Vayishlach: The Murky Ethics of Violence

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayishlach

In the Torah portion Vayishlach, Ya’akov prepares to meet his estranged
brother Esav; he divides his camp and ends up all alone in the night, during
which he wrestles with the angel who changes his name to Yisrael. Ya’akov
and Esav meet, and seem to reconcile after their long time apart, but
eventually go their separate ways. Ya’akov and his large family end up in
Shechem, where the prince of the city takes Ya’akov’s daughter Dinah and
rapes her. This provokes a violent response from her brothers Shimon and
Levi, who kill many of the town’s inhabitants in an act of premeditated
deception and revenge.

Yet although Dinah’s brothers claim to act in defense of their sister and her
honor, her father, Ya’akov, is not altogether pleased by Shimon and Levi’s
capacity for warfare. After the killing is finished, Ya’akov confronts his sons
with the claim that their violence has brought him trouble and danger:

“Thereupon, Jacob said to Shimon and to Levi, ‘You have troubled me, to
discredit me among the inhabitants of the land, among the Canaanites and
among the Perizzites, and I am few in number, and they will gather against
me, and I and my household will be destroyed.’

And they said, ‘Shall he make our sister like a harlot?’ ”
(Genesis 34:30-31)

Rashi, the preeminent explainer of nuances in the Torah, says that the word
translated here as “troubled” has a meaning similar to that of murky water,
implying that Ya’akov is not just anxious, he’s confused and agitated by his
son’s warlike actions, and the probable consequences. Rashi quotes an
earlier midrash which goes even further, in which Ya’akov claims that he and
his family could have found a way to live in peace with the neighboring tribes-
presumably, even after the rape of Dinah- but Shimon and Levi have now
closed off that possibility, since (the midrash leads us to conclude) their act
vengeance will itself lead to the desire for revenge, continuing a “cycle of
violence,” as we now call it.

Rashi’s explication of Ya’akov’s “troubles”- that he has a “murky” or confused
mind- speaks to the essential paradox of violent responses: violence,
especially when it arises out of a desire to achieve revenge or reclaim honor-
tends to beget further violence.

Shimon and Levi ask a rhetorical question: “should our sister be treated like a
harlot?” Well, no, of course not, but their question is hardly a thoughtful
response to Ya’akov’s anguished fretting over the future, a future in which his
family is implicated in terrible acts. Please note: neither the Torah, nor
Judaism as a whole, advocates pacifism; in a typical Jewish view, sometimes
violence is necessary, so that justice can be served, or security achieved. Yet
saying violence is sometimes necessary begs a larger discussion about when
it is not necessary, let alone moral or wise.

This larger discussion- about the imperative of seeking nonviolent solutions
whenever possible, about the necessity of distinguishing between justice and
vengeance, about the wisdom of setting in motion a deadly cycle which may
take generations to conclude, about the humanity of those perceived as foes-
is hard work, with few easy answers. Note that Shimon and Levi, in asking
their simple question, hardly seem “murky” about the answer- but Ya’akov,
who has greater responsibilities, is quite properly troubled when violence is
the first resort, rather than the last. Ya’akov’s “murkiness” thus stands as a
rebuke to those in our society who claim to revere Biblical texts, yet seem
untroubled when lives are at stake.

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