July 14, 2024
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How do we overcome apathy and hostility and instead solidify our commitment to each other?

The city of Shechem symbolizes the complexity of that challenge. That is the place where we saw within the Jewish family both the apex of compassion and the nadir of cruelty. The same Shimon and Levi who destroyed Shechem’s inhabitants as an act of revenge on behalf of their sister, Dina, would later plan in that very same place to kill their own brother Yosef. And again, generations later, the split of the Jewish people into two kingdoms—the ultimate division of the Jewish family—would also occur in Shechem (see Rashi to Bereishit 37:14).

How does that happen? How could Shimon and Levi live such a contradiction? How could a nation split in two?

Sadly, we do this all the time, by defining a brother or sister as an outsider.

As Yosef was approaching Shechem (see Bereishit 37:16-17 and Rashi there), he encountered a man/angel to whom he turned to for direction, “et achai anochi mevakesh,” I am seeking out my brothers.” The guide informed him that they had “moved on” from seeing him as one of them, nasu mi’zeh, “they have traveled from this, meaning, they have removed themselves from feeling brotherhood.” They spoke of him as “that dreamer” rather than as “our brother.” One who casts his brother as a stranger can quickly turn from his guardian to his enemy.

This is what Yaakov made clear to Shimon and Levi when he addressed them in his final words (Bereishit 49”5), saying, “Shimon and Levi are brothers who have weapons as their tools of enmity.” The term the Torah uses is m’cheiroteihem, a term that plays on a classic Hebrew contranym, nachar, a term associated with both recognition and estrangement. As fiercely committed as Shimon and Levi were to their family (Yaakov refers to them as “brothers!”), it was their ability to go cold on their own brother that enabled their actions against him. And it was that same transformation of brother to other that divided the unified Jewish people into two warring kingdoms.

Yaakov granted Yosef the city of Shechem, where he would eventually be buried. Yosef traveled the very opposite road of Shimon and Levi. When the brothers first came to Egypt (Bereishit 42:7), ”vayitnakeir aleihem,” he presented as a stranger, but eventually that stranger emerged as a caring and dedicated brother.

We are all brothers and sisters, each and every member of Klal Yisrael, whatever our observance, belief, or appearance. Kulanu b’nei ish echad nachnu, “we are all the children of one man (Bereishit 42:11).” Yet, far too often we appear to each other—or choose to look at each other—as strangers. We must instead deepen our familiarity and embrace of each other, building our commitment to and compassion for each other, b’ahava v’achva v’shalom v’reiut, with love, brotherhood, peace and friendship.


Rabbi Moshe Hauer is executive vice president of the Orthodox Union (OU), the nation’s largest Orthodox Jewish umbrella organization.

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