Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 14 December 2019 / 16 Kislev 5780

Parshat Vayishlach

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
Library Library Library Kaddish

Esav’s Sword in Yaakov’s Hand

After twenty years in Lavan’s home, with his family completely grown, Yaakov sets off to resettle in the Land of his fathers. He prepares for a face-off with his brother Esav, who has been plotting to kill him for some 35 years.

Yaakov has spent the last twenty years raising his children; he represents family life, serving others, and seeing to their welfare and happiness — the voice of Yaakov. Esav has spent this time becoming a political force, the leader of an army, a chief of his tribe; he represents political power and military might — the sword of Esav.

Yet in the fateful encounter, we see in Esav a flash of the gentle voice of Yaakov — an awakening of human emotion and brotherhood in Esav’s heart. And in the next episode we see briefly the sword of Esav in the hands of Yaakov’s sons.

Shimon and Levi, avenging the kidnapping and violation of their sister Dina, plot to kill Shechem and Chamor, the perpetrators. Had they stopped there, the brothers certainly would have been in the right. But they did more: they deceived the entire city, attacking and killing unarmed men, made vulnerable by their own plot. They made all the inhabitants pay for crimes of their leaders. Yaakov immediately berates them for the shame they brought on the family, for wreaking havoc and making Yaakov’s family odious in the eyes of the local inhabitants.

What is striking about the scene is that it seems as though Shimon and Levi have the final word. In response to Yaakov’s chiding, they say shall we allow them to treat our sister like a harlot? Here, their motive is revealed: their outrage at Shechem and Chamor for violating a vulnerable friendless foreign maiden — and not just any maiden, their sister — make Shimon and Levi realize that there are times when even the family of Yaakov must take up the sword in defense of purity and honor. As long as

men on earth will respect the rights of only those who have power, Yaakov will have to know how to wield the sword. They did not want to act prudently; they wanted to teach the world a lesson — Yaakov’s daughters will not be left vulnerable.

But they don’t really have the last word. Killing innocents is going too far, and Yaakov rebukes them again, decades later, on his deathbed. The ‘blessing’ on his deathbed is an interesting one: a simultaneous curse of their excessive violence and a blessing of their motivating force of brotherhood. Shimon and Levi are brothers; however, instruments of violence are their means of acquisition… my honor must not join their assembly, for in their anger they murdered men… cursed be their anger for it is fierce, and their fury for it is cruel. I will divide them in Yaakov and scatter them in Israel. (Ber. 49:7)

Shimon and Levi’s purpose was noble and holy. Courage and brotherhood were indispensable for Yaakov’s family to mature into a nation. And they have remained indispensable during our long and tortured history. If not for this display, we may have thought that Jewish pliancy and aversion to bloodshed is born of a cowardly spirit. But Shimon and Levi show that the essence of Jewish brotherhood is rooted in courage — we too can lift up the sword of Esav when the situation demands. Our gentleness and humanness is not to be confused with spinelessness.

Ultimately, Shimon and Levi are dispersed among Israel. This simultaneously achieved the preservation of their noble fighting spirit and a muting of their excessive force and impetuousness. The people of Israel would need these spiritual reserves — in tempered form — to survive its march through history.

  • Source: Commentary, Genesis 38:25-31, 49:7

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