VaYishlah 5782 – When Pragmatism and Ethics Collide

D'var Torah | Genesis

Jacob is mortified. His sons, Simon and Levi, surreptitiously entered Shekhem and slaughtered the population and despoiled the city: all in revenge for the seduction of their sister, Dinah. Having convinced the male members of the city including Hamor to circumcise themselves and thus be acceptable to the descendants of Abraham, they were unopposed. The would-be defenders of the city were immobilized by pain. Militarily, the campaign was a success. But Jacob could not imagine a worse outcome.


What worries Jacob is that this episode will make him “odious among the inhabitants of the land” (Genesis 34:30). The local population will see Jacob as untrustworthy and conniving. He fears that being “few in number” should the other tribes unite against him and attack his whole clan would be destroyed. But Simon and Levi will have none of this. They ask rhetorically, “Should our sister be treated like a whore?” To Simon and Levi Jacob’s pragmatic worries are trumped by moral rectitude. There may some real danger as Jacob senses. But to allow Hamor’s act to go unpunished is worse. Jewish women cannot be violated with impunity.


The Torah leaves the issue unresolved. There is no response by Jacob and nothing further is written on the matter. Professor Nahum Sarna concludes that the two brothers have the last word and “as with the Book of Jonah, the closing rhetorical question provides an irresistible argument” (New JPS Commentary, p. 238). However, this conclusion is not necessarily probative. Perhaps the issue was intentionally left open. Sometimes decisions regarding the Jewish community must be entirely pragmatic. As a minority the Jewish community must rely on the good will of the majority. Antagonizing the majority is not a successful formula for Jewish continuity. But sometimes decisions must be made on the basis of justice and righteousness without which there is no point to Jewish continuity. The challenge for Jewish leadership is to be able to know when to apply either strategy.


Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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