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Beit Midrash Torah Portion and Tanach Vayeshev

Parashat Vayeshev

The Road Back to Shechem

Rabbi Yossef Carmel23 Kislev5766
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The seeds of the exile in Egypt seem to begin when Yaakov asks Yosef to check on the welfare of his brothers in Shechem. However, whenever Shechem is involved, it pays to look throughout history for further insight.

Targum Yonatan says that Yaakov wanted to check on his sons because Shechem was a dangerous area for them. Shimon and Levi had wiped out the city, which was responsible for their sister’s defilement, and Yaakov feared the neighbors’ revenge (see Bereishit 34). Rav Nachshoni (p. 149) suggests, then, that the seeds of the exile to Egypt began with the killing of the people of Shechem, which caused Yaakov to send Yosef in harm’s way

Based on the background of the connection between the previous events in Shechem and Yosef’s journey, we can point out the following irony. Shimon and Levi, who were Yosef’s main antagonists (see Rashi to Bereishit 49:5), had explained their dangerous and rash behavior at Shechem with the stinging words (34:31): "Will he make our sister as a harlot?" Fraternal loyalty overcame all other factors. Yet, during their visit to the area of Shechem, they decided to commit the great betrayal of their brother. Granted, they had serious concerns about Yosef’s danger to them. But hadn’t they told Yaakov that one takes risks to protect a sibling?

One can explain Yosef’s conversations in this light. Yaakov, in effect, told Yosef: "I know the brothers dislike you, but they are in Shechem, so don’t worry" (see 37:13). In other words, they have proven their loyalty to brotherhood. Yet, the man (or angel- see Rashi to 37:15) who saw Yosef wandering told him that the brothers had left Shechem. In other words, they are no longer showing the brotherhood they demonstrated in Shechem. (See Rashi to ibid.:16, who puts the idea of forsaken brotherhood in the angel’s mouth, without explicitly connecting it to leaving Shechem.)

We can now further appreciate Yaakov’s rebuke of Shimon and Levi before his death. He complained about two things: 1) They killed the people of Shechem; 2) They wanted to kill Yosef (Bereishit 49:6). One can say that the fact that they displayed uncontrolled emotion in both events is the extent of the connection. However, one can suggest that Yaakov was really focusing on their treatment of Yosef, pointing out their hypocrisy by connecting the two events. "You justified your treatment of Shechem with your loyalty to a sibling, so how could you forget that loyalty and plot to uproot Yosef?"

Indeed, the brothers do at the end redeem themselves and "return to Shechem." When Binyamin became caught in Yosef’s web, the brothers were once again ready to put their lives on the line to save a brother. Yet, it was Yosef who showed true brotherhood, not by taking on a whole city, but by restraining the human instinct to take revenge. As Shlomo said: "Better is ... one who controls his emotions than one who conquers a city" (Mishlei 16:32). Indeed, it is Yosef who is buried in Shechem.

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