1. The rape of Dinah and its immediate aftermath
Parshat VaYishlach describes the abduction and rape of Dinah, Yaakov's daughter. Yaakov and his family return to the Land of Cana’an. Yaakov purchases a portion of land outside of the city of Shechem and settles his family there. Shechem, the prince for whom the city is named violates Dinah. Shechem develops an intense desire for Dinah and does not wish to return her to her family. Accompanied by his father Chamor, he requests from Yaakov and his sons permission to marry her. The brothers respond that they will not allow Dina to marry an uncircumcised person. If Shechem, his father, and all of the males of the city will circumcise themselves, then the children of Yaakov will agree to the marriage. Furthermore, they will join with the citizens of the city as one nation. Shechem, Chamor, and their people accept this arrangement; they circumcise. While they are recovering from the procedure, Shimon and Leyve enter the town, kill all of the men and rescue Dinah.
And Yaakov said to Shimon and Leyve: You have incited the inhabitants of the land – the Canaanites and the Perezites – to hate me. I am few in number. They will gather against me, strike me and destroy me and my household. (Sefer Beresheit 24:30)
2. Yaakov’s strange reaction of Shimon and Leyve
Yaakov chastises Shimon and Leyve for their violence against the people of Shechem. Later, before his death, Yaakov shared with each son a parting message or blessing. When he addresses Shimon and Leyve, he returns to this incident and again criticizes their behavior.
However, the reason for Yaakov’s objection to Shimon and Leyve’s attack upon the city is not clear. He was present when his sons offered to join their families with the people of Shechem if the males would undergo circumcision. Did Yaakov actually plan to abandon his daughter to her rapist in exchange for the circumcision of the city’s males? This seems unlikely. No doubt, he understood that his sons were putting in place a strategy to rescue Dinah. If he understood their intentions, why did he object to his sons’ execution of the strategy and their rescue of Dinah?
Nachmanides explains that Yaakov did understand that his sons were laying the foundation for Dinah’s rescue. However, he misunderstood their plan. He assumed that the people of Shechem would probably decline the offer to join with the family of Yaakov. They would not be willing to undergo circumcision. With the decision to decline the offer, Dinah would be returned. Yaakov also considered the possibility that the people would accept the offer and undergo circumcision. However, he assumed that if the people did make this decision, then the men would be disabled for a period of time while they recovered from the procedure. Dinah could be rescued during this period without any real resistance from the population. Yaakov objected to killing the men. This violence he regarded as unnecessary and unjustified.
Nachmanides’ position is not easily understood. First, he assumes if the people of the city refused circumcision, Shechem would have returned Dinah. Shechem was a rapist! Why would he agree to return Dinah? Second, when the people did agree to circumcision, Yaakov expected his sons to rescue Dinah from her captors without employing excess violence. Certainly, the incapacitated population would not have been able to offer much resistance. However, Yaakov must have realized that in a few days, they would recover. They would feel cheated and deceived. What would the people of Shechem do then? It is likely that they would pursue Yaakov and his family, retrieve Dinah and take their vengeance upon those who had humiliated them. Shimon and Leyve took the action required to prevent this retribution. Nachmanides does not directly address these issues. However, Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno provides a number of insights that further explain Yaakov’s reasoning and his differences with his sons.
And his soul cleaved to Dinah, the daughter of Yaakov. And he loved the young woman and spoke to her heart. (Sefer Beresheit 34:3)
3. The prestige of Yaakov
The above passage describes Shechem’s deep desire to retain Dinah. The passage describes his desire for Dinah the daughter of Yaakov. Dinah was identified as the daughter of Yaakov and Leyah in the first passage of the section. Why, two passages later, is she again described as Yaakov’s daughter? Sforno comments that her identity as Yaakov’s daughter was the foundation of Shechem’s desire for her. Yaakov was the son of Yitzchak and the grandson of Avraham. He had returned to Cana’an as a wealthy man. He had enormous prestige and this prestige was also associated with Dinah.
This explains the reasoning underlying the strategy developed by Yaakov’s sons. They reasoned that although Shechem had abducted Dinah and raped her, he and his father were now desperate to achieve reconciliation. They did not wish to be in a conflict with the respected and wealthy family of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov. In fact, Yaakov’ sons concluded that they were so eager to avoid confrontation they were willing to return Dinah. However, they were seeking some agreement under which they would be able to keep her. The brothers did not think it wise to simply refuse Shechem and Chamor. Instead, they devised an ingenious plan. They insisted upon the most onerous demand that they could justify – circumcision. According to Sforno, they made their offer confident that this price would be too high; it would be declined and Dinah would be returned.
4. The surprise of Yaakov and his sons
Sforno continues to explain that Yaakov and his sons were very surprised that their offer was accepted. They had anticipated that the males would refuse circumcision. They would not be willing to endure the procedure. Furthermore, Shechem was a prince and his father was the ruler. It was not conceivable to the Yaakov and his sons that these powerful individuals would agree to a ritual that must have seemed foreign and bizarre.
Apparently, Yaakov and his sons underestimated their own prestige. Shechem and his father were willing to subject themselves to circumcision to secure the daughter of Yaakov. The people of the city also accepted the agreement. They wanted to be identified with Yaakov and his sons. The very offer that Yaakov and his sons had assumed would be too onerous to be considered, proved to be very attractive. It provided the people of Shechem the opportunity to become part of the great family of Yaakov and his sons.
5. The dispute between Yaakov and his sons
At this juncture, Yaakov felt that the best course of action would be to rescue Dinah and flee. He recognized that the people of Shechem would feel humiliated and cheated. However, he rejected the alternative adopted by Shimon and Leyve. Killing the males of the city would turn all of the people of the region against them. He felt it was preferable to face the hatred of the people of Shechem than to alienating the population of the entire region.
Sforno explains that Shimon and Leyve had come to a different conclusion. Up to this point – like their father – they had underestimated their own prestige. Now, they acted with full appreciation of this asset. They killed the males. They assumed that people of the land would by sympathetic to them. Rather than retaliate for their massacre of the people of Shechem, the people of the surrounding area would understand their actions as justified by the crimes of Shechem and the complicity of the people of the city.
And they traveled. And the fear of G-d was upon the cities that surrounded them and they did not pursue the sons of Yaakov. (Sefer Beresheit 35:5)
The Torah indicates that Yaakov’s understanding of the attitudes of the people of the region was more accurate than his sons’. Only Hashem’s intervention saved his family from the anger of the regions inhabitants.
1. Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 34:13.
2. Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 34:3.
3. Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 34:13.
4. Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 34:19.
5. Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 34:31.