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e Roo of Violence
By Yosef Y. Jacobson

Two contrasting episodes

Two events in this week’s Torah portion utterly astonish us. They shatter our expectations and move us profoundly in two contrasting directions. In an apparent attempt to ignite our moral imagination the Bible juxtaposes the two episodes.

The first, is the story of Esau’s encounter with his long-standing rival, his brother Jacob. Twenty- two years earlier Esau vowed to murder Jacob, “The days of mourning for my father are near; then I will kill my brother (1).” Now, as they are about to meet again, we stand posed anticipating a harsh encounter. Upon hearing that Esau is approaching him with a force of four hundred men, Jacob is “very afraid and distressed (2).” He devises an elaborate defense, including a strategy for outright war.

When Esau finally appears, something very different transpires. The Bible’s description of the meeting is memorable (3):

“Esau ran toward him, embraced him, fell upon his neck, and kissed him. And they wept.” There is no anger, animosity or threat of revenge in Esau’s behavior. The man once told by his father, “By your sword you shall live (4),” is overflowing with heartwarming tenderness. The lad once known for his aggressive and militant nature a “skilled hunter, a man of the field” (5) emerges in this instance as a vulnerable and loving individual. Esau, indeed, shocks us in the most positive sense of the word.

Abduction and violation

Immediately following this story, The Bible, as if to highlight the contrast – proceeds to relate a tale of abuse and horror (6).

One day while walking the streets of the city of Shechem (known today as Nabulus (7)), Jacob’s daughter Dinah is abducted by the prince of the region whose name was Shechem the son of Hamor (he was named after the city). Dinah is violated and abused.

While the young girl is held captive in her abductor's mansion, the rapist and his father come to negotiate with her family on the possibility of Shechem marrying his victim and merging the two communities. We ought to remember that throughout these negotiations Dinah is being held captive. The prince of the city believes that her family will have no choice but to accept his offer if they ever want to see her again.

The son’s of Jacob formulate a plan. They consent to his proposition with the condition that all males of the region undergo circumcision. This would allow for the integration of the two communities.

Dinah’s brothers, it seems, were planning to attack the palace and liberate their sister. By ensuring that all the males of the town underwent the painful surgery of circumcision, they would have secured themselves against the possibility of the townspeople coming to the aid of their chief.

In a unique demonstration of loyalty to their prince, the townspeople agree to the proposition. They allow themselves to be circumcised. Everything seems to proceed as planned. Soon Dinah will be freed and the Abrahmaic family reunited.

However, here the story turns around. Two of Jacob’s sons, Shimon and Levi, decide independently that this plan is not sufficient. On the third day following the circumcision, when the people are hurting from their surgery, these two brothers set out and kill all of the adult male inhabitants of Shechem. They then advance to kill the abductor and his father, after which they liberate their sister Dinah.

This is the crux of the biblical story.

Why kill an entire city?
This is a deeply disturbing episode, to say the least. Why would two members of a family saturated with the ideal of moral justice engage in such behavior?

The Bible is ambiguous (7*). Possibly they saw it as a preemptive strike. Seeing the intense loyalty of the people of the region to their prince, to the extent of subjecting their bodies to surgery on his request, Shimon and Levi were certain that if they were to declare war on the palace to liberate their kidnapped sister, the entire city would band together to kill them and defend the rapist. A full scale war between Jacob’s family and the entire city would be inevitable. Thus, in their own minds they were delivering a preemptive blow and eliminating their potential killers.

They themselves justified their act in a few brief words. When their father condemned their behavior, they responded by saying (8), “Should he have been allowed to treat our sister like a prostitute?!” What they seem to be saying is (9) that the only reason Dinah was kidnapped and abused was because she was a Jewish girl. The Jewish family had a reputation of being easy targets for the whims and lusts of tyrants or rapists. Shimon and Levi thus felt they needed to demonstrate once and for all that Jewish blood and honor was not cheap. As long as the world respects only the mighty, they needed to display exaggerated Jewish capacity and power in order to cast fear and dread upon all of the surrounding tribes.

Cursing the wrath

Their motivations may have been pure, but their act was wrong. Jacob was outraged by their behavior. “You have decomposed me!” he declares to them (10). He never forgets what they have done. Fifty years later, on his deathbed, as he is distributing blessings to his children, this moment is still at the forefront of his mind.

“Shimon and Levi are comrades,” Jacob speaks (11). “Their weaponry is a stolen craft. Into their conspiracy, may my soul not enter! With their congregation my honor will not join! For in their rage they murdered people, and at their whim they hamstrung an ox.”

“Accursed is their rage for it is intense, and their wrath for it is harsh; I will separate them within Jacob, and I will scatter them in Israel.”

(The rabbis tell us that this pledge of Jacob came to fruition. The tribe of Levi was selected to live off tithes, a humbling condition which forced the Levites to live scattered
throughout Israel. The tribe of Shimon was chosen as school teachers, compelling them to spread out, parallel to the country's school system (12)).

These are strong words of condemnation. These two brothers, Jacob is saying, must be severely curtailed. Ideological passion needs to be monitored, contained and properly directed. At the end of the day, actions matter far more than intentions. If your actions are evil, the best of intentions becomes meaningless.

Nature vs. education
In summation, the Bible is confronting us with a powerful paradox. Esau, the skilled man of the sword, emerges as a man of tender affection and heartwarming love. Shimon and Levi, the children of the monotheistic family dedicated to the propagation of morality, are displayed as killers.

The message is clear (13).

Morality, the Bible is telling us, is not a symptom of nature; it is a product of education. Esau is not naturally a man of the sword, nor is the Jew naturally immune to violence. There are times when Esau becomes the mushy-lovey-dovey older brother, and there are moments when the Jew is displayed in his own Torah as a killer.

Morality is the child of a particular education. If the Jewish people throughout their last 2,000 years of exile displayed enormous sensitivity to the sanctity of life and did for the most part not begin to emulate their tormentors, it is not because they were naturally passive and meek. As the story of Simeon and Levi dramatically demonstrate, the Jews could have also embraced the sword indiscriminately.

Every child, Jew and non-Jew alike, can grow to become a heart aglow with a passion for peace and a love for justice, dedicated to assisting the needy and the underprivileged and permeated with respect for human life. But the same youngster can also develop into a monster, beheading innocent human beings and blowing up children while shouting that G-d is great.

And the primary difference lies in the information and inspiration that these children are fed from infancy onwards.

The Jewish choice
Death for the Jews has been plotted by tyrants of every age; Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, Caesar, the Turks, the Christians, the Muslims, Stalin, Hitler and almost every great power that ever lived and flourished. Each defined the Jew as a target for abuse or complete annihilation. Jews have been expelled from nearly every country in which they resided; England, France, Hungary, Austria, Germany, Lithuania, Spain, Portugal, Bohemia, Moravia, Russia, Poland and the countries of the Middle East and North Africa,  as well as from their ancient homeland of Eretz Israel.

Throughout the centuries, many millions of Jews were murdered, including millions of infants and children. The Babylonians and Romans, who according to our tradition were the descendents of Esau, killed three million Jews. The Christians and Muslims with their inhumane Crusades, the inquisitions, conversion decrees, blood libels and general religious fervor over a span of fifteen centuries, slaughtered millions of Jews and wiped out entire communities. Chmelnitzky and his bandits beheaded 300,000 Polish Jews during 1648-49, while Hitler put to death a third of our people, including one-and-a-half million children. In nearly every country, Jews have, at some time, been subjected to beatings, torture and murder, solely because they were Jewish.

Under such circumstances, the Jews had every excuse in the world to develop a proclivity toward violence. Enduring savage suffering, torture and misery more than any other people on the face of this earth, Jews could have easily become suicide bombers “because they had no other alternative to vent their frustration and humiliation.” Deprived often of the most basic human dignity, would it have not been natural for the people of the book to develop a culture of hate and death? Why did they not?

The answer is education.

Every Jewish child, religious, secular, right-wing and left-wing -- absorbed from his or her mother’s milk a love toward life, a feeling for the sanctity of life, and a respect for the image of G-d existing in every human being, Jew and non-Jew alike.

From the day a Jewish child is born, he or she is inculcated by their parents with the timeless message of Moses before he departed this world (14): “See I have placed before you life and death… and you shall choose life.”

To their credit, Jews implemented Moses' words. In the best of times and worst of times the collective Jewish consciousness always clung to the path of life.

In the months following the astonishing Israeli victory of the Six-Day-War, the Hebrew University in Jerusalem gave an honorary doctorate to Yitzhak Rabin, Chief of Staff during the war. During his speech of acceptance he said:

“We find more and more a strange phenomenon among our fighters. Their joy is incomplete, and more than a small portion of sorrow and shock prevails in their festivities, and there are those who abstain from celebration. The warriors in the front lines saw with their own eyes not only the glory of victory but the price of victory: their comrades who fell beside them bleeding, and I know that even the terrible price which our enemies paid touched the hearts of many of our men. It may be that the Jewish people has never learned or accustomed itself to feel the triumph of conquest and victory, and therefore we receive it with mixed feeling.”

How to Assist the Arab world

This message is critical for the restoration of hope and peace in the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict.

Not having your own state does not on its own create suicide bombers. A degenerated and decadent education teaching that G-d craves the deaths of Israeli mothers and children is responsible for these acts.

Viewing the solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict in the withdrawal of Israel from the territories it captured in the 1967 war and the creation of a Palestinian state is an escape from the core issue. Having an independent state can naturally become a source of blessed creativity and productivity, but it can also become a monstrous center for untamed violence and terror (take Sudan, Saddam’s Iraq and Syria as examples). If children are educated with the notion that the Jews are the devil incarnate, that the very existence of Israel is a war against G-d and that the extermination of civilian Jews is praiseworthy, this new independent state will do little to foster peace and co-existence. On the contrary, it is likely to become a country inspiring terror and bloodshed. With the current educational paradigms pervading the Palestinian street, the quest for statehood is clearly part of the underlying divine imperative to exterminate Israel.

To give the Palestinian a state at the present moment would be a crime not only for Jews, but also for Arabs. It would deprive them from the impetus to change the course of their destiny from within, What the Palestinians need more than anything else is a new educational system, one that will teach them that their own lives are sacred and that the lives of non-Muslims are equally sacred.

And then peace will follow automatically .


1) Genesis 27:41
2) Ibid. 32:8.
3) Ibid. 33:4.
4) Ibid. 27:40.
5) Ibid. 25:27.
6) Ibid. chapter 34.
7) The ancient city of Shechem was located in the Hill Country of Ephraim at the base of Mt. Gerizim on its northeastern side. The Hebrew name means “back” or “shoulder” describing its location in the narrow valley between Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Ebal approximately 65 km North of Jerusalem. The site of ancient Shechem is located on the eastern outskirts of the modern city of Nabulus.
7*) Various biblical commentators offer differing perspectives. See Ramban, Or Hachayim, Sufarno, and many more.
8) Genesis 34:31.
9) See commentary of Rabbi SR Hirsh on this verse. 
10) Genesis 34:30.
11) Genesis 49,5-7.
12) Rashi to Genesis ibid. Cf. Torah Shlaimah ibid.
13) This essay is based on the commentary by Rabbi S.R. Hirsh to Genesis 34:31.
14) Deuteronomy 30:19.


Copyright © 2004 Rabbi Yosef Y. Jacobson

Posted on February 16, 2005
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