Shabbat Vayishlah 5775

The Dinah episode is one of the most troubling narratives in the entire Torah. Ya’akov’s daughter ends up in an intimate relationship with Shekhem, who falls in love with her and wants to marry her. Dinah’s brothers convince Shekhem and his entire community of males that in order to have intimacy with the family of Ya’akov, they must look like Ya’akov in the most intimate fashion. All males must be circumcised. Shekhem convinces his community of the profitability of such a move, and they comply. While in group recovery, they are massacred by Shimon and Levi, Dinah’s bitterly vengeful brothers.

On the surface, there are two given reasons for Shimon and Levi’s actions. In one version of the defense, these were honor killings. They saw Shekhem’s behavior as nothing short of rape, and they avenge their sister’s honor with blood. Alternately, it is the otherness of Shekhem and his kinsmen that motivates the brothers. The women of our core family–Sarah, Rivkah, Rahel and Leah–have all been insiders, offspring of the same clan. To allow Shekhem to marry Dinah, or for any member of one community to marry someone from the other, is to permit intermarriage, something the brothers cannot abide.

But wait! The brothers told Shekhem and his community exactly what they must do to “become like us,” and lo and behold, the Shekhemites comply! You might even consider this a rudimentary “conversion.” If so, Shimon and Levi have not killed foreigners; they’ve massacred fellow tribesmen.

As we think about this morally challenging story in search of its ethical relevance thousands of years after it was written, let’s consider this question: is it better or worse if Shekhem was inside or outside? Does it matter whether Shimon and Levi slaughtered their own, or the other? As Israel explores its relationship to the other in its midst, and as the United States experiences ongoing struggles with race relations, this question is timelessly relevant. We’ll dig deeper on Shabbat morning. 

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi David Wise