Parshah Vayishlach: The Exhilaration of Vengeance


Despite its lack of productive application in our world, the concept of vengeance can seem sweet, satisfying and even righteous. When a wrong of great egregiousness has been perpetrated against the innocent, our initial response may be an anger-fueled compulsion towards retaliation. We may entertain thoughts of inflicting harm or even abject violence. We may even derive a sense of calm and balance from such visions.

When a friend of mine endured harassment that grew increasingly threatening, my first thoughts were of assembling a posse and in the dead of night, slashing the perpetrator’s tires and breaking his windows. The image of my friends and I as an indestructible force motivated by moral outrage still makes me chuckle. And while this scenario would have been relatively easy to realize, I instead accompanied my friend to the police station where she filed a report and initaited a peaceful resolution to the situation. Vegeance may prove momentarily exhilirating, but its long-term consequences can be diastrous.

In this week’s parshah, Simeon and Levi choose a path of violence breathtaking in scope. Their sister, Dinah, has engaged in sexual activity with Shechem, a Hivite Prince. They are not married, nor is Shechem a member of Dinah’s community. It is important to note that some commentators characterize this incident as rape. Some translations use the word “force.” However, the text conveys affection on the part of Shechem and seems to indicate mutual consent. “Being strongly drawn to Dinah daughter of Jacob, and in love with the maiden, he spoke to the maiden tenderly” (Genesis 34:3).

Shechem’s father visits Jacob and requests Dinah be married to his son. Further, he invites the Israelites into his community to live as one people. However, Simeon and Levi remain outraged at what they consider an inexcusable violation. Two interpretations exist – Dinah engaged in pre-marital sex with someone from outside of the community or she was raped. Both of these scenarios would consitute profound violations among the Biblical Israelites.

Simeon and Levi’s response is to slaughter every man in Hamor’s community, plunder the town, and claim the women, children, and resources for the Israelites. Jacob is incensed. “You have brought trouble on me,” he tells his sons, “making me odious among the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites and the Perizzites; my men are few in number, so that if they unite against me and attack me, I and my house will be destroyed” (Genesis 34:30). The vegeance perpetrated by the brothers has threatented the very survival of their own community. They have succeed only in ensuring that every member of their tribe lives in fear of the nations they may encounter, and fomenting a collective reputation as mercilessly violent. They have marked every Israelite as a danger that must be neutralized.

Evaluating all options, considering the consequences, and taking the long view requires patience, intention and suspension of judgment. Had I followed through with my own ideas of vandalism, I may have faced criminal charges. The harassment against my friend may have escalated into violence. Nothing productive or positive would have been accomplished. For Simeon and Levi, Dinah’s situation could have proved a catalyst for opening their hearts and extending support to their sister. They were granted the opportunity to think critically about the social conventions of their own community, their individual commitments to family, and the future of the Israelite people. They opted to reject such an opportunity, choosing monumental bloodshed instead.

This week’s parshah invites us to consider the parallels in our modern world. Mainstream news is rife with physical, verbal, and emotional violence. Vengeance can certainly be found in the actions of individuals, communities and entire nations. Through this lens, Jacob’s response to the violence committed by his sons proves a powerful lesson of timeless reverberation.

Akiva Yael is an enthusiastic participant in all that is holy, including Torah study, powerlifting, and the beauty of our world.

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