their sister's honor?
  2. While Maimonides argues that Simeon and Levi were justified in slaying the Shechemite men because they witnessed the abduction, knew about it and did not bring the Prince of Shechem to justice, Nachmanides disagrees and maintains that only the prince was guilty and Jacob's anger was appropriately directed against his sons who murdered the men of Shechem.
  3. Shabbtai ben Yomtov and the Netziv imply that one cannot explain away the massacred with the simplistic claim that Simeon and Levi were barbarians. Just the opposite is the case. They were religious, intelligent, and knowledgeable in the Torah. The lesson is that even such people are liable, by virtue of twisted legalistic reasoning, to sink to a level where they are capable of doing evil without sensing that they committed a crime. "Pseudo-halachic" reasoning is also criticized by the Talmud which reports that actually in the Temple a murder took place because of it. "It once happened that two priests (kohanim) were both running up the ramp of the altar to offer sacrifices, when one of them came within four cubits of the other. So he took a dagger and plunged it into the heart of the other kohen. This informs you that the laws of defilement of garments seem to be more important to some individuals than the spilling of blood!" (Talmud: Yoma)

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