Last Sunday I visited the city of Shechem (or "Nablus" from the Roman "Neapolis") in the northern West Bank. Not the actual city, which would probably have resulted in my lynching at the hands of a Palestinian mob, but the Jewish settlement of Elon Moreh next door. This is a very out-of-the-way location; it took three buses to get there and another three to get home again. But after Jerusalem, Shechem is probably the most historically and Jewishly significant location in Israel, so it was worth the time spent traveling.
Shechem became important due to its unique geographical location. It is in a narrow valley between two prominent mountains, Mt. Gerizim and Eival. The modern city of Nablus fills the length of the valley, but ancient Shechem was located right at the valley entrance, where two of the most important roads in ancient Israel meet. Forming a triangle with Mt. Gerizim and Eival is Mt. Kabir, a smaller mountain standing opposite the entrance to the valley. Elon Moreh is located on the slope of Mt. Kabir.
Standing on Mt. Kabir, you can look west and see Shechem. Looking north and east, you see the road which leads from Shechem, around Mt. Kabir, and down a fertile valley towards the Jordan River. This road was perhaps the most important entryway to Israel in ancient times. When Avraham Avinu came to Israel from Mesopotamia, the first location he stopped in was Shechem (Breishit 12:6). Similarly, when Yaakov returned from Haran, the first place he settled was in Shechem (33:18).
In last week's parsha (Devarim 27:1-8), Moshe commands the people to write the "words of the Torah" on large stones, which would be placed on Mt. Eival - right next to Shechem. This may be because so many visitors entered Israel through Shechem. Just like Ellis Island is accompanied by the Statue of Liberty, which declares American values to newcomers, so newcomers to Shechem would be greeted by the text of the Torah - our own statement of values.
Returning to Yaakov, his story in Shechem continued. He bought a piece of land, settled down, became a respected citizen, and like Avraham built an altar to spread awareness of God. But one day his daughter Dinah was kidnapped and raped by the local prince (Breishit 34). This prince then requested Yaakov's permission to marry her. Yaakov's sons asked the prince and his people to be circumcised first. But this offer was insincere; while they recuperated from circumcision Shimon and Levi came and massacred them. Whether or not the prince and his people deserved this punishment, the manner in which Shimon and Levi carried it out was a gigantic "chillul hashem". Yaakov and his family were forced to retreat southward from Shechem, in fear and disgrace.
(Interaction between Jews and non-Jews is a constant theme in Shechem. Avraham and Yaakov both built altars there, evidently trying to spread monotheism to the local population. Yaakov's efforts ended in failure when his sons committed an embarrassing massacre. Later on Yehoshua apparently had friendly relations with Shechem and did not have to wipe out its population. Regarding the current inhabitants of Elon Moreh and neighboring settlements, I wonder: do they tend to follow the model of Avraham? Or the model of Shimon and Levi? I don't really know and will avoid expressing an opinion on the matter.)
We next hear of Shechem in Breishit 37:14-17. Yaakov's sons had gone to herd sheep in Shechem, and Yosef went to meet them. He wandered around Shechem for a while looking for them, until a helpful person spotted him and told him they have moved on to Dotan. In Dotan, of course, Yosef was abducted by the same brothers and sold into slavery in Egypt.
When the Israelites left Egypt centuries later, Shechem was the first place they visit in Israel (after the initial battles of Jericho and Ay). Why did they go there so soon? I and others have argued that there was a prior familial alliance between the Israelites and the people of Shechem. Thus it was natural, as well as possible, for them to visit Shechem and hold the ceremonies described in Devarim 27. Six tribes gathered on Mt. Gerizim and six on Mt. Eival, with the Levites and the Mishkan in between (see Yehoshua 8:30-35). There they read the blessings and curses, built an altar and offered sacrifices on it, and wrote the "words of the Torah" on large stones as mentioned above.
Devarim 27:11-13 lists which tribes were to stand on Mt. Gerizim (Shimon, Yehudah, Levi, Binyamin, Yosef, Yissachar) and which on Mt. Eval (Reuven, Gad, Zevulun, Dan, Naftali, Asher). The division is puzzling, but I think it can be understood geographically. The tribes on Mt. Gerizim, the southern/southwestern mountain, inherited land in southern and central Israel. The tribes on Mt. Eival, the northern/northeastern mountain, inherited land in northern and eastern Israel. (Compare the order of tribes above to that in "Vezot Habracha", another geographical listing.)
In between the mountains, and the groups of tribes, is Shechem - the geographic center of the land of Israel. The biblically commanded borders of the land (Bamidbar 34:1-15) exclude much of the Negev desert, but they do include a significant part of modern Lebanon. Thus the center of the country was north of the modern center (let us say Jerusalem) - and in fact, was probably very close to Shechem. Mt. Gerizim therefore represented the southern half of the country, and Mt. Eival the northern half.
Also in between the mountains were the Levites (at least some of them) and the Mishkan. When the 12 tribes looked across the valley at each other, they also looked at the Mishkan in between them. The Mishkan was in the valley of Shechem, literally at the center of the country. Each Israelite, whether located on the north or south mountain, literally looked towards the Mishkan for spiritual guidance. Symbolically, this was to continue after they went to live in the the north and south of the country. This is the significance of the ceremony at Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Eival.
When the land of Israel was apportioned among the tribes, Shechem became a Levite city and a city of refuge. (Yehoshua 17:7, 20:7) It is the middle of the three refuge cities in the newly conquered land, testifying to its centrality. The body of Yosef, which had been taken from Egypt, was buried in Yaakov's old plot of land in Shechem. Nowadays "Kever Yosef" is a Jewish holy site, which unfortunately was sacked and Islamicized by Palestinians a few years ago.
A few years later, another ceremony was held in Shechem (Yehoshua 24). There Yehoshua (perhaps rhetorically) offers the people the chance to leave God and worship idols instead. They refuse, and a new covenant with God is concluded. At this point the Mishkan was still in Shechem, though later in Yehoshua's life it moved to Shiloh, where it would stay for several centuries.
After Yehoshua's death, the Israelites turned to idolatry and, despite the efforts of the "judges" (actually, for the most part, military leaders), they gradually did worse and worse in conflicts with their enemies. One of the most successful judges was Gideon. After his greatest military victory, the people asked him to become king, but he refused (Shoftim 8:22-23). But after his death, his son Avimelech declared himself to be king, and ruled for 3 years in Shechem before precipitating a civil war in which he died (Shoftim 9). The monarchy was only (re)established much later, with Shaul.
After Shlomo Hamelech died, his son Rechavam went to Shechem to be appointed king over all Israel (Melachim A 12:1-19). But when Rechavam declared his intention to increase their labor load, the 10 northern tribes rebelled and formed a kingdom of their own. Their first king was Yeravam, whose initial capital was Shechem.
From the stories of Avimelech, Rechavam, and Yeravam, we see that Shechem was the natural seat of the Israelite monarchy. Kings Shaul and David had located their capitals in their respective tribal centers (Givah and Hebron), and David later moved the capital to a compromise location, Jerusalem, on the border between his tribe and Shaul's. But except for these tribal locations, the only capital considered was Shechem. (Later on the capital of the northern kingdom would move to Penuel, Tirtzah, and Shomron - for reasons probably related to tribal and dynastic conflict.)
To summarize, Shechem was traversed and settled by generations of our ancestors, from Avraham, Yaakov, and Yosef to Yehoshua, Gideon, and Rechavam. In addition to simply being an important city with historical associations, Shechem was the literal and symbolic geographic center of the land of Israel, and thus the most central city of refuge and the historical seat of the Israelite monarchy. This political centrality was supplemented for a time by the spiritual centrality of the Mishkan and the covenant which was made in Shechem. Furthermore, as an important entryway to Israel, it symbolized the land, and the values of its inhabitants, to outsiders.
Jerusalem is the overall center of the Jewish religion. But Shechem is the center of the Land of Israel, and for centuries was the center of the Jewish nation. For this reason it is worth visiting, even if only once, even if you cannot actually approach but must simply look from afar.