Vayishlach: The Logic of Violence

Copyright 2014 Neal Joseph Loevinger
 
Torah Portion: Vayishlach 
 

Yaakov said to Shimon 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?” (Genesis/ Bereshit 34:30-31)

 
Good morning! 
 
This week’s Torah reading has several well known narratives: the first is the putative reconciliation between Yaakov and his estranged brother Esav; the second is the story of Dinah, Yaakov’s daughter, and the vengeance of her brothers upon her oppressors; and the third is Yaakov’s return to Beth-El and reaffirmation of his covenant with the God of his fathers. 
 
It’s the second of these that seems appropriate for mention today. In short, Yaakov and his camp dwell near the clan of a man named Shechem and his father Hamor. Shechem sexually assaults Dinah, bringing shame and dishonor to her family, so her brothers Shimon and Levi trick the men of her clan into circumcising themselves and then massacre them during recovery. The verses quoted above are the end of the story: Yaakov confronts his sons with the terrible implication of their deed, and they answer back with their understandable- but not really justifying- motivation. 
 
Note that Yaakov doesn’t exactly tell Shimon and Levi was morally wrong to trick and kill the men of Shechem’s camp. Rather, he points out that it was very, very unwise, since now his family will have a bad reputation and may be at the mercy of stronger forces. On the other hand, we have a strong hint that he really did think Shimon and Levi did a terrible thing: at the end of his life, on his deathbed, Yaakov refers to Shimon and Levi as mean of wanton violence and he curses them for their anger and wrath. (Cf. Bereshit 49:5-7
 
My sense is that Yaakov knew that Shimon and Levi, still hot with emotion, could not be persuaded of their guilt in perpetrating a crime upon innocents. Yes, Shechem raped or seduced Dinah, but even if one argued that Shechem deserved to die for what he did, that hardly justifies killing the men of his clan, unless one reasoned that they would strike back in retaliation, which in turn merely proves Yaakov’s point about the cycle of violence. So rather than denounce his sons as criminals, he tells them what he thinks they might be able to hear: that they were unwise and party to unforeseen consequences. 
 
Shimon and Levi answer their father: “should our sister be treated like a whore?” as if one crime naturally justified another in a world that respects only brute force. It’s the impeccable logic of violence, but I think Yaakov is trying to make the point that there is rarely perfect justice in this world, and sometimes we have to settle for the justice we can in order to avoid greater crimes and more bloodshed. 
 
There is no perfect justice in this world, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for the justice we can achieve; it means that everybody, on all sides of a conflict, may have to take some share of the responsibility in avoiding further cycles of violence and retaliation. It means that in an America where all too often, minority communities experience the police as using unjustified force, resulting in needless deaths, wisdom dictates humility and contrition on the part of those who wield force. There is no perfect justice in systems created by fallible human beings, but the logic of retaliation and rage only ensures further injustice upon innocents. Human beings are experts at finding justification for their baser actions, but breaking cycles of violence means backing down, even at the cost of honor. 
 
We can always find reasons to hate. The hard part is pushing hate aside to measure our response to tragedy, so that the pursuit of justice is not merely a cover for the logic of vengeance. The difference between justice and vengeance is the most important thing in the world at times like these, and the responsibility of everyone who cares about a decent world for our children. 
 
Shabbat Shalom, 
 
rnjl 

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