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Parashat Vayishlah

December 6, 2006

By Michael G. Kohn

What is deceit? Is it ever acceptable to deceive another? And is it ever proper to hold a community responsible for the act of a single person? These questions practically jump from the pages of this week’s parashah, where we read the tragic episode of the rape of Dinah, Leah’s daughter.

She is taken by Sh’khem, son of Hamor, a prince of the land. Upon learning that Dinah had been defiled by Sh’khem, her brothers and Jacob, her father, met with Hamor, who entreated them to allow his son to take Dinah as his wife. Jacob’s sons responded to this request that they could not give their sister as a wife to an uncircumcised man. Then, they floated an option ‘ that if all the men of the city were to be circumcised, they would give their daughters to them and take their daughters for themselves, living as one people. Otherwise, they would take their sister and go. Curiously, Jacob was silent.

Acting on the offer extended by Jacob’s sons, Hamor and Sh’khem went to the gates of the city and successfully persuaded the inhabitants to accept the proposal and, thereafter, all of the city’s males were circumcised. Rather than follow through on their end of the bargain, while the males were weakened and in pain from the circumcision, two of Jacob’s sons, Simeon and Levi, came and killed all of them. Hamor and Sh’khem were killed at the point of a sword. They removed Dinah from Sh’khem’s house and left. Jacob’s other sons thereupon plundered the city and took its children and wives captive.

Hamor, Sh’khem, and the inhabitants of the city were deceived by the proposal to live as one people put forth by Jacob’s sons. But why was Jacob silent, letting his sons respond to Hamor’s request for Sh’khem to marry Dinah? According to Ramban, because the rape was a matter of family disgrace, the sons spoke up to protect their father. Yet because Jacob was present, his sons must have been speaking with his approval. Why, then, did he remain silent when they raised the possibility of marrying with the city’s inhabitants if they would all be circumcised? Did he know of his sons intentions? Was he complicit in the deceit?

Rashi wrote that Scripture teaches that there was no deceit because Sh’khem had defiled Dinah. In other words, the deceit was justified in order to protect the family’s honor. Ramban, on the other hand, said that the sons never expected the people if the city to agree to circumcision. But if they would agree, then the sons would go while the people were in pain, but only to take Dinah from Sh’khem’s house.

Were the homicidal actions of Simeon and Levi justified? Maimonides, basing his comments on the Noahide law of executing justice, concluded that the brothers were justified in killing all the males because even those who did not participate in the rape of Dinah were subject to execution for standing by and not causing the perpetrator to be executed. But Ramban, whose commentary cites Maimonides’ argument, disagreed.

Ramban noted that unlike Jewish judges, non-Jewish judges are not held accountable for refraining from deciding matters before them and so, would not be liable for execution for failing to execute justice. Moreover, he concluded that despite the inhabitants’ involvement in idolatry, sexual immorality and the like, they were not given over to Jacob’s sons for execution of justice. It is not that they were undeserving of their fate, but they should not have met it at the hands of Simeon and Levi.

Yet the midrash tries to claim that deceit can be justified in certain circumstances. (Midrash Rabbah 80:8) It is queried: ‘What do you think? That there is a matter of deceit here?’ Rather, the Holy Spirit says: ‘Because he had defiled Dinah, their sister, etc.” Here, the Rabbis argue that God, rather than the sons, provided the justification for the sons’ deceit.

But it is hard to fathom the idea that it is not deceit to cause someone to believe your lie – to his detriment ‘ just because there is a good reason for the action. Our words should have meaning and we ought to expect that those to whom they are directed will rely on them. Ramban notes that Jacob cursed the anger of Simeon and Levi because they had done an injustice to the people of the city by what they had said to the inhabitants in his presence: ‘We will dwell with you and become a single people.’ Those people put their trust in these words. Perhaps, had the sons been more honest, they would have repented and turned to God. That the brothers did not expect that their words would have been accepted or relied upon only compounds their fault.

No matter how egregious an act appears to us, it does not justify deceiving non-participants to their detriment, especially when that detriment is the cost of their lives. What Sh’khem did to Dinah was inexcusable, but when we cause the destruction of an entire community through deceit solely in retaliation for the act of one, are we not deceiving ourselves in the bargain?