Ramban, the great interpreter of Torah and mystic of the thirteenth century, noted, “What happens to the fathers is a portent for the offspring.”
Ramban meant that sometimes there is a convergence that takes place between generations that may never actually meet. For example, a grandfather may pass on a story which becomes a key to unravel the mission of his granddaughter many years later. Perhaps some act may appear meaningless in its own time but become a gift only revealed many years afterward. There are times, Ramban implied, when one generation places a seed in the ground that lies dormant until germinated by a later generation.
An example of this is intergenerational transfer that occurs in Genesis And Abram passed through the land, until the site of Shechem, until the plain of Moreh….1 Rashi comments that, “And Abram passed through the land,” means that Abram entered and continued his trek, “until the site of Shechem.” That is, Abram ventured into this unknown land of Canaan following the command of God and, for some inexplicable reason only stopped when he reached the town of Shechem. The Lord God told Abram to build an altar on land that would support such holiness. 2 Abram chose Shechem.
Why did the Patriarch choose this place to halt his journey and build the altar? What did Abram see? Did the Patriarch sense something palpable coming from this place? He could have stopped and built his altar in any place, even Jerusalem. Why then did Abram stop his family’s migration at Shechem? More: Abram knew that not only was this the place to build his altar but there was also something powerful he needed to deposit into the earth that would remain quiescent; it would wait until its appointed time to germinate and sprout much later there.
Many years later after the death of Moshe Rabbenu, Joshua led the people into the Land. There they engaged in a series of struggles before they were able to settle peacefully in the land. After Joshua‘s major victory at Ai he arrived in Shechem. There, Joshua took and arranged large pieces of stone and engraved on them words of the holy Torah. Joshua assembled all the elders and judges and stood next to the Ark that the Israelites carried since Mt Sinai as he proceeded to renew the holy covenant with God at Shechem. Why did Joshua choose this place to renew the covenant? He was following the same instructions given to Moses one generation before. This was the second time the covenant was enacted. 3 Both covenants were struck at Shechem.
Time passed. Many wars were fought under Joshua’s leadership. Among the more famous were the battles of Jericho where the walls tumbled and Gibeon where the sun halted its movement across the heavens. Joshua fought a massive war against an alliance of armies in Jerusalem and a northern war against a Canaanite despot, Jabin. After many years of conquest, setbacks and tireless leadership Joshua realized that death was coming close. With that knowledge Joshua gathered his people together for a final goodbye. His words were well-chosen, expressed and delivered. The chosen place for his farewell address? Shechem. 4 Joshua understood the innate sanctity of the place. His soul recognized the holiness of that city and so connected with his forefathers in his final act.
In earlier history, Shechem was set aside as a City of Refuge 5. A City of Refuge was a protected sanctuary ordained at the time of Moses to shield anyone who had committed, or was accused of a terrible crime. There the accused could flee and live free from fear of vengeful families. The refugees would live in safety until a court could determine whether they were guilty or innocent.
Going even further back, Shechem is mentioned in the Torah in Jacob’s lifetime. After an exile of twenty-two years Jacob returned to Canaan to resume his life after some horrible experiences. He wrestled an angel, confronted an estranged and angry brother and narrowly escaped his ruthless father-in-law. Now, in his middle-to-late years, Jacob settled into the Holy Land. Of all the possible location where did Jacob choose to live? Shechem.
Jacob purchased the property of Shechem for 100 kesitas from Hamor, the prince of the country 6. To mark his new home and dedicate the balance of his life to God, Jacob built an altar to honor the Holy One, blessed be He...just as did Abraham two generations before….just as Moses would hundreds of years later….and Joshua after him.
According to a tanna, one of the nameless and faceless ancient sages, Shechem is a place where bad things happen. 7
Jacob's arrival at Shechem was to be the beginning of a new and tranquil part of Jacob’s life. It was not. No sooner had Jacob secured his tent into the ground when his daughter, Dinah, was violated. The rapist was coincidently (Is there such a thing?) named for the city where he lived, Shechem. Jacob’s sons responded with violence of their own. They destroyed the city, killed all the males and stripped Shechem bare.
In the ashes of his home- the place that was supposed to have been his new -found haven - Jacob wept. Why was his life so difficult? Dismayed and deeply pained Jacob gathered all the gold, silver and valuables that were pillaged by his sons. Jacob then carried them out to the place where his grandfather, Abram, first built an altar to God upon his arrival in Canaan. Jacob dug a deep hole and buried the tainted loot. The tree under which Abraham had built his altar remained a silent witness to Jacob’s pain as he threw brown clods of earth over the spoils.
With shadows of the past casting a dank pall over Shechem, the Torah informs us, “Now, his [Joseph] brothers went to pasture their father's flock in Shechem.” 8 Joseph was sent out to find his brothers. Instead, Joseph the dreamer narrowly escaped death. This was the last time Joseph would ever see the town of Shechem. Joseph was dragged off was as a young man weighed down by chains and sold to passing merchants as a slave.
Years later, just before Jacob died he deeded to Joseph a single inheritance-- the city of Shechem. 9 In Shechem Joseph's brothers sold him into slavery and it was to Shechem that the bones of Joseph were brought from Egypt hundreds of years later for their final interment.
What do all the disparate events mean? How do we understand the meaning of Shechem? Is it holy? Profane?
Something about the physical space of Shechem acted as a magnet to Abram. It compelled Joshua to set up an altar in the same place where Moses erected one a generation before. A force pulled both leaders to make and confirm a covenant with God in Shechem. It was also the place of much pain for Jacob, Dinah, Jacob’s sons; Shechem was the place of Joseph’s betrayal and finally his sepulcher. Was the draw that Abram felt to Shechem diminished by the rape of Dinah? What made this place so compelling, life-changing and powerful?
In the time of the resurrection of the dead, many camps will arise in northern land of Israel because that is where the Messiah is going to be first revealed, since it is part of Joseph's territory. 10
That which is secret shall be revealed. In the holy prayer recited immediately after the Shma, a hint of the meaning of all the allusions to Shechem and the future of the Jewish people can be deciphered. The prayer begins, Baruch Shem K’vod Malchuto. Taking the first letter of each word we can see secreted in Hebrew B’Shechem, “in Shechem.”
Baruch Shem kevod malchuto ends with, l'olam va'ed, “for all time.” The Hebrew letters of these last two words spell lamed-vov, or thirty-six. Taken altogether the entire phrase indicates, "in Shechem, thirty-six."
The original first light that was cast at the beginning of time did not emanate from the sun. Genesis tell us that light preceded the great orb. This first light was a different sort of light; a spiritual illumination that had its source elsewhere. It was the supernal light of Creation which God secreted away for the righteous people of history yet-to-be. 11 This light shone for thirty-six hours before God hid it away. This light is redemption; when it is released, all evil will be banished. From this hidden light comes the tradition of the lamed-vov, the holy thirty-six.
Perhaps in a subtle way the Torah is trying to show the reader the incalculable worth of Shechem. People of great vision immediately saw the place for what it really was: a locale where the Ultimate Light would reveal itself. Even people not spiritually aware who visited Shechem felt the ripples that emanated from that spot. That is why so many eventful happenings occurred there. Even in our time, we watched as Joseph’s tomb was vandalized and decimated. None of the other resting places of the Patriarchs has been disturbed. Only Joseph’s tomb in Shechem. It still exerts a power.
Perhaps this is the place where God will finally begin the final redemption. Shechem is where the bondage began when Joseph was sold as a slave and it will become the beacon where the light of the lamed-vov will shine from in the future.
1 Genesis 12:6
2 Midrash Yalkut Shimoni
3 Deuteronomy 27
4 Joshua 24
5 Numbers 35
6 Genesis 33 18-19
7 Sanhedrin 102a
8 Genesis 37:12
9 Genesis 48:22
10 Zohar, Vayakhel 220a
11 Berachot 52b