We read in Parashat Vayishlach of Shimon and Levi’s violent assault on the city of Shekhem in retaliation for the city’s prince’s abduction and rape of their sister, Dina. The brothers deceived the people of city by offering to engage with them in commerce and marriage if they underwent circumcision. The people agreed, and Shimon and Levi capitalized on the frail condition of the city’s men, and launched their assault, killing every male and looting the property. Yaakov condemned the attack, charging that Shimon and Levi endangered the family through their violence. This narrative concludes with Shimon and Levi responding to their father’s harsh censure, rhetorically asking, “Ha-khezona ya’aseh et achoteinu” – “Shall he turn our sister into a harlot?” (34:31).
It is worth noting that Shimon and Levi did not ask, “Shall our sister be turned into a harlot,” but rather, “Shall he turn our sister into a harlot?” At first glance, this seems to be a reference to Shekhem, the man who had seized and defiled Dina. We might, however, question this interpretation, as Yaakov made no mention of Shekhem in his censure which evoked this response, and, moreover, they had killed the entire city, and not only Shekhem. If they were trying to defend their violent reaction on the basis of Dina’s violation, they should, seemingly, have cast the blame on the entire city – all of whom they obviously held accountable – and not just Shekhem.
If the pronoun “he” in Shimon and Levi’s response does not refer to Shekhem, there appears to be only one other possible explanation – one which is suggested by Rav Yehuda Henkin (Bnei Banim, vol. 2, Chiba Yeteira, p. 41), who boldly asserts that Shimon and Levi speak here of their father. As Rav Henkin notes, the Torah does not describe Shimon and Levi as responding to their father’s criticism; the Torah’s wording is, “They said,” not “They said to him.” Yaakov had spoken to Shimon and Levi, but they did not respond to him. The remark, “Shall he turn our sister into a harlot” was made when Yaakov was not present, and it was made about him. Angered by their father’s condemnation of what they perceived as an appropriate and courageous measure, they accused him of disregarding their sister’s honor. In their minds, they acted to defend Dina, and by opposing their actions, they charged, Yaakov was turning his back on their sister.
Shimon and Levi’s reaction is, unfortunately, typical of how many of us tend to respond to criticism and opposition. Rather than seriously consider and address the real concerns that Yaakov raised regarding their violent action, Shimon and Levi simply dismissed him as disinterested in defending Dina’s honor. If he did not agree with their way of handling the situation, then, in their minds, he did not share their conviction and their pain over what happened. Instead of listening to Yaakov’s concerns, Shimon and Levi concluded that he ignored their concerns. Many of us are guilty of this mistake when arguing and debating. Rather than addressing the actual issue, we cast aspersions on the other person’s commitment to our goals and values. Shimon and Levi’s angry reaction to Yaakov’s criticism shows us the wrong way to engage in argument and debate. The right way is honestly and objectively considering the various sides of the issue, without challenging the sincerity and virtue of our opponents.