“And Ya’acov came safely [to] the city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan, when he came from Padan aram, and he encamped before the city.” [Genesis 33/18]
Ya’acov’s arrival in Shechem is important, as it provides the lead-in to the episode involving Dinah. However, it is unclear why it is important for the Torah to tell us that not only did Ya’acov arrive in Shechem, but that upon his arrival he “encamped” before the city.
This seemingly superfluous addition to the text led the Rabbis to interpret Ya’acov’s arrival in Shechem not as a description of Ya’acov’s status following his arrival, but rather as the performance of an additional act: “‘And he was gracious to the city’ (literally, ‘and he encamped before the city’). Rab said: He instituted coinage for them. Samuel said: He instituted markets for them; R. Yohanan said: He instituted baths for them.”
The Jerusalem Talmud (Yerushalmi) adds another explanation: “‘And he was gracious to the city.’ And they instituted (tax free) markets and salespeople.” According to these explanations, Ya’acov did not just establish a rest area for his family outside the city, but rather he instituted innovations that were useful and necessary to the city’s inhabitants so that they could improve their day to day lives. In the words of the Maharal: “Until he had established all there was to establish in the city!”.
It is interesting to note that besides informing us of the altars that Ya’acov built during the course of this week’s parasha, as well as all of the trials that he experienced in general, the Torah emphasizes that Ya’acov was concerned and acted for the benefit of the community and its members in order to allow them to live proper lives.
According to the Yerushalmi, the principles that Ya’acov established were so important and necessary that “we must establish ordinances in the same manner as our forefathers”. The quality exhibited by Ya’acov, of concern for his local community, is not related by the Torah solely for the sake of a story, but rather as a timeless instruction to us, his great-grandchildren.
We often wonder how we can be a “light unto the nations” and exert meaningful influence over the world around us. It seems that this is not accomplished through study of the laws of Shabbat and kashrut, or through the proliferation of these and other laws (halachot). The verses quoted above teach us that our obligation toward the outside world is to propagate social justice and do our utmost to establish a proper and constructively functioning society wherever we may be. A Jew’s true influence over his surroundings is not to be exerted through “Orach Chaim” or “Yoreh De’ah” (sections of the Shulchan Aruch (literally, the “Set Table”), the foundational guide to practical Jewish law, that set forth individual religious practice), but through “Choshen Mishpat” (the section of the Shulchan Aruch that defines proper financial and communal behavior) in the way that he functions in the worlds of business and community and exhibits direct practical concern for assisting others and remedying societal dysfunction in his immediate surroundings.
Every morning and every night we precede our recital of the “Shema” with two brachot (blessings). Hashem is not only the one who “loves his nation Israel/lovingly chooses his nation Israel,” but also “forms light and creates darkness … fashions the luminaries/brings on evenings” for the entire world. When a Jew accepts the “yoke of heaven” upon himself each morning and evening, it is imperative that he devote his thoughts, intellect and activities not only to his own people but to his country and the world at large.
Rabbi Yehoshua Grunstein, a Tzohar rabbi, is the director of training and placement for Ohr Torah Stone's Straus-Amiel program.