The Torah in Parashat Vayishlach tells of the violent assault launched by Shimon and Levi on the city of Shekhem after the city’s prince abducted and defiled their sister, Dina. Shimon and Levi killed every male in the city, and then proceeded to loot the entire city. Yaakov strongly condemned the attack, saying to Shimon and Levi, “You have disgraced me, making me foul among the residents of the land” (34:30).
The Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 80:12), cited by Rashi, interprets the word “akhartem” (“you have disgraced”) as a derivative of the root a.k.r., which means “murky.” Yaakov said to his sons, in Rashi’s words, “The barrel was clear and you made it murky.” In other words, Yaakov and his family enjoyed a noble reputation among the local population, appearing peaceful and amicable, just as clear wine looks appealing and inviting. This changed now that Shimon and Levi deceived the people in Shekhem by convincing them to undergo circumcision and then proceeding to kill them and seize their property. Their reputation was now sullied, and they became like murky wine, filled with sediment, which people do not wish to drink. The Midrash continues that Shimon and Levi retorted back, “The barrel was murky and we made it clear… What, are they treating us like insignificant people?!” Shimon and Levi countered that to the contrary, as long as the family failed to act in response to the crime perpetrated against Dina, they were “murky” – they were looked at with scorn and disdain. It was specifically by avenging their sister’s honor, Shimon and Levi argued, that the family earned the respect and admiration of the surrounding nations.
There is much to discuss about this tense exchange between Yaakov and his sons in terms of the age-old question of whether and when revenge is an appropriate and necessary means of preserving national dignity, or brings disgrace and dishonor. Additionally, however, a number of writers noted the significance of the analogy drawn by the Midrash comparing Yaakov’s family’s situation to a barrel of wine. All barrels of wine have undesirable sediment on the bottom. As long as the sediment remains on the bottom, the wine looks appealing and desirable. However, when the sediment is mixed with the wine, such as when the barrel is jostled, then all the wine has a dirty, unseemly appearance. A barrel of wine does not have to be entirely sediment-free to look appealing; it needs simply for the sediment to remain on the bottom, and not mix with the wine.
This is precisely the message the Midrash seeks to convey regarding the way we are to appear in the eyes of other nations. Naturally, Am Yisrael, like every group of people, has it share of “sediment.” Bot individually and collectively, we make mistakes, including serious mistakes, and we have members who fail to act according to our values and principles. As long as we keep this “sediment” at the “bottom of the barrel,” we appear “clear” and likeable. In order to maintain a positive reputation, we need to make it clear that the “sediment,” all forms of wrongdoing and all kinds of wrongdoers, are kept at the “bottom,” are unequivocally condemned and marginalized. We cannot, and should not be expected to, eradicate every ounce of “sediment” from our midst. We must, however, ensure that the “sediment,” the unseemly elements of our nation, are kept away from the mainstream, so that our “wine,” the nation as a whole, will appear beautiful and invite respect and admiration.