Thoughts to Ponder Number 106


In these most trying days for the people of Israel, in which many Palestinians have gone to the streets in Ramalah and other places, to celebrate the killing of Jews including children, babies, soldiers policemen and women in terrorists attacks, it is important for us to remember who we are.

While these people have lost all dignity and lowered themselves to a level of unprecedented cruelty and enjoyment of those acts, the Jewish people should be reminded that they are the children of Avraham, Yitschak and Yaacov, who in their wildest imagination would not even contemplate such acts of hatred, not even out of revenge, whatever the circumstances, let alone bring them to fruition.

This attitude however did not come to us easily. The need for revenge after a great injustice has been carried out is very understandable. In the heat of the moment people easily lose their minds and take to the streets to carry out acts of rampant destruction. They often forget who they are fighting and cause heavy losses to the innocent. While this is understandable, it is wrong.

When Dina, the daughter of Yacov was kidnapped and violated by Schechem, son of Chamor the Chitite, "prince of the land", her brothers were most grieved and "fired deeply with indignation" for he had done "a disgraceful deed to Israel".( Bereshith 34:7) They immediately realized that if Dina had not been a Jewish girl, Schechem would not have dared to perform such an act knowing that no other neighboring nation would let him get away with it. Believing however that Jews are merciful people and little interested in a real fight, he took the chance and violated Dina, thinking that he would be able to use a diplomatic cause to get the Jews not only to accept what happened but even to agree on an official marriage. When Dina's brothers indicated that they would be prepared to go along with such a marriage under the condition that all the men of the city of Chamor would circumcise themselves, his joy was boundless. Immediately he forced his fellowmen to undergo circumcision and promised them that it would be to their financial advantage. Above all it would end the unique identity of the Jews and assimilation would slowly disintegrate them.

He was badly mistaken. In no way were the brothers prepared to make any kind of deal with Schechem. Realizing very well what they were up against and with what kind of mentality they had to deal with, they planned to kill Schechem and his father. With guile they caused him to believe that they would agree to his suggestion to become partners with him and his people and suggested that they should circumcise themselves. Weakened by the aftermath of the circumcision, the brothers would then be able to kill Schechem and his father, who seemed to have helped his son bring this horrible act about. Because all the men were weak, due to their circumcision, there was no danger that the brothers would be attacked while trying to kill Schechem and his father. This was the plan of the brothers. Two of them, Shimon and Levy, however, without the knowledge of their father or brothers, decided on a much larger operation. Not only did they kill Schechem and Chamor, but all the other men as well. Consequently they took the women and children captive and brought Dina home.

Upon arriving home and informing their father Yaacov of what they had done, they anticipated a compliment for their handling of the situation. Yaacov however had a very different response. He accused them of having created a chilul Hashem, the violation of God's name, and told them that he anticipated a war between him and the other tribal groups living in the country.
The brothers responded with shock: "Shall our sister then being treated as a harlot?" To do this Yaacov does not answer and no more word is mentioned about this incident. While this may suggest that Yaacov may after all have agreed with this attack, it becomes abundantly clear that this is far from true. When lying on his deathbed, blessing his children, he does not mince words and tells Shimon and Levi what he really thinks of what they did: "Shimon and Levi are brothers, but are (also) instruments of violence …….for in their wrath they murdered men…. Cursed be their anger…." (49: 5-7) He indicates that Shimon and Levi should be allotted such a position in the nation whereby political and military powers of decision would never lie in their hands (See Rabbi S.R.Hirsch) There was no justification for what they did. No doubt Yaacov fully sanctioned their attack on Schechem himself, but could not see any justification for the murder of all the other men.

This is no doubt something of a surprise. Were all these men not guilty by abstention? After all, they did not protest against the deed of Schechem and seemed to have agreed with his act. Why not killing them as well? Yaacov seems to anticipate the Halacha that as long as people do not oppose an immediate threat, one is not allowed to kill them unless there are clear indications that they are planning to kill you. (One may however put them in jail or take other strong preventive actions)

But a careful look at his last words and reading between the lines also reveals that it is not only strong condemnation of his two sons which Yaacov utters. He also praises them for their strong spirit, their always being conscious of their own worth and their nation's pride and power. This strength needs to enter into every sphere of the whole nation and become the backbone of the ideal Jewish society. Nowhere is there an illusion that Yaacov was a pacifist suggesting an approach of surrender.

" To pacifists the proper course
Of conduct is to sit on force.
For in their dreams,
Force can't resists,
The well intentioned pacifists" **

Yaacov's point is that it is the security of the nation which needs to be at the center of the fight. It is the enemy which needs to get punished not those who are innocent. A forceful attack on the enemy may sometimes involve the innocent and little can be done about it, except trying to prevent it, but neither can it prevent one from attacking the enemy.

There is, however, another most important point which even Shimon and Levy understood. There is no rejoicing in the destruction of the enemy. No dancing in the streets, no celebration or use of fireworks. There is the sober understanding that killing is terrible. Even when it needs to be done out of self defense, or justice, it remains an act which people should hate. Golda Meir once made a most important observation when she said that Jews will perhaps one day forgive their enemies for killing Israeli soldiers but definitely not for having made our soldiers into those who were forced to kill.

When Yaacov, in an earlier moment in his life, was confronted with his brother Esav and his army of 400 men, the Torah informs us that he "feared very much". Rashi comments that he was not only afraid to get killed but also that he may have to kill. What is worse than to having to take the life of another human being even when he is your enemy and even when he deserves to die?

When in the olden days, the Court of Israel was obligated to take the life of an individual according to the law of the Torah, the sages did not thank God for the opportunity of performing a mitzvah and dancing around his tombstone and singing songs of praise. They fasted. And that is the difference between us and those who celebrate in Ramalah. ****

Nathan Lopes Cardozo

* Due to the serious situation in Israel we interrupt our series on "The struggle for faith"

**This essay was inspired by the comments of Rabbi Zef Lev in MD Torah Weekly, Vol,3 No 19

***Clarence Day, "Thoughts on Joys and Triumphs" in "Thoughts without Words", 1928.

**** The only real exception where Jews somehow celebrated their victory over their enemies was at the Red Sea. It is interesting to note that the Jewish tradition was somehow reluctant to sing the song of Moshe at the time. While God permitted the Jews to celebrate, he forbade the angels to join in: "The work of My hand is being drowned in the sea, and you chant songs?" (Meggila 10a) It for this reason that only half the official thanksgiving prayers (Hallel) are sung on Passover night and it is the basis of the custom of spilling some of the wine from the cup during this night. It seems as though at that moment in time Jews were still in need of some kind of celebration, but the angels had not gone through the hell of suffering and were therefore forcefully silenced.

Reproduction of this essay is permitted when printed in full.

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