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Parashat Vayishlah: The Deeper Significance of the Story of Shechem

We read in Parashat Vayishlah of Shechem, the prince of the city with that same name, who kidnapped and then defiled Dina, the daughter of Yaakob Abinu. Shechem very much wanted to marry Dina, and so his father, Hamor, went to speak to Yaakob and his family. Yaakob’s sons deceived Shechem and Hamor into having all the males in their city perform Berit Mila, and as the townspeople were reeling from the painful procedure, Shimon and Levi attacked the city, killing the inhabitants and rescuing Dina.

The Midrash teaches that the various troubles which Yaakob endured over the course of his life parallel, and foreshadow, the different periods of exile which his descendants would experience. Specifically, his struggle against Esav alludes to the first exile, brought about by Babylonia; his exile in Laban’s home parallels the years when the Jews lived under Persian rule; the tragedy of Dina represents the crisis faced by the Jews in the times of the Greek persecution; and the story of Yosef, which resulted in the family’s exile to Egypt, foreshadows the exile which we still experience to this day. What is significant for our purposes is the parallel drawn between the story of Dina and the period of Greek persecution, which ended, of course, with the miraculous victory of the Hashmonaim over the Greeks, which we celebrate on Hanukah.

Indeed, many similarities exist between the story of Dina and the story of Hanukah. Dina’s abduction took place in Eretz Yisrael, just as the Jews suffered under Greek rule in Eretz Yisrael. The Greeks did not seek to kill the Jewish People, but merely wanted the Jews to embrace their beliefs and culture, and to assimilate – just as Hamor, Shechem’s father, invited Yaakob and his sons to join their city by intermarrying. Shimon and Levi, just two men, conquered an entire city – just as the small, untrained army of Hashmonaim succeeded in overthrowing the mighty Greek army. After the story of Dina, the Torah tells, Yaakob journeyed to Bet-El where he built a Mizbe’ah and poured oil over it (35:12) – foreshadowing the "Hanukat Ha’mizbe’ach," the rededication of the altar and the miracle of the oil that followed the triumph over the Greeks. Finally, the Midrash relates that Matityahu, the Kohen Gadol and father of the five leaders of the Hashmonaim, had a daughter, Hanna, who urged her brothers to take action against the Greeks. The Greeks enacted a cruel decree requiring every Jewish bride to spend a night with the Greek governor before her wedding, and Hanna said to her brothers, "If Shimon and Levi, who were just two men, could defend Dina’s honor by attacking the city, then you, who are five men, are certainly capable of defending the honor of Jewish women!" This story thus serves as a template, so-to-speak, for the story of Hanukah, which we will soon be celebrating.

But there is even deeper significance to this story, as revealed to us by Rav Shimshon of Ostropoli (d. 1648), who taught that the great sage Rabbi Akiba possessed a spark of Shechem. As evil as Shechem was, he had within him a sacred spark, and this spark was ignited many centuries later in the sacred soul of Rabbi Akiba. This is why the Torah describes Shechem’s feelings for Dina with the expression, "Va’tidbak Nafsho Be’Dina" – literally, "His soul was attached to Dina." Shechem’s attraction to Dina was not rooted solely in lust. The sacred spark deep within his soul was awakened by Dina’s pious character, and this was part of the reason why he was drawn to her.

On this basis, Rav Shimshon of Ostropoli explained Rabbi Akiba’s remark cited by the Gemara in Masechet Pesahim (49b) that when he was still an ignoramus, before he began learning Torah, he resented Torah scholars, and had he been able to, he would have "bitten one like a donkey." Rabbi Shimshon suggested that this does not refer to the earlier stages of Rabbi Akiba’s life, before he studied Torah, but rather to his former incarnation, when his soul was in the body of Shechem. One of the forces of impurity in the world is called "Hamor" ("donkey"), and this evil spirit was within Shechem, whose father, indeed, was named Hamor. And thus Rabbi Akiba was describing how he had previously been in this world as an agent of the evil force of "Hamor," and he despised righteous Sadikim.

Rabbi Shimshon further noted that the Torah speaks of Shechem’s feelings for Dina with three verbs: D.B.K. ("Va’tidbak Nafsho"), A.H.B. ("Va’ye’ehab Et Ha’na’ara"), and "H.SH.K." ("Hasheka Nafsho Be’bitechem"). The first letters of these three verbs spell the word "Ehad" ("one"). For this reason, Rabbi Shimshon explains, Rabbi Akiba’s soul departed this world as he was being tortured by the Romans and exclaimed, "Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokenu Hashem Ehad." The Gemara teaches that Rabbi Akiba’s soul left him as he recited the word "Ehad" – because at that point, he had completed his mission of rectifying the soul of Shechem, whose evil was manifest in his treatment of Dina, alluded to by the word "Ehad."

The story of Dina, then, not only foreshadows the story of Hanukah, but also shows us the roots of Rabbi Akiba, the great sage who is responsible for the perpetuation of the Torah She’be’al Peh (oral tradition) which we study to this very day. His special soul has its origins, remarkably enough, within the evil figure of Shechem, and through his unique piety and devotion to Torah and to Am Yisrael Rabbi Akiba succeeded in eliminating the impurity, and ultimately returned his soul to his Maker in a state of pristine purity and sanctity.

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