This summary is adapted from this week’s main Covenant & Conversation essay by Rabbi Sacks.
Parshat Vayishlach contains a shocking incident. Dina, Yaakov’s daughter, is abducted and raped by Shechem, the son of the local town’s ruler. Her brothers are incensed and demand justice. Shechem then asks for permission to marry Dina and in an act of subterfuge, Yaakov’s sons agree to the marriage and strike a deal, saying that first all the males of the town of Shechem must be circumcised.
Once the men are weakened by the pain of their circumcisions, Dina’s brothers, Shimon and Levi, carry out a brutal revenge by killing every male in the town. Yaakov reproaches his sons, and fears retaliation from neighbouring communities. However, Shimon and Levi justify their actions, arguing that their sister should not be treated so sickeningly.
The Torah, unusually, includes authorial comments emphasising the moral gravity of the situation. It articulates the grief and anger of Yaakov’s sons upon learning of their sister’s ordeal, and their internal justification in punishing the city for her defilement. But was this enough of a justification?
Years later, on his deathbed, Yaakov curses Shimon and Levi for their violence and recklessness, foretelling their dispersion in Israel. This act by Yaakov presents a stark contrast to the earlier justification of their actions.
This narrative sparked a debate between two prominent Jewish scholars: Rambam and Ramban. The Rambam, in his Mishnah Torah, argues that the people of Shechem were collectively responsible for failing to bring their prince to justice for his crime against Dina. After all, the Noahide laws demand the establishment of legal courts by Gentiles to enforce justice. According to the Rambam, the entire town was complicit in this violation.
The Ramban offers a counter-argument. He posits that while the Noahide laws obligate establishing justice systems, they do not imply collective responsibility or warrant death for failing to implement these laws. Indeed, he questions why Yaakov would condemn his sons if their actions were justified. This debate highlights the unresolved nature of collective responsibility and justice in Jewish law and theology. While Jewish law advocates for collective responsibility among Jews, the question arises whether this principle extends beyond Jewish law to all societies, as the Rambam suggests. To what extent are individuals responsible for the establishment of a fair judicial system in their towns?
According to the Talmud, one who can prevent sin in their household, community, or the world but fails to do so is morally culpable. Rabbi Sacks adds that the human courts of law can only punish the one who has acted, but God can choose to also hold to account any bystanders who permitted a preventable evil to take place.
This dovetails with the horrible events of the Holocaust. Philosopher Karl Jaspers, when considering the guilt of the German populace, terms the guilt of bystanders as ‘metaphysical guilt’. In other words, ‘guilty in a way not adequately conceivable either legally, politically or morally.’
If this is the case, Shimon and Levi’s actions cannot escape moral condemnation either. Despite the guilt of Shechem, the brothers were wrong to execute justice by killing all the males, and Yaakov is right in condemning them. Yeshayahu Leibowitz, a noted Israeli moralist, suggests that some actions, even if vindicated, can still be morally reprehensible. Rabbi Sacks concludes that it is critical to distinguish between collective responsibility and collective punishment. While the former is a moral imperative for all of us, the latter, as exemplified by the actions of Shimon and Levi, is far more ethically fraught. This parsha serves as a powerful exploration of justice, morality, and the complexities of collective ownership.
Around the Shabbat Table
- What can the debate between Ramban and Rambam teach us about the complexities of decision-making in Jewish history? Why do you think the Torah places so much emphasis on what someone is called?
- What are some other instances of collective responsibility in Sefer Bereishit?
- How do you see the notion of ‘Kol Yisrael arevin zeh bazeh’ (all Jews are responsible for one another) playing out in modern and diverse Jewish communities?
Parsha in Passing
Parshat Vayishlach is filled with emotional highs and lows for Yaakov and his family.
Hearing that his brother is coming to meet him with a force of four hundred men, Yaakov is afraid Eisav is getting ready to attack. He divides his camp into two, sends gifts to Eisav, and prays. That night he wrestles with a mysterious stranger – an angel from God! – and transforms from Yaakov to Yisrael.
His moral courage recognised, Yaakov is now ready to meet Eisav. It has been twenty years and Yaakov, fearing a bloodbath, is instead met with open arms. The brothers soon part ways amicably, but immediately after the family reunion we read the devastating tale of Dina’s abduction into the neighbouring city of Shechem, a city close to where Yaakov had purchased land for his family. Two of Yaakov’s sons, Shimon and Levi, seek revenge for what has happened to their sister, and wreak vengeance by killing all of the men of the city.
The familial trials continue as Rachel, Yaakov’s beloved wife, dies in childbirth and is buried close to Beit Lechem. Yaakov continues his journey back home to Chevron where he sees his aging father, Yitzchak, one last time. The parsha concludes with a full list of the kings of Edom, and Eisav’s clans.
Yaakov (Yisrael): With a change of name and a change of heart, Yaakov is the sturdy leader of the nation of Israel.
Shimon and Levi: This duo has blood on their hands. Was it for honour, revenge, or for their sister?
Rachel: Eternally loved but with a sorrowful fate, Rachel gives birth to Binyamin and dies.
Eisav: Former holder of birthright, hunter, and father’s favourite. A warrior finally happy for a family reunion.
This week we explore the dichotomy between collective punishment and collective responsibility, and it raises many difficult questions.
How do we draw the line between collective responsibility and incurring unnecessary punishment? To what extent are we responsible for those around us? If we do nothing, are we simply passive bystanders, or do we have a deeper guilt?
Ultimately, how do we evaluate Shimon and Levi’s vengeance over the violation of their sister?
From Yaakov’s perspective, it appears that Shimon and Levi went too far. At the end of Sefer Bereishit, Yaakov even curses them and their legacy due to their actions.
In what ways can you imagine the story playing out differently? And what are the types of actions that turn a person – or begin to turn a person – from a passive bystander into a perpetrator or accomplice?
Take the opportunity to consider other times in our history where this type of tension plays out – such as the Egyptians during the Exodus, Amalek, and the behaviour of the Jewish people in the desert. There are so many rich examples that can be used to weigh this critical ethical issue!
Let’s have a “Moral Dilemma Ultimate Debate”.
Choose a topic. Anything from the validity of Shimon and Levi’s actions, to the very serious topic of ‘the objectively greatest flavour ice cream’. Two teams form, and everyone must pick their side.
Each team presents their ethical stance and reasoning, followed by a group discussion to explore various perspectives. Ambiguous moral situations – again, especially with ice cream – are never going to be conclusive. Use this as an opportunity to understand different perspectives from your own!
The notion of looking out for other members of our society is harder than it seems. If we’re being honest, ‘group think’ is a tricky mentality to break out of, and standing up for someone else when they are hurt, especially against the “group’s” wishes, can seem impossible. And yet, it’s a tremendously important part of our human society.
Showing others that we care for them and acting justly when there is a wrong to be righted is something you can practice daily, even if on a much smaller scale than in the story of Shechem. To help adopt the right mentality, it’s important to get in the habit of recognising that each person has a unique strength and something that makes them worthy and important.
If, for example, a student in a classroom is being teased, there are many ways to help, from confronting the bully directly to befriending the teased student, showing them kindness, or involving them in group activities.
This not only provides immediate support but also subtly challenges the groupthink mentality that often fuels such behaviour.
Additionally, speaking up in small ways can be powerful. This might involve suggesting to a teacher or club leader the need for discussions or a change in behaviour, or simply expressing disagreement when witnessing something hurtful.
Small actions can ripple outwards, encouraging others who secretly share your feelings but may not yet feel comfortable articulating them.
Once, in a small, snowy town in Minnesota, there was a young girl named Sunshine.
Now, Sunshine had been saving up her weekly allowance to buy a beautiful new doll. I wonder, what would you save your money for?
One day, when Sunshine was at school, she noticed her friend Emma had nothing but water to drink at lunch. “Huh, that’s funny,” Sunshine thought. “I think that milk is so much more delicious!” Well it turned out that her friend Emma agreed, but she didn’t have enough money to buy the lunch milk at school!
Sunshine felt so sad for her friend Emma – can you imagine having no money, not even for milk? So Sunshine came up with a plan to help. She would take all of her saved coins and use them to buy milk for Emma.
When Sunshine’s grandmother asked Sunshine why she was opening up her piggy bank, Sunshine explained that she wanted to help her friend.
But just then, Sunshine had an even bigger and better idea.
“I’m sure there are other kids who also can’t afford to buy milk; maybe I can help them too!” She said to herself. So, with her family’s help, Sunshine began collecting money from family and friends. The goal was to raise enough money so that all the kids at her school could have milk for the whole year!
Here’s the amazing thing. The story of Sunshine’s kindness spread, and soon, people from all over the town started donating money. They raised more money than Sunshine ever could have imagined! Over 6,000 dollars!
This meant that all of the kids at her school could enjoy milk every single day. Sunshine never bought her doll, but she felt really happy knowing that she had helped her friends.
This wonderful story really happened. Sunshine Oelfke made real change happen. How do you think this true story shows that we can be responsible for others? Can you think of a way you can help your friends this week at school?
Question: How many times is a tree used as a burial spot in the Torah?
(See below for the answer)
This Week’s Parsha Puzzle Answer: Only twice, and both are in parshat Vayishlach. In Bereishit 35:4, Yaakov buries the idols that were in his household under the terebinth tree near Shechem. And Rivka’s nursemaid Devorah is buried under the oak tree near Betel (Bereishit 35:8).
This question has been adapted from Torah IQ by David Woolf, a collection of 1,500 Torah riddles, available on Amazon.
Written as an accompaniment to Rabbi Sacks’ weekly Covenant & Conversation essay, the Family Edition is aimed at connecting teenagers with his ideas and thoughts on the parsha.
With thanks to the Schimmel Family for their generous sponsorship of Covenant & Conversation, dedicated in loving memory of Harry (Chaim) Schimmel.
“I have loved the Torah of R’ Chaim Schimmel ever since I first encountered it. It strives to be not just about truth on the surface but also its connection to a deeper truth beneath. Together with Anna, his remarkable wife of 60 years, they built a life dedicated to love of family, community, and Torah. An extraordinary couple who have moved me beyond measure by the example of their lives.” — Rabbi Sacks