From Yaakov To Yisrael (Part 4): Yaakov's Silence — A Thematic Approach To Deena & Shechem

Last Time

In Part 3, with help from R’ Menachem Leibtag, we studied Rashbam’s groundbreaking approach to Yaakov’s fight with the angel. These episodes culminated with a prophetic name change: “no longer will it be said that your name is Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with the Divine and with man and have overcome.”

Story #4: Deena In Shechem

As we observed earlier, a careful reading of the text reveals that the angel’s naming of Yaakov was not binding, but was rather a sort of prediction or prophecy: “No longer will it be said that your name is Jacob…” Only later does God Himself confirm the name-change from Yaakov to Yisrael. This occurs in 35:10 after the story of Deena in Shechem. We will see the same recurring tendencies and themes — the same contrast of Ish Tam and Ish Sadeh — in the story of Deena in Shechem.

Perhaps it is Yaakov’s behavior in this buffer story between the two name-changings that creates the need for a second naming altogether. In fact, Sforno comments that through the name change in 35:10, God’s blessing to Yaakov was that he should begin to embody the trait of Yisrael — confronting those who stand against him. Let’s trace Yaakov’s role in the story of Deena in Shechem to see that he did, in fact, behave as Yaakov, the Ish Tam, and not as Yisrael.

New Antagonist, Same Old Yaakov

The story of Deena in Shechem comes on the heels of Yaakov’s encounter with Esav. Immediately, a new antagonist is introduced into Yaakov’s life: Shechem ben Chamor. The opening few pesukim of this story (34:1-4) tell that Shechem raped Yaakov’s daughter Deena, fell in love with her, and sought to take her as a wife. 34:5 brings Yaakov into the picture:

Genesis 34:5:

וְיַעֲקֹב שָׁמַע כִּי טִמֵּא אֶת־דִּינָה בִתּוֹ וּבָנָיו הָיוּ אֶת־מִקְנֵהוּ בַּשָּׂדֶה וְהֶחֱרִשׁ יַעֲקֹב עַד־בֹּאָם

“Now Jacob heard that he had defiled his daughter Dinah, while his sons were with his cattle in the field; so Jacob kept silent until their arrival.”

Yaakov hears of what Shechem had done to his daughter, yet remains silent. He awaits the return of his sons.

When his sons do return they react in opposite fashion.

Genesis 34:6-7:

וַיֵּצֵא חֲמוֹר אֲבִי־שְׁכֶם אֶל־יַעֲקֹב לְדַבֵּר אִתּוֹ׃ וּבְנֵי יַעֲקֹב בָּאוּ מִן־הַשָּׂדֶה כְּשָׁמְעָם וַיִּתְעַצְּבוּ הָאֲנָשִׁים וַיִּחַר לָהֶם מְאֹד כִּי־נְבָלָה עָשָׂה בְיִשְׂרָאֵל לִשְׁכַּב אֶת־בַּת־יַעֲקֹב וְכֵן לֹא יֵעָשֶׂה

“Hamor, Shechem’s father, went out to Jacob to speak to him. Jacob’s sons arrived from the field, when they heard; the men were distressed, and were fired deeply with indignation, for he had committed an outrage in Israel by lying with a daughter of Jacob – such a thing may not be done!”

Rather than react with silence, the brothers react with anger and shame. We will see that much like the contrast of Yaakov vs. Esav, the story of Deena in Shechem will develop the very same contrast with Yaakov playing himself, the Ish Tam, while the brothers (Shimon and Levi in particular) embody the traits and role of the Ish Sadeh.

Who Is In Control?

Despite the fact that Chamor, Shechem’s father, came to speak to Yaakov (“Hamor, Shechem’s father, went out to Jacob”) it is Shechem who speaks, addressing both Yaakov and the brothers.

Genesis 34:11:

וַיֹּאמֶר שְׁכֶם אֶל־אָבִיה וְאֶל־אַחֶיהָ אֶמְצָא־חֵן בְּעֵינֵיכֶם וַאֲשֶׁר תֹּאמְרוּ אֵלַי אֶתֵּן

“Then Shechem said to her father and brothers, ‘Let me gain favor in your eyes…’”

In the next pesukim, who answers Shechem’s request for Deena’s hand in marriage? The brothers alone.

Genesis 34:13:

וַיַּעֲנוּ בְנֵי־יַעֲקֹב אֶת־שְׁכֶם וְאֶת־חֲמוֹר אָבִיו בְּמִרְמָה וַיְדַבֵּרוּ אֲשֶׁר טִמֵּא אֵת דִּינָה אֲחֹתָם

“Jacob’s sons answered Shechem and his father Hamor cleverly and they spoke (because he had defiled their sister Deena).”

Yaakov has been effectively removed while the brothers seize ownership of the conversation. The text specifies that the combative nature of their response was a reaction to the defiling of Deena, their sister. Thus, tabling the discussion of whether or not they were correct in their actions, here the brothers are responding to their antagonist in the way Yaakov never seems able to — with action.

34:13-29 describe the brothers’ plan coming to fruition, as Shimon and Levi kill the men of Shechem (remember: this is the name of the city as well. See 33:18.) and loot the city. Note that Yaakov is entirely absent from the plan.

Yaakov vs. Shimon And Levi; Ish Tam vs. Ish Sadeh

Finally, in 34:30, Yaakov reenters the story after Shimon and Levi have already dealt with the situation. Yaakov reacts by rebuking the aggressive actions of his sons. In the next two pesukim, 34:30-31, the dialogue between Yaakov and his two sons highlights the contrast of Ish Tam and Ish Sadeh.

When reading Yaakov’s reaction note that his perspective is precisely what we might expect from Yaakov, the Ish Tam:

Genesis 34:30:

וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב אֶל־שִׁמְעוֹן וְאֶל־לֵוִי עֲכַרְתֶּם אֹתִי לְהַבְאִישֵׁנִי בְּיֹשֵׁב הָאָרֶץ בַּכְּנַעֲנִי וּבַפְּרִזִּי וַאֲנִי מְתֵי מִסְפָּר וְנֶאֶסְפוּ עָלַי וְהִכּוּנִי וְנִשְׁמַדְתִּי אֲנִי וּבֵיתִי

“Jacob said to Simeon and to Levi, ‘You have discomposed me, making me odious among the inhabitants of the land, among the Canaanite and among the Perizzite; I am few in number and should they band together and attack me, I will be annihilated — I and my household.”

In this pasuk Yaakov says outright what our study has been observing all along. As clearly reflected in each of the stories we have studied, Yaakov’s strategy/belief is that reacting in a confrontational, combative manner only causes more trouble. In this case Yaakov’s position is that through their confrontation, Shimon and Levi have drawn unwanted attention to Yaakov and his family who he perceives to be few and therefore weak. As we have seen, this is Yaakov’s stance time and again.

The retort of the brothers, though, reflects the polar opposite of Yaakov’s passivity and reflects the Ish Sadeh:

Genesis 34:31:

וַיֹּאמְרוּ הַכְזוֹנָה יַעֲשֶׂה אֶת־אֲחוֹתֵנוּ

And they said, ‘Should he treat our sister like a harlot?’”

This is the abrupt ending to the story of Deena in Shechem (the next pesukim transition to Jacob’s journey away from Shechem to Beth El).

Here we see the paradigm of Yaakov vs. Esav revisited. Yaakov wishes to again avoid confrontation despite the defiling of Deena. The brothers disagree with Yaakov’s approach and decide to take action. Note that this back-and-forth seems to be representative of the fundamental struggle of Yaakov’s character: When is the right time to confront rather than bear the blow?

Perhaps it is as means of highlighting the complexity and legitimacy of these two sides that the Torah ends the Deena story so abruptly and seemingly without closure.

Were Shimon And Levi Right?

I posit, however, that the Torah left a hint within the next pesukim that justifies the actions of Shimon and Levi.

Genesis 35:5:

וַיִּסָּעוּ וַיְהִי חִתַּת אֱלֹהִים עַל־הֶעָרִים אֲשֶׁר סְבִיבֹתֵיהֶם וְלֹא רָדְפוּ אַחֲרֵי בְּנֵי יַעֲקֹב

“They set out, and there fell a Godly terror on the cities which were around them, so that they did not pursue Jacob’s sons.”

Recall Yaakov’s rebuke of Shimon and Levi in 34:30. Yaakov’s primary concern was that because of their combative actions the group would be attacked by other nations. Yet, as this pasuk reveals, what actually occurs is quite the opposite of Yaakov’s prediction. In fact, the surrounding nations avoided Yaakov’s party because of a “Godly terror,” perhaps a sign of Divine approval.

Who Were They Afraid Of?

Not only don’t the surrounding cities attack, but the pasuk specifies that they did not attack “Jacob’s sons.” Note that from this story’s beginning, when referring to Yaakov’s entire party, the Torah simply writes “Yaakov,” and the presence of the rest of his party is implied:

Genesis 33:18:

וַיָּבֹא יַעֲקֹב שָׁלֵם עִיר שְׁכֶם אֲשֶׁר בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן בְּבֹאוֹ מִפַּדַּן אֲרָם וַיִּחַן אֶת־פְּנֵי הָעִיר

“Jacob arrived intact at the city of Shechem…”

(See 37:1, the opening pasuk of Vayeshev, for similar use of “Yaakov” as referring to the entire party).

Thus, by saying that the surrounding cities “…did not pursue Jacob’s sons” the Torah is specifying that it was not Yaakov himself, nor the entire group that the surrounding cities were afraid of. Rather it was his sons that they feared.

The implication seems to be clear. The method of Shimon, Levi (and the brothers) successfully accomplished its goal. While Yaakov’s belief was that the proverbial poking of the bear would incur violent punishment, instead the surrounding enemies feared the brothers.

This theory is corroborated by the interpretations of both Malbim and Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer. Malbim gives two opinions as to why the surrounding nations did not attack the “sons of Jacob.” The one more relevant to our study suggests that the enemy nations saw that just two sons of Yaakov had killed off an entire city. They assumed that some divine presence or strength had to be responsible and therefore stayed away. Similarly, Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer posits that the enemies heard of what had happened in Shechem and concluded that if only two could take on an entire city, certainly as a whole group Yaakov’s party would defeat anyone in their path. These interpretations corroborate our theory. The actions of Shimon and Levi showed strength and instilled fear in the surrounding cities, causing Yaakov’s prediction to prove false.

Relating The Story To Developing Themes

The actions of Shimon and Levi in Shechem serve as an example for the potential upside of assertive behavior. One might even suggest it was Yaakov’s perennial passivity that made him a target for repeated abuse by antagonists. Here Shimon and Levi teach that confrontation can show strength and, used correctly, can serve a positive purpose.

This message is one that we have been building towards throughout this study. While not universally applicable, there is an appropriate and effective setting for confrontational and assertive behavior. Perhaps this isn’t to suggest the correctness of the brothers’ actions so much as it is meant to highlight the contrast between the strategies of Yaakov and his sons — the same contrast that has been a recurring theme throughout our study.

(In line with the rest of this study, the approach to the story of Deena in Shechem is based on a close reading of the text and themes. See here for a Halachic approach to this story, as there is rich discourse amongst Rishonim regarding the halachic nature of Shimon and Levi’s actions.)

End Of Yaakov As A Protagonist: The Cliffhanger

This story concludes Yaakov’s role as the Torah’s protagonist. We are left on a cliffhanger: Does Yaakov ever learn to embody the traits of Yisrael?

Our study has traced Yaakov’s character throughout the major stories of his life. What has emerged is a struggle within Yaakov’s character to balance his proclivity for passive behavior with the necessity of confrontational, assertive behavior. We have respectively labeled these two polarized behavioral tendencies as that of the Ish Tam and Ish Sadeh.

Of course, this is not to suggest that Yaakov was meant to become an Ish Sadeh (after all, that was the personality of Esav). Rather, the balancing and meshing of these traits has emerged as the goal and lesson in the development of Yaakov’s character. With help from Rashi, Sforno, and Rambam we have labeled the combination of these traits “Yisrael.”

Yet, as we have seen, this transition is not necessarily complete. Yaakov only officially became Yisrael (at the second naming) after the story of Deena in Shechem. However, this name-changing to Yisrael is the final story in the series of stories from Yaakov’s early life. Henceforth, Yaakov slides into a secondary role as other characters emerge as protagonists in his stead. See that this is true by looking ahead in the text. The remainder of Parshat Vayishlach after the story of Deena and Shechem is spent on:

  1. The birth of Binyamin and the death of Rachel
  2. Reuven’s “encounter” with Bilha
  3. The death of Yitzchak
  4. The chronicles of Esav
  5. Genealogy

Subsequently, Parshat Vayeshev opens with (second pasuk) “These are the chronicles of Jacob…” or “Eleh toldot Yaakov…” The language of “toldot” is the Torah’s way of introducing the stories of someone’s children (“toldot” is translated as “offspring”); hence, the Torah is shifting focus from tales of Yaakov to that of his children. Yet, we never did see Yisrael in action and, now that the Torah’s focus has left Yaakov, we never will. Is there any indication, then, that Yaakov’s transition to Yisrael was successful?

Looking Ahead

I posit that the Torah does indeed indicate the completion of the transition from Yaakov to Yisrael. However, this indication does not come from the actions of Yaakov himself, but rather through the stories of his children. Through the scope we have developed until now we shall see that a seemingly unimportant anecdote — the births of Peretz and Zerach — becomes both the climax and conclusion of our study of Yaakov. More on that in Part 5, the final section of our study.

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