27 Nov 2015

Vayishlah 5776: Beauty and Barricades

Vayishlah 5776: Beauty and Barricades

“Wholeness is not achieved by cutting off a portion of one’s being,
but by integration of the contraries.”
— Carl Jung


There was a great deal of dissonance between Yaakob Abinu and his children. For much of this parasha we find that the four oldest children, the sons of Leah, are thoroughly displeased with their father’s choices[1]. These tensions were not merely about relationships, they had philosophical implications that touched deeply on how Yaakob and his family lived life and engaged with the world.

At the heart of their differences was the question of relating to the outside world: How should the heirs of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac and Rivka live in a world filled with people who know nothing of their G-d, their vision or their philosophy? Were they to keep to themselves and only interact when necessary? Or were they to intentionally integrate with society seeing the world and its inhabitants as creations of the one true G-d? Yaakob had chosen interaction over isolation, while his oldest children chose the opposite. Their difference in philosophy comes to a head in the city of Shekhem.

We are told that Yaakob arrives in the city of שלם/shalem  whole and complete. He has his family with him, has become financially secure and has come through two major rites of passage[2] which strengthened his spirit and character; his name was changed by G-d to Yisrael acknowledging and encouraging his ability to struggle and persevere[3].

Yaakob is now ready to begin engaging with a world from the perspective of his full identity. He has learned fundamental lessons, he knows who he is and the life he wishes to live. Upon arriving to Shekhem he insists on purchasing land rather than being a visitor[4] and he sets up markets in order to engage in commerce with the society[5].

However, his dreams of building relationships with the local people are quickly stunted. His daughter Dina goes out to mingle with the women of the city and is taken by Shekhem, the prince for whom the city is named, who sleeps with her out of wedlock causing a scandal. But this is more than mere lust; the prince falls in love with Dina:

His emotions clung to Dina…he loved the girl and he spoke to the heart of the girl. (34:3)

He asks Yaakob for her hand in marriage at a dowry of any price and expresses the desire to partner with Yaakob and his family.

Hamor spoke with them saying: ‘…make marriage alliances with us: give us your daughters and our daughters take for yourselves, and settle among us. The land shall be before you: settle down, travel about it, obtain holdings in it’. (34:8)

While Yaakob silently entertains this notion, his sons have other ideas. They are terribly upset at what has happened mainly because of the disgrace it brings upon the house of Israel[6]. Yet, rather than simply refuse the offer they propose that the men of the city first undergo circumcision as a sign of covenant. But they only intend to use the circumcision as a way to exact their revenge:

All the males were circumcised…but on the third day it was, when they were still hurting, that two of Yaakob’s sons, Shimon and Levi…came upon the city and killed all the males…(34:24-25)

The differences between Yaakob and his children could not be greater. While no one would disagree that the manner in which Shekhem took Dina was wrong, Yaakob was willing to entertain a partnership seeing that Shekhem had indeed fallen in love with his daughter. The sons, however, saw the idea of integration itself as defilement and disgrace. No one was good enough to enter into covenant with Israel.

Yaakob saw integration as essential because he understood that the entire world was created by one G-d. He knew there was one source for all of creation, but also recognised that the beauty of Creation is not in blended homogeneity but in unified diversity. Yaakob saw opportunities for synthesis: the ability to partner with others while still maintaining a unique and distinct identity. He believed that creation expressed its greatest potentials this way.

For this reason he gave great importance to beauty. Without beauty there is no possibility for interface and nothing attractive about integration. If, however, we do not wish to interact with others we need not think about how we are perceived; Yaakob’s sons did not care for integration and therefore, did not care about how others perceived them. We now can understand Yaakob’s rebuke to his sons and his focus on the ugliness that they created.

You have made me foul, causing me to reek among the people of the land….(34:30)

Some of us recognise the need to interact and engage with the non-Jewish world. But as Yaakob our forefather did, we are best in doing so when we are aware of, and secure in, our own identity. Others among us believe that integration is ultimately detrimental and risks assimilation and therefore disregard beauty, creativity and outside relationships. This approach leaves us on a virtual island increasingly isolated from the world.

It is not easy to reach out into the vast opportunities that the world offers us and not lose ourselves in the process but the alternative is just as dangerous in that it threatens to lock us away from a real and developing reality. Just as our goals must be to care for our perception and interface in the world, we must also care for the enhancing and strengthening of our identity within. In nurturing both we are best suited to give all we can to the world and learn from all that it can teach us.
[1] 34:11; 35:22.

[2] Both in his time at Laban’s house and in his encounter with his older brother and the struggle with the angel.

[3] 32:29; 35:10.

[4] Ramban, 33:18

[5] ויחן את פני העיר – he developed markets for them. (33:18)  See Shabbat, 33b

[6] 34:7