Being a Light Unto the Nations

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By Rabbi Daniel Levitt

Parshat Vayishlach

At the end of this week’s parsha, there is a rather disturbing episode. Jacob’s daughter Dina gets kidnapped and raped by a local Canaanite prince. After the incident, the rapist’s father attempts to betroth Dina to his son.

Initially, Jacob’s family agrees to the marriage under the condition that the entire city converts to the Jewish religion and all the men get circumcised. After agreeing to the demands, Jacob’s sons, Shimon and Levi, sneak into the city and kill them all in retaliation for what had happened to their sister.

Even though Shimon and Levi believed that they were justified for what they did, Jacob scolds them harshly. He fears for the way in which his family will be perceived by the rest of their neighbors.

There is a midrash that adds depth to the nature of Jacob’s disapproval of their terrible act. Rather than seeing Jacob’s objection based solely on self-preservation, this midrash shifts the focus on how the immoral action of Shimon and Levi will undermine the mission of the Jewish people. The midrash (Bereishit Rabbah Vayechi 98:5) portrays Jacob as chastising his sons for breaking the wall of conversion, one of the essential walls, assumed by the midrash, that holds up the house of Israel.

Judaism is not a proselytizing religion; there is a mitzvah to convert someone who sincerely wants to cast his or her lot with the Jewish people, but the focus of this midrash seems to put a weight on conversion that we don’t traditionally find. So what can we learn from this?
The mission of the Jewish people is to be light to the nations of the world. This can be done by positively influencing others to be better people and make the world a better place. For the rest of the world to be willing to be influenced by the Jewish people, it is necessary that we also find ways to trust and be influenced by them.

Throughout the midrashic commentaries on the stories of the patriarchs, we see a description of our forefathers influencing, teaching and converting the world to their moral perspective, belief in one God and the ethics which are influenced by such a belief.
Jacob feared that by deceiving the Canaanites by allowing them to convert, and subsequently killing them, Shimon and Levi had undermined the potential to fulfill their mission in the world because it undermined the trust necessary to positively influence others.

Jacob’s perspective is that their crime has far more negative implications than the act itself, heinous as it may have been; what they did was also a chillul hashem (a terrible sin where a person causes others to lose respect for God, Judaism and the Jewish people).
Sometimes our zealousness for our own perspectives and beliefs causes us to ignore the impact our actions are having on others. Our values and beliefs need to be seen through the lens of the overarching values of being a light unto the nations.

Rabbi Daniel Levitt is the executive director of Hillel at Temple University: The Rosen Center. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.


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