Parashat Vayeishev 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 father’s sojournings, in the Land of Canaan” (Genesis 37:1), which Targum Yonatan renders into Aramaic, “Jacob dwelt in tranquillity in the Land of his father’s sojournings, in the Land of Canaan”.
The Rashbam, 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 Hebron, where they had re-joined Jacob’s father (Genesis 35:27) – hence the phrase the “Land of his father’s 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 father’s 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 father’s sojournings” is the Land of Canaan?
Maybe this seeming redundancy is to tell us that Jacob and his family were dwelling in Hebron, not just in the same country but in the same vicinity of the same town.
But the Torah continues by telling us that 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 Hebron and he came to Shechem” (v. 14).
Now this seems puzzling. Shechem and Hebron are two far-distant cities, some 80 km (50 miles) apart as the crow flies. Today, with modern roads cutting through the mountains, Shechem to Hebron is 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 Hebron.
Why, then, did the brothers choose to pasture their father’s flock so far from home?
The Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 84:13 and Sifrei Bamidbar, Beha’alot’cha 69) notes that in the verse “[Joseph’s] brothers went – to pasture their father’s flock in Shechem”, the word אֶת (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 almost 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 אֶׄתׄ because they went only to pasture themselves”.
As the Radak (commentary to Genesis 37:12) explains, “they distanced themselves from their father for their own benefit, so they could eat and drink and do whatever they wanted in Shechem”.
Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch suggests that the cantillation marks support this explanation. “His brothers went”, and the cantillation mark under the word אֶחָ֑יו (his brothers) is an אֶתְנַחְתָּ֑א, 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: they chose such a distant location as an excuse to get away from their father and his influence.
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, the fact that they nevertheless decided to relocate with the flocks to Shechem indicates that they at least 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, held her captive, and demanded to marry her. In response, the brothers rescued her from the clutches of this prince, and Shimon and Levi went further than the other brothers had envisaged by slaughtering 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 responded simply: “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, 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 (synthesizing the Targum Yonatan, and the commentaries of Radak, Abarbanel, Rabbi Hirsch, the Ohr ha-Chaim, and the Malbim).
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 Hebron (v. 27).
I suggest that the brothers reasoned: We just now 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 we left Shechem. True, it was because G-d had instructed us to – but only we knew this. To the inhabitants around us, it might well have seemed as though we were running away. 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, 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 the single most crucial junction in the north of the 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 Vayeishev is invariably read either on the Shabbat immediately preceding Hannukah (as it is this year), or on the Shabbat duriing Hannukah (on average about one-fourth 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 renegade Jew 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, 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, 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, took a force from Syria and marched them southwards towards Jerusalem to reinforce the Seleucid garrison there. And Yehudah the Maccabee confronted him and his forces in Wadi Haramiya, some 26 km (16 miles) almost due north of Jerusalem as the crow flies (far further by road, winding through the Samarian mountains).
Wadi Haramiya in Samaria, where the Maccabees defeated the Greek forces in their first pitched battle, some 24 km (15 miles) due south of Shechem,. To the right of the road, 6 km (3¾ miles) north-east is Shiloh, the site of the ancient Mishkan. View facing northwards towards Shechem. Photograph taken by Daniel Pinner in 5772 (2012).
The Seleucid forces – some 2,000 men with Apollonius on his horse in the middle – marched into the defile in the late afternoon.
The first of Yehudah’s four units sealed the southern end of the defile. As the front ranks of the Seleucid forces came round the corner, the Maccabean unit attacked them. The rest of the Seleucid force, out of sight round the mountainside and unaware of the attack, continued to advance, effectively jamming their own comrades into the long, narrow valley.
Two more Maccabean units then attacked the ambushed Seleucid forces 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.
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 Arab forces (Jordanian, Iraqi, and Saudi) followed just one hour later.
As with the Patriarchs who recognised the crucial importance of Shechem and were therefore determined to keep their hold on the city; and as with the Maccabees, who conquered Shechem; and as in the Six Day War, when conquering Shechem from the Jordanian occupiers was pivotal to winning the entire war – Shechem always has been, and still remains, essential to the Land of Israel.
There is indeed a reason a reason that the city is called שֶׁכֶם, Shechem. The Hebrew word שֶׁכֶם means “shoulder”: the strongest part of the body, the muscles which support the head. This is precisely the identity of the city of שֶׁכֶם, from the day that our father Abraham chose Shechem as his first place of residence when he first entered the Land of Israel (Genesis 12:6) and until our day today: שֶׁכֶם is the “shoulder” which supports the entire Land.