**Trigger warning: sexual assault and violence**
It’s altogether fitting that we read Parashat Va-Yehi, the last portion in the Book of Genesis, this Shabbat, as we approach the end of the secular year. Endings are always meaningful opportunities to reflect on what has passed and to consider what’s to come.
In Parashat Va-Yehi, the patriarch Jacob is on his deathbed. He calls to his twelve sons to give them each a final blessing. These blessings are not particularly warm or fuzzy. As a matter of fact, many of them seem to include rebukes, both for past transgressions and for future deeds.
This year, one blessing in particular caught my eye. It’s the final one, which means it’s among Jacob’s last living words. Here’s how Jacob blesses his youngest son, Benjamin, just before he dies: “Binyamin zev yitraf, baboker yokhal ad, v’la-erev y’halek shalal / Benjamin is a voracious wolf. In the morning he consumes the plunder, and in the evening he divides the spoil.” (49:27).
The violent imagery is striking, and surprising. Benjamin is Jacob’s youngest son, the second child of Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel. As a result, Benjamin is one of Jacob’s favorite children, perhaps second only to Joseph, Rachel’s firstborn. In Genesis, Benjamin is depicted as docile, the subject of outside forces; unlike many of his other brothers, he is never an instigator or an agitator. Why then does Jacob describe Benjamin as a “voracious wolf,” a merciless hunter that, bolstered by the strength of its pack, preys on the innocent and vulnerable and literally tears its victims apart?
The great medieval commentator Rashi proposes an answer. According to Rashi, Jacob’s blessing isn’t about his son at all. Rather, it anticipates that in the future, Benjamin’s descendants will act like rapacious wolves, and moreover that their brutality will tear the people of Israel apart.
What is Benjamin’s violent future? Rashi understands Jacob to be referring to a story found in the biblical book of Judges, which is set many centuries after Jacob’s death.
According to the book of Judges (chs. 19-21), when the Israelites conquer the Promised Land, they fail to establish a stable government. The result is a chaotic society where men are a law unto themselves. During this anarchic period, a Levite man traveled to Bethlehem in order to win back his wayward concubine. As the Levite made his way home, he stopped for the night in Gibeah, a town in territory belonging to the tribe of Benjamin. But the only person to offer them hospitality in Gibeah is an outsider, an Ephraimite man who happened to be sojourning in the city.
When the Benjaminite townspeople discovered the presence of this Levite stranger in their midst, they surrounded the Ephraimite’s house, demanding that the Levite be handed over to them so they can “know him” – in the biblical sense. The teeming, pounding mob threatened to break through the barriers of the Ephraimites’ home, overrunning and overtaking it and everyone inside.
It’s a terrifying story. But it might actually sound familiar. That’s because to this point it is almost identical to a similar story in the book of Genesis about the depraved city of Sodom, a place so rotten that God utterly wipes it out. The book of Judges thus implies that the ancient Benjaminites were just as violent and vicious as those infamous and irredeemable Sodomites (Nahum Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, p. 345).
But the story in Judges diverges from the parallel Genesis story in important ways. In Genesis, heroic characters stop the bloodthirsty mob. However, in Judges, there are no heroes. The point of the Judges story is less about condemning the self-evidently monstrous behavior of the Benjaminites, and more about indicting the “good guys.”
What do I mean? Let’s look at how the story in Judges continues. In order to protect the Levite, the Ephraimite instead offers the mob his own daughter and the Levite’s concubine. Satisfied with this compromise, the Benjaminite townspeople take turns raping the concubine all night long.
Then, the morning after the mob’s horrendous assault, the Levite opens the door of the Ephraimite’s house and finds his concubine collapsed dead at the entrance. He picks up her body, straps it to his donkey, and returns home. Then, he takes a cleaver, chops the concubine’s body into twelve pieces, and sends them to each of the tribes. Although no message accompanies the body parts, the Israelites understand it as a call to take up arms against their Benjaminite brothers. In the ensuing civil war, the entire tribe of Benjamin is nearly wiped out.
And yet, despite Benjamin’s crimes against humanity, the other tribes begin to regret the severity of their response. They are war weary, eager for peace, and pained by the idea of losing an entire Israelite tribe, even one as thoroughly depraved as Benjamin. So they ultimately permit the Benjaminites to repopulate their ranks by kidnapping women from one of the towns in Ephraimite territory to take as wives for themselves.
It’s an astonishing conclusion to a shocking story. The Benjaminites brutally assault and kill an innocent woman, causing a civil war. But after all that strife and bloodshed, things are right back where they were at the beginning of the story. Only this time, the rest of the Israelites have given the Benjaminites permission to perpetuate their violent behavior. Just as the patriarch Jacob predicted long before, like a ravening wolf, the Benjaminites divide and conquer. And the rest of the Israelites let them.
But who is the villain of the Judges story? Obviously, the savage Benjaminites are bad guys, voracious wolves that prey on the innocent. But what about the Levite and the Ephraimite who give their women over to the mob in order to save themselves? And what about the rest of the Israelites? They so nobly go to war to punish the Benjaminites for this outrageous crime, but then eventually relent and facilitate the exact same crime, only this time on a greater scale.
This, I think, is the moral of the story: tyranny may be perpetrated by “bad guys,” but it is powered by the silence, acquiescence, and complicity of “good guys,” those who fail to defend the defenseless against the wolves who come for them, who permit the wolves to prowl the countryside day and night, who prefer peace and quiet to justice and righteousness. When liberty dies, some may be guilty, but all are responsible.
We moderns like to think of ourselves as advanced, far removed from our barbarian ancestors who lived during the era of the biblical Judges. But as I look back on the past year, I’m increasingly less certain that we are.
As I read the story of the avaricious Benjaminite mob in Judges this year, I couldn’t help but picture the events of last January 6th, when a violent mob stormed the U.S. Capitol in an effort to overturn the results of a free and fair election. When I reviewed video footage from that day, the scene looked to me terrifyingly similar to the episode in Judges: a horde of thousands swarmed the Capitol, bursting through barricades, smashing through windows, and overrunning law enforcement. Rewatching the footage with the ancient Benjaminites in mind, the insurrectionists seem virtually wolflike as they prowl the Capitol’s corridors seemingly in search of prey, particularly those who wouldn’t yield to their demands, including the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the Vice President of the United States, whom they repeatedly threaten with injury and even death.
In the immediate aftermath of January 6th, it appeared that the vast majority of Americans, from virtually every walk of life and political perspective, agreed that the actions of the mob and of those who incited them were inexcusable. Personally, while I was heartbroken, fearful, and angry on January 6th, I recall actually feeling hopeful in the days that followed. True, there were certainly elected officials who, from the earliest moments following the attack on the Capitol, shamefully vindicated the insurrectionists by agreeing with their message, even if they disagreed with their methods. But much more widespread were condemnations and calls for accountability, which came swiftly and forcefully from essentially every corner of the political landscape. It seemed to me that people were finally acknowledging how close we were that day, and indeed over the course of the past few years, to losing our democracy, and mustering the resolve to restore our society.
However, as 2021 progressed, the winds shifted. Cynical leaders and media personalities began to realize that those who incited, participated in, and sympathized with the insurrectionists represented a constituency that they needed in order to pursue and retain power. They courted that constituency by endorsing (or at least refusing to disavow) the Big Lie that incited the mob in the first place, by downplaying the severity of the attack, and by advancing a revisionist version of what happened before, during, and after January 6th, all while working at every level to identify and exploit the weak points in our electoral system and emboldening those who embrace conspiracy theories, violence, and autocracy. Meanwhile, many of us, war weary, eager for peace, and temperamentally averse to incivility and division, decided to simply look the other way, turn the page, and try to move on. As Martin Luther King Jr. put it in his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” we showed ourselves to prefer the absence of tension over the presence of justice.
As a result, the events of January 6th have largely receded from our collective consciousness. But as political commentator Charlie Pierce recently put it, the authoritarian ideology and violent culture that fueled the insurrection continues to hum barely below the surface of our society. And just as in the era of the biblical Judges, tyranny is emboldened and empowered by the silence, acquiescence, and complicity of those of us who prefer peace to principle, tranquility to truth, calm to commonwealth, the absence of tension to the presence of justice.
Actively and passively, through speech and through silence, we empower leaders who tolerate authoritarianism and excuse those who are bent on subverting democracy. We so yearn for calm and comfort that we are willing to give anything, including our freedom, to have it. Like our ancient Israelite ancestors, we are proving ourselves all too willing to sell out our principles to preserve our own position and to seek out a hollow civility. Some may be guilty of dismantling our democracy. But all of us are responsible for preserving and protecting it.
Still in our time, ravening wolves prowl the countryside. Some, like many of the January 6th insurrectionists or their sympathizers – and certain avowed white supremacists who are cut from the same cloth – are easy to identify. Others wear sheep’s clothing, cleverly, cynically, speaking the language of egalitarian, pluralistic democracy but nevertheless advancing the same predatory agenda: dominance for their pack at the expense of everyone else. As ever, today’s wolves prey upon the most vulnerable among us – the poor, the historically marginalized and oppressed, and minority communities (including our own).
And just as Jacob predicted of the Benjaminites, the hunger of today’s wolves is never sated; ultimately they threaten everyone who is not part of their own pack – with physical violence (too often under the cover of law), with deadly disease fueled by a demented rebellion against science, with chaos sown by disinformation, with divisions deepened by a rejection of history, and with the demolition of our democratic norms and institutions.
So what must we, people of faith and conscience, do? How do we save our democracy in the year to come, when the wolves come again for it?
Wilderness experts give this advice about how to defend against wolf attacks: Remember that wolves are hunters. If you permit yourself to look like prey, it will encourage an attack. Instead, here’s what to do – Don’t run away. Don’t turn your back. Stand your ground. Make yourself appear big and scary by shouting out loud and raising your arms over your head. It’s guidance that I hope never to have to follow out in the wild. It helps that I never go camping.
But it’s also sound advice for us – as people, and as a community, of faith and conscience, as Americans who cherish our country’s democratic ideals and institutions, and as Jews who have uniquely benefited from American democracy. We must not be silent. We must not give up or give in.
That means, for starters, that we must reject any politician who refuses to disavow nefarious falsehoods about the 2020 election. We must also push relentlessly to halt and reverse the campaign – launched mere days after January 6th and which continues right at this very moment – to undermine our democratic institutions, subvert our elections, and suppress the vote. We must demand with every ounce of strength we can muster that those who plotted and perpetrated the insurrection are held accountable, in order to deter those who are already planning to act similarly in the future. And, ultimately, we must continue to act as vigilant shepherds, standing up for and protecting each other against the prowling wolves who seek to divide and dominate, tirelessly pursuing our tradition’s vision of justice for all.