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Vayishlach | The Dangers of Complacency

Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Summarized by Shaul Barth

Translated by Kaeren Fish


The first part of parashat Vayishlach (32:4-33:20) traces Yaakov's ascent as he successfully confronts Esav and enters the Land of Israel, while the second part of the parasha (34:1-35:29) marks a continuing descent.  The deterioration in the second part begins with the episode of Dina, followed by Shimon and Levi's destruction of Shekhem, and continuing with Reuven's interference in his father's marital relationship. The degeneration continues until the end of Sefer Bereishit, with the sale of Yosef and the episode of Yehuda and Tamar, up until the blessings bestowed by Yaakov at the end of the sefer. What caused this process? How does a person who has reached such elevated wholeness find himself embroiled in the sorry situations we read about in our parasha?


It appears that the deterioration may be explained, first and foremost, by Yaakov's loss of leadership. Even if we understand Reuven's act as being nothing more invasive than a rearrangement of his father's bed, this still represents interference in the most intimate aspects of Yaakov's marital relationship.  Such an invasion of his privacy signifies a blow to Yaakov's leadership and control of his family. This development is further reinforced in the story of Dina. Shekhem makes his way to Yaakov for the purposes of discussing a certain agreement: "And Shekhem came to Yaakov to speak with him" – but even before we find out whether Yaakov will agree to the proposed arrangement or refuse it (or, for that matter, throw Shekhem right out of his house), Shimon and Levi jump in and assume control, and - without Yaakov's permission - take action. Without waiting for Yaakov's decision in his discussion with Shekhem, Shimon and Levi decide on their own how to address the situation.


When Yaakov voices his concern, "They shall gather against me and smite me," his sons counter with outrage: "Shall our sister be treated as a harlot?!" – and Yaakov's claim does indeed sound somewhat pale. Is it pure pragmatism that underlies his approach? Are his sons representing the moral argument, while Yaakov restricts himself to pragmatic security concerns? Clearly, Yaakov also understands that Shekhem's deed has defiled Dina's honor. Why does he not offer any answer to the brothers' claim?


The Sifri, at the beginning of Sefer Devarim, provides a partial answer to this question. The Sifri discusses the fact that Moshe chooses to rebuke the tribes of Israel specifically prior to his death, and says that this is reminiscent of Yaakov, who similarly rebukes Reuven only in the context of the blessings he bestows on his deathbed. The Sifri explains that the reason for this is that Yaakov feared that if he were to rebuke Reuven immediately after his act, Reuven would take offense and go over to join Esav. This explanation reveals Yaakov's family situation to us in all its wretched disarray: Yaakov must calculate his actions so as not to cause his eldest son to "defect" and align himself with his worst enemy, and take up his evil ways. If this reason serves to explain why Yaakov did not rebuke Reuven at the time, we may conjecture that it also explains why Yaakov did not rebuke Shimon and Levi: he feared that they would abandon the family, creating an irreparable and eternal rift.


However, even if we understand that the problems that arise in our parasha result from Yaakov's lack of leadership, we must still clarify the source of this fault. What caused Yaakov's leadership to be undermined after such lofty previous achievements?


Perhaps it is specifically against the background of those achievements that we may understand the process. Yaakov goes through a great deal before reaching the triumphant relief that he experiences upon his arrival in Shekhem. To all appearances, he has reached his ultimate aims and attained his highest aspirations: he has vanquished his greatest enemy, whom he has avoided for so many years; he has established a family and obtained God's blessing for the continuity of the nation; he is wealthy and secure. Yaakov responds to this situation as any God-fearing person should: he thanks God and erects an altar. But this respite creates its own challenge.


When a person is faced with problems and always feels a lack of security and tranquility, the constant tension forces him to exert all of his energies so as to keep moving forward and not fall. It is specifically when Yaakov believes that he has been relieved of all the problems that plagued him, that he feels a dangerous drop in tension and an even more dangerous sense of euphoria. It is specifically then that the deterioration begins. The fact that he has managed to return to Eretz Yisrael – a goal that he has aspired to for twenty years – gives him a false sense of security. Outside the land, one cannot walk the streets alone, but in Eretz Yisrael there is no problem – what could be dangerous? One can go about freely, alone, with no need for concern: "And Dina, the daughter of Leah, went out…"! It is specifically when calm and quiet appear very close that the fall comes. "Yaakov wanted to dwell in peace; then the turbulence of Yosef assailed him."


Some of the Rishonim regard the assault on Dina as a punishment for the pride expressed in the construction of the altar. This approach suggests that it is because Yaakov feels that he is "king of the world" that God reproaches him and shows him that he still has much to learn. However, we need not go so far as to assert that this is a punishment: it is simply a direct consequence. When a person feels that he has completed his mission and becomes content with his present situation, at that moment – while he is complacent and off guard – trouble approaches.


The same fault that characterized Yaakov – in his time and on his level – exists today, too, in our society on its level. The Religious Zionism that existed prior to the Six Day War felt itself to be – according to sociological studies –fighting a constant battle. On the one hand, it felt the need to prove that it could attain the same heights of Torah study as the Ultra-Orthodox, and on the other hand, it felt the need to prove that it could contribute as much to the physical building of the State as the secularists. This feeling led to a situation in which our sector tried to excel in every sphere, with the knowledge that any small slip-up could lead to collapse.


In our times, we have entered a sort of illusory euphoria: many members of our community feel superior to the Ultra-Orthodox, who admittedly study Torah but are not active in building up the land, and these same people feel disdain for the secularists, whom they look upon as having lost all their pioneering values and, indeed, all morality. The Religious Zionist community tends to view itself as a highly-principled and productive society, and looks down at the rest of the nation. We must not allow ourselves to feel this way! We must not mock the values of the secular population, based on a mistaken view; nor must we mock the single-minded commitment to Torah study of the Ultra-Orthodox. It is precisely when we, as a community, feel that we have fulfilled our mission and are the elite of society – it is precisely now that problems start sprouting within our own community. It is at the moment that we feel a lowering of tension after all our forecasts concerning our conflict with the Arabs are being realized, and our society has built itself up as a quality society – it is now that the social problems that we considered irrelevant to us are starting to manifest themselves.


"Yaakov sought to dwell in peace; then the turbulence of Yosef assailed him." We must take care not to be lulled into a false sense of security and to think that we are secure in our place. It is precisely at such times that we must elevate ourselves and continue pushing forward, because complacency, self-satisfaction and a lowering of tension can only lead to an even greater fall.



[This sicha was delivered at seuda shelishit, Shabbat parashat Vayishlach 5765 (2004).]

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