Parashat Vayeshev: Returning to Shechem

Whoever controls Shechem controls a strategic mountain pass.

Daniel Pinner

Judaism Daniel Pinner
Daniel Pinner

Parashat Vayeshev opens with Jacob and his family settling down in their homeland, hoping no doubt for a peaceful life. “Jacob dwelt in the Land of his fathers’ sojournings, in the Land of Canaan” (Genesis 37:1), which Targum Yonatan renders into Aramaic. “Jacob dwelt in tranquillity in the Land of his fathers’ sojournings, in the Land of Canaan”.

The Rashbam (Rabbi Shmu’el ben Meir, c1080-c.1160), a grandson and close student of Rashi, comments: “‘Jacob dwelt’ – Esau had gone to another country because of Jacob his brother , but Jacob dwelt close to his father in the Land of his sojournings, because ‘his was the right of the first-born’ ”.

Jacob and his family had moved southwards to Hevron, where they had rejoined Jacob’s father (Genesis 35:27) – hence the phrase the “Land of his fathers’ sojournings, in the Land of Canaan”. This appears redundant: if the Torah has already told us that Jacob and his family were living tranquilly in “the Land of his fathers’ sojournings,” then why does it have to tell us that he was “in the Land of Canaan”? Do we not already know that “the Land of his fathers’ sojournings” is the Land of Canaan?

– Maybe this seeming redundancy is to tell us that Jacob and his family were dwelling in Hevron, not just in the same country but in the same vicinity of the same town.

But, as the Torah continues, “[Joseph’s] brothers went – to pasture their father’s flock in Shechem” (Genesis 37:12), which was why “[Jacob] sent [Joseph] from the valley of Hevron and he came to Shechem” (v. 14).

Now this seems puzzling. Shechem and Hevron are two far-distant cities, some 80 km (50 miles) apart as the crow flies. Today, with modern roads which cut through the mountains, Shechem to Hevron is but a two-hour fast drive; in those days, on the roads winding through the mountains and following the natural contours of the land, travelling at walking-speed or, at best, the pace of a horse, Shechem was several days’ journey from Hevron.

Why, then, did the brothers choose to pasture their fathers’ flock so far from home?

The Midrash notes that in the verse “[Joseph’s] brothers went – to pasture their father’s flock in Shechem”, the word את (the preposition which denotes that the following noun is in the accusative case) is traditionally written with a dot above both of the letters: אׄתׄ. Thus it appears in every Torah-scroll and every printed Chumash.

Typically, dots above letters in the Tanach indicate exclusion or limitation, and the Midrash therefore expounds: “There are dots above the word את because they went only to pasture themselves” (Bereishit Rabbah 84:13; Sifrei Bamidbar, Beha’alotcha 69).

As the Radak (Rabbi David Kimchi, France, c.1160-c.1235) explains, “they distanced themselves from their father for their own benefit, so they could eat and drink and do whatever they wanted in Shechem” (Commentary to Genesis 37:12).

Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch (Germany, 1808-1888) suggests that the cantillation marks support this explanation. “His brothers went”, and the cantillation mark under the word “his brothers” is an etnachta, indicating a significant break or pause in the syntax (which we have tried to reproduce in English with the dash). Hence “his brothers went”, just “they went away” from Jacob and Joseph; only as plausible reason they pastured the flocks so far away.

Rabbi Hirsch introduces his commentary to this section by explaining his general direction: “Following the precedent of the S’forno...we consider it our obligation to seek at least an explanation, if not a justification, for the event that now follows. After all, we are not dealing with a gang or robbers and murderers, who would lightly commit murder for the sake of a coat” (Commentary to Genesis 37:11-12).

Accordingly, though the brothers may have had base motives in distancing themselves from their father and brother, the fact that they nevertheless decided to relocate with the flocks to Shechem indicates that they harnessed these base motives for a positive purpose.

The previous time they were in Shechem was in last week’s parashah, Vayishlach. When the family was living there, Shechem, the prince of the city, kidnapped their sister Dinah, raped her, and held her captive, demanding to marry her. In response, the brothers devised a stratagem to rescue her from the clutches of this prince, and Shimon and Levi went further than the other brothers had envisaged when they slaughtered all the adult males in Shechem (Genesis 34).

Their father Jacob reprimanded them: “You have troubled me by making me odious among the inhabitants of the Land – the Canaanites and the Perizzites – and I am few in number; and if they gather against me and attack me, then I will be annihilated – I and my household” (v. 30).

Notice that Jacob did not accuse them of doing anything morally wrong: he did not argue that “you have violated the civil rights of the Hivvites”, or that “you have committed a war-crime”. His sole argument was that attacking Shechem and killing all the men therein was tactically ill-advised.

Shimon and Levi simply responded, “Will he make our sister as a harlot?!” (v. 31). This is a strange reply: it does not seem to answer their father’s concern.

But actually, following the explanations of the Targum Yonatan, Radak, Abarbanel, Rabbi Hirsch, the Ohr ha-Chaim, Malbim, and others, they responded very precisely to their father’s worry.

“I am few in number; and if they gather against me and attack me, then I will be annihilated – I and my household”, said Jacob, to which Shimon and Levi responded: If we passively accept this outrage on our sister, then we invite more and more attacks. If the Canaanites see that they can kidnap and rape our sister with impunity, then none of us will ever be safe. Precisely because we are few in number and the Canaanites are numerous and powerful, the only way we can be safe from further attacks is by showing how massively disproportionately we will respond to any attack on any one of us.

Immediately afterwards, “G-d said to Jacob: Arise, go up to Beit El and dwell there, and make there an altar to the G-d Who appeared to you when you were fleeing from Esau your brother” (35:1). So the entire family travelled southwards to Beit El and settled there temporarily, then continued further southwards to Efrat and Bethlehem (35:16) then further south still to Migdal Eder (v. 21), before eventually settling in Hevron (v. 27).

I suggest that the brothers reasoned: We massacred the entire adult male population of Shechem, teaching them and all the Canaanites what is liable to happen to anyone who dares raise his hand against any of the Children of Israel.

But immediately afterwards they left Shechem. True, it was because G-d had instructed them to – but only they knew this. To the inhabitants around them, it might well have seemed as though they were running away. For sure, when they travelled from Shechem to Beit El “the terror of G-d was on the cities around them, so they did not pursue Jacob’s sons” (v. 5) – but nevertheless, once the Hebrew family had left and the impression of the massacre in Shechem had faded, the Canaanites in the area may well have started to reconsider.

And the brothers realised that the only way to refute this terribly mistaken impression was to return to Shechem with their flocks. Yes, their motive was to get away from their father and brother, but they directed this base motive into the best possible direction.

Shechem has immense strategic value. It sits in the mountain pass through which Israel’s main north-south highway passes, astride the mountain-range that runs from the Galilee in the north to Beer Sheva and the Negev Desert in the south. Thus whoever controls Shechem can easily block any invading army from traversing the country on the main north-south axis.

Also, from Shechem descend the mountain passes eastwards to the Jordan Valley and westwards to the coastal plain.

Thus Shechem controls maybe the single most crucial junction in the entire Land of Israel. The brothers knew this perfectly well, so they understood that in order to retain control over the Land of Israel, they had to retain control over the city of Shechem.

Ever since the yearly cycle of Torah readings was standardised towards the end of the Second Temple era, and the fixed calendar as calculated by Hillel II (Hillel ben Yehudah, Nasi or head of the Sanhedrin) was adopted in 4119 (359 C.E.), Parashat Vayeshev is invariably read either on the Shabbat immediately preceding Hanukkah (as it is this year), or on the Shabbat during Hanukkah (on average about one-third of years).

And so it is appropriate in this context to note the conquest of Shechem by Maccabean forces early in their war of independence.

The Maccabean revolt began in the winter of 167 B.C.E. in Modi’in. A Seleucid military unit had set up a pagan altar in this village in the foot-hills of Judea, 27 km (17 miles) north-west of Jerusalem (today just several hundred metres north-east of the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway, 15 minutes by train from Ben Gurion Airport), and the unit’s commander, Apelles, ordered Matityahu (Mattathias), the priest of the village, to sacrifice a pig upon it.

Matityahu’s response was a paragon of Jewish pride: “Even if all the nations who are in the abode of the king’s dominion obey him and each one abandons the religion of his fathers, still I and my sons and my brothers will yet walk in the Covenant of our fathers. Heaven forbid that we ever forsake the Torah and mitzvot! We will not obey the king’s words, to stray from our worship to the right or to the left” (1 Maccabees 2:18).

Hearing Matityahu’s refusal, another Jew (whose name has been forever lost to history) stepped forward to sacrifice the pig on the pagan altar.

How this Jewish renegade must have looked forward to the rewards and the recognition that this mightiest of empires would bestow upon him! But before he could commit this heinous treason, Matityahu snatched a sword from a Greek soldier and killed the Jewish traitor, then turned his sword on Apelles, killing him too. Matityahu and his sons then attacked the entire Greek garrison, killing all the soldiers and, before other units of the Seleucid army could take reprisals, fled into the surrounding Judean hills.

Thus began the revolt of the Maccabees against Greek oppression – a war that would change Jewish and world history.

For the first year and a half, the Maccabean forces did no more than brief thrust-and-parry assaults on Seleucid forces, withdrawing into the countryside after each attack.

During that initial year and a half, the Maccabean forces, under the command of Matityahu’s son Yehudah (Judah), achieved some local tactical victories, mainly in the regions around Jerusalem. And then, with their increased confidence and experience, they initiated their first direct confrontation with Seleucid forces.

Apollonius, the governor and commander of Antiochus’s forces in Samaria, commanding a highly professional and well-trained army, began advancing southwards towards Jerusalem. And Yehudah decided to confront him and his forces in Wadi Haramiya, some 40 km (25 miles) north of Jerusalem.

Wadi Haramiya INN:DP

Wadi Haramiya in Samaria, some 16 km (10 miles) south of Shechem, where the Maccabees defeated the Greek forces in their first pitched battle. To the right (east) is Shiloh, the site of the ancient Mishkan (Tabernacle). View facing northwards towards Shechem.Photograph taken by Daniel Pinner in 5772 (2012).

The Seleucid forced forces – some 2,000 men in two separate columns, with Apollonius on his horse between them – marched into the defile in the late afternoon.

The first of Yehudah’s four units sealed the southern end of the defile and attacked the leading Seleucid column. The rest of the force, unaware of the attack, continued to advance, effectively jamming themselves into the long, narrow valley.

Two more Maccabean units then attacked them from the hills on both sides of the valley, killing Apollonius and many of his soldiers, leaving them without their commander and severely weakened. Finally, Yehudah led the assault from the northern end, cutting off the Seleucids’ sole remaining avenue of retreat.

The result was a resounding Maccabean victory, which demoralised the Seleucids and galvanised the Jews throughout Israel.

From there, it was but a few short, sharp and swift battles, thrusting northwards, until Maccabean forces conquered Shechem.

And from then onwards, Maccabean forces won victory after victory. Once they had conquered Shechem, the rest of the north of Israel fell into their hands like ripe fruit.

As when Joseph’s brothers understood that only by maintaining their control over Shechem could they live securely throughout the country, so too Yehudah the Maccabee, some one and a half millennia later, employed the same strategy with resounding success.

And more than 21 centuries later, in the Six Day War, we would witness this yet again: IDF forces conquered Shechem in the late morning of the third day of the war, and the final retreat order for Jordanian forces followed just one hour later.