Back to Resources

Parashat Va-yishlah

by Jill Levy | Published on January 1, 2008

I have spent much of my year in Israel exploring a side of the country that I have largely been ignoring, or trying to ignore, until now — the West Bank. I have taken three trips to Bethlehem in the past three months, two with an orga­ni­za­tion called “Encounter” and a third with friends for Christmas. I heard stories from Palestinians about their lives and saw first hand how some of them live. I now under­stand how the secu­rity barrier encir­cles Bethlehem, cuts off local villages from each other and from the city, and forces some Palestinians to travel under­ground through tunnels. The barrier will also poten­tially cause the demo­li­tion of a school cafe­teria, for a school that is dedi­cated to peace educa­tion for Palestinian chil­dren – both Muslim and Christian — since the cafe­teria is 120 meters away from the barrier (the barrier having been built after the cafe­teria). I saw Palestinians waiting in long lines to cross through a check­point and heard stories of harass­ment and abuse of everyday people walking through. I have seen an entire building that was torn down because a terrorist was living there, while the resi­dents who have nothing to do with terrorism have their apart­ments destroyed as well.

At the same time, I live in a city where I am scared to ride the bus. I have two friends who were killed in a bombing at Hebrew University and a third who has burn scars as a perma­nent reminder of the event. Terrorism is a reality of life for people who live in Israel. Palestinians have elected a lead­er­ship that believes that Israel has no right to exist and that it should be wiped off the map.

I wonder that if someone only listened to stories of the occu­pa­tion and spent time in the West Bank what would he or she think about Israel’s actions? I then ask if someone listens to stories of the occu­pa­tion and then goes to Israel and hears stories of terror, or God forbid lives with it, do Israel’s actions then become neces­sary? I realize that this is an over simpli­fi­ca­tion of a complex situ­a­tion, but I believe that there is a series of under­lying ques­tions that we must ask ourselves as the situ­a­tion continues and worsens for both sides. Questions include: can violence ever be justi­fied and does a violent act of one people excuse a violent act in return? The main ques­tion that I want to focus on for this D’var Torah is does the violent act of one person justify a violent response to a group of people and how does the Torah inform our under­standing of communal punishment?

Over the course of this semester I have spent time learning the Biblical story of Dinah (Genesis 34:1–31). While Dinah was out exploring the land, she was taken captive by Schechem, the son of the country’s chief, Hamor, and raped. Schechem subse­quently falls in love with her, and Jacob is then asked for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Hamor offers safety, wealth and peace in order for Schechem to marry Dinah. He also offers for the two peoples to inter­marry and live pros­per­ously side-by-side. Instead of Jacob answering, his sons, Shimon and Levi, deceit­fully respond that Dinah cannot marry someone who is uncir­cum­cised and that they will only live among them if all the males of the city circum­cise them­selves as well. Schechem and Hamor convince the towns­people to circum­cise and on the third day of their recovery Shimon and Levi take matters into their own hands and kill everyone in the town, in addi­tion to Schechem and Hamor, in revenge of their sister’s rape. While Schechem is certainly impli­cated in the rape, the towns­people in the story are not, yet they are punished.

The ques­tions natu­rally follow: Was Shimon and Levi’s act unjus­ti­fied or did the towns­people deserve their death because their leader committed an act of violence against Dinah? I want to use this story to think about this ques­tion of communal punish­ment and to extract ideas that we can apply to how we think about it today. In order to accom­plish this goal it is impor­tant to first analyze the real moti­va­tion behind Shimon and Levi’s response. Was the response justi­fied and how? Or, was the response unjus­ti­fied and why not? In order to think crit­i­cally about these ques­tions it is impor­tant to compare the response of Jacob to that of Shimon and Levi.

When Jacob hears the news of Dinah’s rape, his response is silence. It is unclear from the text why Jacob is silent. It is not until the end of the story that we hear Jacob speak and it is in response to Shimon and Levi’s actions. He states in Verse 30:

You have brought trouble on me, making me odious among the inhab­i­tants of the land…my men are few in number, so that if they unite against me and attack me, I and my house will be destroyed.”

We know from this state­ment that Jacob did not agree with the violent response of Shimon and Levi. The ques­tion remains whether his silence meant that he was not plan­ning to respond at all, or if Jacob supported Shimon and Levi’s sugges­tion of marrying Dinah to Schechem as long as everyone became circum­cised (not knowing that this was deceitful) or if he had another plan that was then curtailed by the brothers. Danna Fewell and David Gunn, in Tipping the Balance: Sternberg’s Reader and the Rape of Dina, suggest that Jacob’s silence was not “apathy,” but “caution”. I agree with Fewll and Gunn that his response was cautious because Jacob under­stood the need for peaceful rela­tions. In the chapter just prior to this story, we have an emotional recon­ciling between Jacob and his brother Esau. Even though Jacob stole the birthright from Esau and even though Esau could have easily killed Jacob, he welcomed the meeting with tears and open arms. While the exact response Jacob wanted is unclear, it does seem clear from the text that he did not want to perpet­uate the cycle of violence that had begun with the rape because he knew from personal expe­ri­ence that commu­ni­ca­tion and recon­cil­i­a­tion are less likely to cause future pain. He was also cautious and wanted to take time to think before making an impetuous decision.

Shimon and Levi, in stark contrast to Jacob, believed that a more extreme response was neces­sary. It is possible that Shimon and Levi’s extreme response was based on several highly prin­ci­pled ideals, as Meir Sternberg suggests in his book The Poetics of Biblical Narrative. The first is that they wanted to warn the Hivites, who are related to the Canaanites, that inter­mar­riage with the chil­dren of Jacob would not be toler­ated. (A major theme of this story is that it is a polemic against inter­mar­riage.) They have support for this from the text, which warns about not inter­mar­rying with the Canaanites. The second is that their response to Jacob’s anger with their deci­sion is that their “sister should not be treated like a whore.” Perhaps the response was a warning to other people who might act violently with their family. After all, they have to think about their future and their family honor. Third, they wanted to make it clear that they cannot be bought. Schechem’s promise to them for marrying Dinah was not only that they could settle in the land unharmed but also that they could acquire prop­erty and a high bride price. I do believe that Shimon and Levi’s response was moti­vated by more than pure violence and anger, but I cannot justify the murder of an entire town even for future self-protection.

Danna Fewell and David Gunn contribute two other ideas that add to the intri­cacy of communal punish­ment. The first is that Dinah, the victim, has no say in the outcome of the events that directly affect her life. It is even true today that victims of crime often­times do not have a voice in the deci­sions made by those who enact the punish­ment. The second is that Schechem does Teshuvah for his act and in the end tries to do what he sees is right. As Fewell and Gunn state, he is a “complex char­acter trying to make the best of a flawed world.” On the one hand, he raped Dinah; and on the other hand we gain sympathy for him since he loved her and tried to make amends in the end. Many of the people who face communal punish­ment might be similar to Schechem; not in the sense of commit­ting the crime, but in the sense that they are trying to make the best of a flawed world. Enacting communal punish­ment, to some degree, makes the world less complex for people and easier to breed hatred of the other.

My view on communal punish­ment is informed both by the Biblical narra­tive and from life expe­ri­ence. Jacob and his sons enlighten my under­standing even though both approaches are flawed. Jacob reas­sures my belief that commu­ni­ca­tion and peace making is the ideal. He also reas­sures my belief that violence begets violence as his main fear from Shimon and Levi’s action is that he will then be sought after and killed. Shimon and Levi serve as a reminder that prin­ci­ples, integrity, and self-defense are also impor­tant and should not be under­valued. Seeing the human rights issues of communal punish­ment first hand leads me to believe that there is a better solu­tion. Jacob, Shimon and Levi’s reac­tions help me under­stand that, in the end, the line is drawn at differ­en­ti­ating between self-defense, revenge, and perpet­u­ating a cycle of violence that will ulti­mately make more people unsafe. At this point, I cannot state whether communal punish­ment is right or wrong. At the same time, being in the West Bank this year has made me realize that this topic is very much alive today. Until now, I chose not to go to Bethlehem, or to have a conver­sa­tion with a Palestinian, because I was not ready to admit that the issues of the Palestinian-Israel conflict were so complex. It was much easier to think about the conflict in black and white terms. Now that I have seen first-hand the real­i­ties of communal punish­ment I know that this is some­thing we must begin to think about more crit­i­cally. This parshah is a reminder that the issue has always been and still is on the Jewish agenda.

Jill Levy is a 5th year student at JTS and is currently working as the Student Rabbi at the Germantown Jewish Center in Philadelphia. She is married to Matthew Silverman, a student at RRC, and they have a daughter, Nava.

Share This

Our Mission

Encounter is an edu­ca­tional orga­ni­za­tion dedi­cated to strength­ening the capacity of the Jewish people to be construc­tive agents of change in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Moti­vated by the relent­less Jew­ish pur­suit of hokhma (wis­dom) and binah (under­stand­ing), Encounter cul­ti­vates informed Jew­ish lead­er­ship on the Israeli-Palestinian con­flict by bring­ing…

Read More

Contact Encounter

Encounter welcomes all your ques­tions, comments, stories, and queries.

For general inquiries, including upcoming program infor­ma­tion and dates, please write to:


– or –

Visit our Contact Us Page