One of These Things is Not Like the Other

As a child I loved watching Sesame Street, a show which my daughter has continued watching. She loves the characters especially “Momo,” her name for Elmo. One of the Sesame Street songs that I especially enjoyed was “One of these things is not like the other” where I had to determine which was the misfit before the song was finished.

In one of the genealogies from our Torah reading, we have an example of something not being like the others. There is a listing of all of Jacob’s descendants who went down to Egypt after the family is reunited with Joseph. It’s the list of the 70 men, and most of it is just a list of names. However, in the midst of that list, one of Shimon’s sons is mentioned with an interesting reference: Shaul, the son of a Canaanite woman.

The fact that the mother is listed only with Shaul and none of the others makes us assume that he is the only one who came from Canaanite birth. Why then is he listed here? We know that Isaac told Jacob himself “You shall not take a wife from among the Canaanite woman,”[1] yet here Isaac’s grandson apparently takes a wife or concubine from amongst the Canaanites!

We see that Shimon was not so righteous. After all, he will be cursed along with his brother Levi by Jacob in Parshat VaYehi because of their attack on the inhabitants of Shechem: “Shimon and Levi are a pair; their weapons are tools of lawlessness. Let not a person be included in their council, let not my being be counted in their assembly.”[2] At the same time we know that others of Jacob’s sons married outside the faith. We saw Judah before he underwent teshuva, separating from his brothers and at that point he “saw the daughter of a certain Canaanite whose name was Shua, and he married and cohabited with her.”[3] However, the children born to Shua are not listed as ‘son of a Canaanite woman’ so what makes it so special that Shimon’s son Shaul is listed as ben hak’nani?

          Rashi tries to solve this in an interesting way. He comments that Shaul is not Shimon’s biological son after all! Rather he is בן דינה שנבעלה לכנעני, the son of Dinah with whom the Canaanite (Shechem son of Hamor) cohabited. Why then is he listed as the son of Shimon? Rashi continues כשהרגו את שכם לא היתה דינה לצאת עד שנשבע לה שמעון שישאנה, “when he killed Shechem, Dinah did not want to leave until Shimon swore to her that he’d marry her.”[4] A woman who had been raped (and as Rashi asserts, impregnated) would be vulnerable to return to the world, as she would have no one to support her. Shimon therefore marries her (never mind the incest) and becomes Shaul’s adoptive father.

Why would Rashi bother to comment on this and what can we learn from this? First we see Rashi trying to right the character of Shimon, who acted as a vigilante, murdering all the people of Shechem on account of the honor of his sister Dinah. With this comment, we see him not as a purely dangerous wild person but also as a man of hesed, who has compassion for his sister and who marries her in name only to ensure that her son will have a proper upbringing. Secondly, it teaches us that every addition in the Torah has significance, even when it is added to one name in a list of seventy. Thirdly and I’d argue most importantly, it demonstrates not to look at things as they appear prima facie but to critically and thoughtfully look for reasons behind things. Many of us, myself included, grew up with the understanding that Shimon acted inappropriately and as a result he would suffer, not only from the curse that Jacob gives him but also from his tribe assuming the smallest portion of land, being quickly absorbed into the tribe of Judah. Rashi is teaching us don’t always judge a book by its cover; try to look deeper and maybe you’ll uncover a greater meaning behind it.

As we learn from Hasidic teachings, people are not all good or all bad; we have elements of both within us. We can use our passion, as Shimon must have felt upon hearing the news of his sister’s defilement, to engage in all-out rage or we can use it to help raise the next generation with kindness. It is a great act of hesed to raise a child who is not one’s own out of devotion and love for another, and I’d like to depict Shimon in this light. In so doing, we can see that it is not only Judah who engages in Teshuvah through pleading on account of Benjamin, but also Shimon who behind-the-scenes intervenes for the dignity and well-being of his sister Dinah.

Last week I asked everyone to what do you dedicate yourselves? Now I will ask how can we work together behind the scenes to improve the lives of those in our community, even if we don’t get to take credit for it. May this be on the forefront of our minds and let us resolve to make a difference as we approach the end of secular year 2017.

[1] Genesis 28:1

[2] Genesis 49:5-6

[3] Genesis 38:2

[4] Rashi on Genesis 46:10 ד”ה בן הכנענית

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