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"You Have Sullied Me..."

Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Sicha for Shabbat from the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion



"You Have Sullied Me..."

Summarized by Ramon Widmonte



"Ya'akov said to Shimon and Levi: You have brought trouble on me to make me odious amongst the Kena'ani and the Perizi, and since I am few in number, they will gather themselves together against me and kill me; and I shall be destroyed - I and all my family." (Bereishit 34:30)


Parashat Vayishlach almost defies comprehension. Its clear parallel is Parashat Beha'alotekha: at the moment that we are about to arrive at the menucha ve-nachala, the final destination, at the moment when rest and reward are within reach, just then, the center cannot hold and things fall apart. In our parasha, right on the verge of finally settling down in Eretz Yisrael, Ya'akov is struck by one calamity after another. The abduction and rape of his daughter, Dina, is the first in a calamitous chain of events, continuing with Rachel's death and Yosef's sale into slavery.


The phrase "You have brought trouble on me" is rendered by the Hebrew "Akhartem oti,"  literally, "You have made me ugly/impure." Rashi immediately responds to this graphic description and comments, "There is a [midrash] aggada [which states]: The barrel was [filled with] clear [water] and now you have sullied it." (In Hebrew, opaque, muddy water is denoted by the phrase "mayim akhurim.")


What is the nature of this "sullying?" It occurs on three levels:


a) The National Sullying


For over twenty years, Ya'akov's life has been one of unremitting struggle. First, he spent twenty years contending with Lavan, who cheated him "ten times" (Bereishit 31:41). Then he had to confront Esav, realizing his deepest fear - an army of four hundred warriors riding to destroy him. Ya'akov prepares for war, prayer and bribing the aggressor. Then, suddenly, his enemies no longer menace him, and he rides off to his rest and reward - the menucha ve-nachala.


Until he left for Charan, who was Ya'akov? A simple man, a tent dweller - quiet, passive and reticent. He was not part of the structure of the Forefathers; he did not share any of their characteristics at all. But when he returns to Eretz Yisrael, his first actions are the two primary activities characterizing the Avot:

i) He purchases a section of Eretz Yisrael (33:19).

ii) He builds an altar and "calls in the name of God" (33:20).

Now Ya'akov seems to have overcome the obstacles in his way - his tread seems certain along the path of the Avot. He is no longer the simple man, the dweller in tents - he has become Ya'akov Avinu, our Patriarch.


What happens in our parasha is thus a real sullying of this pristine state. Ya'akov has reached his destination; he has come home to build a family and a nation in peace and certitude. And instead of the tranquility he seeks, his physical safety is threatened by the nations who surround him. Previously, he had been revered in their eyes as the inheritor of the mantle of God's chosen, the next in the succession of the Forefathers. Now, however, his family has earned the animosity of their neighbors. Had God not intervened directly, Ya'akov would have been physically attacked (see 35:5).


Thus, on the national level, Ya'akov's plans and hopes are dashed - he has become odious in the eyes of those around him.


b) The Moral Sullying


There is a dispute between the Rambam and the Ramban as to whether the actions of Shimon and Levi were at all morally justified.


The Rambam (Hilkhot Melakhim 9:14) is of the opinion that their actions were permissible, due to the fact that the entire society of Shekhem aided and abetted a public rape by their silent consent to the deed. As such, the entire city was morally culpable and was to be held accountable for such societal corruption.


The Ramban (34:13), however, disagrees and claims that there was no moral justification whatsoever for such a collective punishment. If so, then this is the next sullying - that of Ya'akov's moral conscience.


If we assume that Ya'akov objected to the deed on moral grounds, we should ask why he does not express his dissatisfaction in moral terms. In his words to his sons, he relates to the deed on a purely pragmatic level - that the consequences thereof are dangerous - and is silent on the ethical front. Rashi (Devarim 1:3) cites a midrash claiming that Moshe reproved the nation only when he was close to death, since he had learned this from Ya'akov. Only at the very end of his life did Ya'akov criticize Reuven (for the latter's actions with Bilha), and only then did he frame his critique of Shimon and Levi in moral terms. The rationale which the midrash offers for the delay is that Ya'akov was afraid that his children, if reproved, would go and join Esav.


Thus, we see that for his entire life, Ya'akov sat in quiet disapproval of their heinous act, but desisted from actually censuring his sons because of the possible ramifications for the future existence of Am Yisrael. In both cases, Ya'akov restrains himself. Regarding Reuven, we are told merely that Ya'akov "heard" (35:22), but he did not say anything; in our case, Ya'akov expresses his criticism in an oblique manner: "You have sullied/tarnished me..."


c) The Personal Sullying

Here Ya'akov faces a dual problem.


Firstly, his children undermine and challenge his authority. When Chamor comes to seek Dina's hand in marriage for his son Shekhem, he begins by addressing Ya'akov, the head of the household (34:1). By the end of the discussion, however, he is addressing Ya'akov's sons (34:8). Ya'akov's children simply push him out the way. We see here the seeds of the midrash which later describes what transpired when Ya'akov did not want to send his children to buy food from Egypt. The midrash portrays them as saying, "Leave this old man! Later on, when the food is gone, he'll send us all right!" In their eyes, Ya'akov is an ancient relic, an anachronism. Thus, they act without consulting him - because his inactivity must surely be a result of his dotage.


Secondly, they challenge his values. When Ya'akov addresses Shimon and Levi, they respond brazenly: "Shall they treat our sister as a prostitute?" (34:31). In effect, they are saying, "You say that we have muddied clear waters. The opposite is true! The waters were muddied and you would have done nothing about it! We have cleared the waters; we have removed the stain from our family and our morality!" Here, Shimon and Levi condescend towards Ya'akov from a moral point of view. They claim that he is not, in fact, a great moral giant - he is weak and passive. This type of rebuke is untenable for Ya'akov Avinu, and it remains in his heart until the end of his life.


Here we see, on two levels, the perception that Ya'akov has begun to descend from the podium. This perception finds expression many times in the narrative. Firstly, as we already mentioned, when Re'uven lies with his father's concubine (35:22), this indicates that he views himself as already succeeding his father as head of the family. (In ancient times, an expression of succession to the throne was to take the King's wives or concubines - as Avshalom did with David's concubines.) Although Chazal say that Reu'ven didn't really have intercourse with Bilha, but just slept in the same bed, the Beit Halevi interprets this tale literally and gives it the interpretation offered above. Reuven's intention was to weaken Ya'akov's authority. Even if we adopt Chazal's view, the result doesn't vary much.


The second time we see a gross usurpation of Ya'akov's authority is with regard to Yosef. Whereas Ya'akov decided to "keep [quiet] about the thing [i.e. Joseph's dreams]" (37:11), his sons decide to act by killing or selling their brother.


Thus, we see that on three levels, Ya'akov's utopian state was destroyed: nationally, morally and personally. And the message is clear to all - one's external situatimay be rosy, but one's internal quiet is essential to support external tranquility. Ya'akov Avinu rises above all his trials and tribulations in exile, and returns to Canaan a war-worn and war-emboldened person. It is exactly in this state that all crumbles, due to internal problems within his family.


The problems in our parasha have their roots in earlier events. Chazal say that "And Dina went out..." (34:1) parallels the verse, "And Leah [Dina's mother] went out..." [after selling the mandrakes to Rachel in exchange for a night with Ya'akov - 30:15]. They explain that Leah went out to greet Ya'akov that day, adorned and bejewelled as a prostitute; Dina learned from this, and in the end Dina was treated like a prostitute. God forbid that we should think for a moment that Leah, our Matriarch, behaved in any way inappropriate. What Chazal are saying here is that the tiny, almost invisible cracks were already apparent at that early stage - cracks which would later give way to gargantuan tremors which were to rock the stability of the entire family structure.


In the aftermath of this upheaval, though, Ya'akov does not despair. He turns to his family, acknowledges the problems and says, "Come - remove all the strange gods which you have with you, purify yourselves and change your clothing. Let us get up and ascend to Beit El - there I will build an altar to God who answers me in my times of trouble, who has been with me during the whole journey that I have walked" (35:2-3). He calls upon everyone, himself included, to remove these cracks, these faults, and to ascend, to go beyond the personal problems, and to come before God.



(This sicha was originally delivered on Leil Shabbat, Parashat Vayishlach 5757 [1996].)


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