Sharing Torah Insights

Collective Punishment

Posted on י״ז בכסלו ה׳תש״ע (December 4, 2009) | in VaYishlach | by

Parshat VaYishlach contains the tragic story of how Yaakov’s daughter Dina is kidnapped and raped by Shechem. After committing his heinous act, Shechem asks his father, Chamor, to ask Yaakov for Dina’s hand in marriage. Yaakov’s sons hear what happened and respond to Shechem’s request by saying that they cannot allow their families to intermarry unless Shechem and Chamor and all their citizens are circumcised. Shechem and Chamor convince their people that if they all get circumcised they will do very well financially as they will be able to take over (through marriage) all that Yaakov owns. After the circumcision, as retribution for what happened to Dina, Shimon and Levi kill Shechem, Chamor his father, and all the male inhabitants of the city. The rest of Yaakov’s sons then come and take the women, cattle, and possessions of the city as booty.

Many commentators ask the obvious question, “What did the inhabitants of the city do to deserve to be killed?”

Sforno suggests that they deserved to die since they didn’t circumcise themselves for the right reason. Instead of having righteous motives of self-perfection, they just wanted to get hold of Yaakov’s money.

The Rambam, however, suggests that they were at fault for not creating a court system to prosecute Shechem for his kidnapping of Dina.

The Abarbanel combines these two ideas very nicely. He agrees with the Rambam, that the entire population was at fault for not doing anything to prevent or punish Shechem for what he did to Dina. He notes though, that in general it is not the Jewish way to plunder cities. We see this from the Megillah where it says “ובבזה לא שלהו את ידם” (and they didn’t take any spoils). Why then did the brothers take the spoils here? The Abarbanel answers like the Sforno, that since they had done their circumcision solely to acquire the property of Yaakov, they ended up losing all their property to Yaakov.

The Or haChaim cites another reason (among many) why everyone was killed. He says that initially Shimon and Levi had no desire to kill everyone and only wanted to exact revenge on Shechem and Chamor. But, since they all stood up to defend Shechem and Chamor (their king), Shimon and Levi had no choice but to fight everyone in order to exact true justice.

What is amazing to me about this story though, is that ALL of the inhabitants were killed? Was there not one person who did the circumcision for the right reason? Did no one even try to speak out about the wrong-doing of Shechem? How could it be that every single male in the city felt the need to take arms to defend Shechem from Shimon and Levi after what they had done to Dina?

We see here how powerful communal pressure can be.  There is a famous idea in Chazal “אוי לרשע ואוי לשכנו” (Woe to the evildoer and woe to his neighbor). In general, this idea is taken to mean that sometimes people can be punished solely for associating themselves with an evil person, even without doing anything specifically bad themselves, due to the unavoidable negative influences of peer pressure. From this story though, I think you see a different explanation. Each individual person has the ability to choose between right and wrong and can always make a stand for that which is true and good. Doing so can make a person stand out and be saved, even from a collective punishment. That is why I think Chazal went out of their way to come up with explanations for why the entire population had to be killed.

This ability to buck the tide is one of the characteristics that made Yaakov Avinu the impressive person that he was. As Yaakov said to Esav at the beginning of the Parsha “עִם לָבָן גַּרְתִּי” (I have lived with Lavan) to which Rashi famously cites “עם לבן הרשע גרתי ותרי”ג מצות שמרתי ולא למדתי ממעשיו הרעים” (I lived with the wicked Laban, but I kept the 613 commandments, and I did not learn from his evil deeds.)

May we all find the courage to stand up for what is right and good.

Have a spiritual Shabbat!

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