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Weekly Torah Portion: The Trouble with Zealotry

Nov 27, 2015


Jacob is torn between two values – the desire to live in peace and be accepted by the local inhabitants, and the desire to defend the honor of his daughter and of his family.

This week’s portion tells of Jacob’s return to the Land of Canaan, beginning with his encounter with Esau, then with the people of Shechem. The portion ends with the history of Esau and his descendants.

Jacob’s encounter with the Canaanites in Shechem is troubling. On the one hand, Jacob is very careful to enter the area peacefully, and he purchases a piece of land from Hamor, the ruler of the area, and it is on this piece of land that he pitches his tents. Feeling safe in the area, Jacob’s daughter Dina goes visiting with the local girls and is seized by Shechem, Hamor’s son, who rapes her and holds her prisoner. Shechem then begins a process of negotiations with Jacob to marry Dina.

Jacob is strangely quiet throughout the incident:

“Now Jacob heard that he had defiled his daughter Dinah. But his sons were with his livestock in the field, so Jacob held his peace until they came.” (Genesis 34:5)

When Jacob’s sons arrive, however, they take over the conversation, bargaining with Shechem and with Hamor, “deceitfully” (Verse 13). They create a massive subterfuge, convincing Shechem and Hamor that they would, indeed, consider marrying their sons and daughters but only after the Canaanites undergo circumcision. When the Canaanites have agreed and performed the operation, and when they are at their weakest, Simeon and Levi massacre the men of the city and release their sister Dina.

When the entire incident is over, Jacob is angry and says to his sons: “You have brought trouble on me by making me stink to the inhabitants of the land” (Verse 30). Simeon and Levi answer: “Should he treat our sister like a prostitute?” (Verse 31). And here the story ends. Jacob never responds.


I believe that Jacob is torn between two values in this story – the desire to live in peace and be accepted by the local inhabitants, and the desire to defend the honor of his daughter and of his family. He is similarly conflicted in his encounter with Esau. He wants to appease Esau in order to enter the Land of Israel in peace, but he does not follow Esau to Seir, as Esau has requested, in order to preserve his own identity as the heir of Abraham in the Land of Canaan.

Simeon and Levi are zealous indeed, and immediately respond with cunning and with force. Jacob may be fearful of negative repercussions, but there don’t seem to be any. And, at the end of the day, the brothers have ensured that Abraham and Isaac’s ban against intermarriage with Canaanites is preserved.

But Jacob does get the last word. Just before his death, he criticizes Simeon and Levi for their rashness and makes it clear that their way is not his: “Simeon and Levi are brothers; weapons of violence are their swords. Let my soul come not into their council; O my glory, be not joined to their company. For in their anger they killed men” (49:5-6).

Jacob has no argument with the motivation of Dina’s brothers to defend her honor, her identity as a daughter of Israel. For that reason, he does not respond to their query, “Should he treat our sister like a prostitute?” (Verse 31). But Jacob does question their methods. Not through rashness. Not through deceit and murder, if there is another way. The zealous often have justice on their side, but it is their methods, their lack of patience, their lack of caution, that create turmoil and conflict. And, sometimes, it is the silence of the reasonable that allows the zealous to prevail.

— Excerpt taken from Shabbat Shalom by Sondra Oster Baras.

Sondra Oster Baras was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio in an Orthodox Jewish home. Upon completing her B.A. from Barnard, she obtained her J.D. at Columbia University’s School of Law. A longtime resident of Samaria, in 1998 she opened the Israel office of Christian Friends of Israeli Communities.

Related Names and Places: Manslaughter/Murder, Dinah, Jacob, Levi, Shechem, Simeon

Relate Bible Verses: Chapter 34

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