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A Taste of Torah: Weekly Commentary from the JTS Community

Parashat Va-yeishev 5766
Genesis 37:1–40:23
December 24, 2005    23 Kislev 5766

This week's commentary was written by Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz, Senior Rabbinic Fellow, JTS

Duplicitous behavior is one of the hallmarks of the Genesis narratives. Jacob seizes the birthright and blessing from Esau, Lavan deceives his nephew Jacob repeatedly during the latter's sojourn, and Jacob's sons deceive the Hivites as they exact revenge for the rape of their sister Dinah. Of all of these deceitful episodes, none warrants stronger biblical condemnation than the acts of Jacob's sons in defending their people and honor. Simeon and Levi are explicitly condemned by their father Jacob — both in the immediate aftermath of the episode and then once again as their father lay on his deathbed. How are we to understand biblical duplicity? And do these brothers eventually learn a difficult lesson of harmonizing thought and deed? Parashat Va–yeishev provides interesting answers to these difficult queries. We will review the episode of Dinah, turn our attention to the brothers' behavior in Va–yeishev, and then conclude with lessons learned.

In Genesis 34, subsequent to the rape of their sister Dinah, Jacob's sons are approached by Hamor, the chieftain of the Hivites. Hamor speaks to the sons on behalf of his own son, Shechem, who desires Dinah's hand in marriage. In response to Hamor's request, the Torah relates: "Jacob's sons answered Shechem and his father Hamor, speaking with guile because he had defiled his sister Dinah, and said to them, 'We cannot do this thing, to give our sister to a man who is uncircumcised, for that is a disgrace among us. Only on this condition will we agree with you; that you will become like us in that every male among you is circumcised'" (Genesis 34:13–15). Hamor and Shechem accede, their men are circumcised, and Simeon and Levi go on a rampage exacting retribution for the rape of Dinah. Jacob's sons act deceitfully — uttering one message of coexistence with their mouths, but intending something radically vengeful in deed.

Parashat Va–yeishev gives us a subtle but dramatically different portrait of Jacob's sons. Witnessing the favoritism Jacob displays to his young son Joseph, the sons become envious, harboring unbounded hatred against their sibling. Genesis 37:4 relates, "And when the brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of his brothers, they hated him so that they could not speak a friendly word to him." Rashi's commentary on this verse is insightful: "From what is stated to their discredit we may infer something to their credit: they did not speak one thing with their mouths having another thing quite different in their hearts." Rashi praises the brothers for not acting unnaturally in the face of hurtful envy. Anger welled in their hearts; rather than engage in small, empty talk with Joseph, they simply could not speak 'peaceably' to him. Heart and mind were one — albeit for the sake of punishing an immature brother who sought to raise himself unfairly above his siblings.

While one certainly takes issue with the ramifications of hatred, harmony between one's thoughts and deeds crafts a mature human being. Whether the feeling be one of hatred or love, one's deeds must reflect one's heart. Disguising one's feelings only serves to deepen wounds and exacerbate tension. Confronting issues, honestly and openly, allows one to be consistent, bringing the redemption of this world that much closer.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz

The publication and distribution of the Taste of Torah commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.