Beit Midrash

  • Torah Portion and Tanach
  • Vayishlach
To dedicate this lesson

Guarding the Honor of Israel

Some people ask if it is permitted to endanger oneself for the sake of the honor of the People of Israel. It seems from this week's Torah portion that the answer is yes.


Rabbi Zalman Baruch Melamed

Kislev 15 5783
Translated by Hillel Fendel

Some people ask if it is permitted to endanger oneself for the sake of the honor of the People of Israel. It seems from this week's Torah portion that the answer is yes.

The Torah recounts that a wicked man named Shechem ben Hamor took and defiled Yaakov Avinu's daughter Dina, causing irreparable harm to her and her family. The response of Dina's brothers Shimon and Levy was seemingly disproportionate: They killed Shechem and his townspeople. [The topic of this column is not the morality of this response, though we will relate to it incidentally as well. Rather,] we can conclude from this that it was permitted – and perhaps obligatory – for them to endanger themselves and their family over a matter of honor. Let us explain.

Yaakov's response to Shimon and Levy was not an approving one: "You have brought trouble upon me, bringing hatred/a bad reputation upon me in the eyes of the Canaanite and Prizite inhabitants here; I am few in number and they can gather against me and destroy my entire family" (B'reshit 34,30).

The brothers' defense was simply this: "Should he have been allowed to treat our sister as a prostitute?" That is, "Can we possibly agree to the defilement of the honor of a daughter of Israel, even if it brings danger upon us?"

It is interesting, and worthwhile, to see the Holy Ohr HaChaim's explanation to this story. He asks: How does the response of Shimon and Levy address Yaakov's concern?

The Or HaChaim explains that they meant the following: "If we had fallen upon and attacked the town with no pretext, you would be right, our actions would have been quite dangerous for our family, for the peoples would unite against us in war. But we definitely had a reason for what we did, and they see that we were justified; on the contrary, had we not responded as we did to this terrible provocation by Shechem, they would have all thought that we are weak and vulnerable – and that itself would have caused them to attack us. What we did was precisely the safest thing for us to do, so that they will fear us and leave us in peace!"

In this connection, I would like to recount what happened after the Yom Kippur War, when I brought the IDF Commander of the division in which I served to visit my rabbi, Rav Tzvi Yehuda HaCohen Kook of saintly blessed memory. This officer was the highest-ranking officer to be captured by the Egyptians during the war. He asked Rav Tzvi Yehuda, "Is the national honor of Israel something that an officer must fight to the end for, and not allow himself to be taken prisoner? Or, if he sees that there is no chance, may he, or must he, not allow himself to be killed for no purpose?" Rav Tzvi Yehuda answered simply: "Nu, King Sha'ul."

He was referring to the first King of Israel who did not want to be taken captive, and asked his aides to kill him so that he would not fall into enemy captivity.

Later, the Rav related that during murderous Arab pogroms in various places in the Land of Israel during the period of the British Mandate, the British army did not protect the Jews. Some people came to Rav Kook - Rav Tzvi Yehuda's father and Chief Rabbi of the Land at the time - and asked him to go to the British High Commissioner and ask/demand that the British act resolutely to prevent the riots. Rav Kook sent his son Rav Tzvi Yehuda and another man to update the National Council, which was akin to the Jewish government in the Land at the time.

But when Mr. Usishkin – head of the Jewish National Fund – heard this, he firmly stood and demanded that Rav Kook not go to "beg" the High Commissioner for anything. "This is not in keeping with the Rav's honor, nor with the Jewish People's honor," he said. "Even if danger is involved, we cannot debase Israel's honor."

The way Rav Tzvi Yehuda told this, it was understood that he identified with what Usishkin said. The honor of Israel is not a private matter, and no individual, nor even a sector, is permitted to forego it.

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