Shabbat VaYishlakh: #Dinah Too

A phrase is making the rounds on social media: #Me Too. It refers to women who are sharing their stories of sexual harrassment and abuse. A startlingly powerful wave of reaction is carrying off prominent men, one after the next, with breathtaking rapidity. And some of us watch with an uneasy feeling, wondering:  where will it go next; how far will it go?
In the parashat hashavua, the weekly reading from the Torah this week, we find the disturbing story of the rape of Dinah, Jacob and Leah’s daughter.
Jacob and his large family, along with their servants and their flocks and herds, have just arrived in an area in the outskirts of the city of Shekhem, and they have set up their tents and settled in. Among the responsibilities of a young woman of Dinah’s age would be that of going to the nearest well to draw water for the household; while this may have often been an onerous chore, one can imagine her in this case excited to go to this new watering hole, to see the local women, and to possibly make a social connection.
Probably she did not go alone, for such a large camp would need more water than she alone could draw; perhaps the young women among their servants came with her – perhaps they were even friends. But she was the only one who, according to the text, ran into trouble:

וַיַּרְא אֹתָהּ שְׁכֶם בֶּן-חֲמוֹר, הַחִוִּי נְשִׂיא הָאָרֶץ; וַיִּקַּח אֹתָהּ וַיִּשְׁכַּב אֹתָהּ, וַיְעַנֶּהָ.

Shekhem the son of Hamor the Hivite – the prince of the land – saw her;
and he took her and lay with her, oppressing her.

Here’s what happened next: the man who raped her decided he wanted to keep her; her brothers and father met with him and his father to discuss her situation and whether she would marry her rapist; and her brothers, after pretending to agree to the marriage, took outsized revenge upon the people of Shekhem, catching them unaware and slaughtering all the men of the town.
No one doubted her story. The man involved was punished with death. But: so was every other man in the town.
The story is disturbing enough in its depiction of the suffering of the innocent young woman, but the outsized anger that causes so many more, who are likewise innocent, to suffer is likewise troubling. G*d forbid we should doubt the true word of one who comes forward to tell a story of sexual oppression, and G*d help the person who becomes convinced that she has suffered abuse when she has not – and even more, G*d help the accused innocent in that case. Who will believe that person?
The faster each name is publicized, the farther they fall, the more our yetzer ha’ra’ – our evil impulse – prods us to overlook due process, and to tolerate a rush to judgement that may be flawed.
In the Salem witch trials a contagious hysteria caused people to accuse their neighbors of acts for which they were punished – although they were innocent.
In the Middle Ages, European Jews were accused of the “blood libel” – using the blood of a Christian child to make matzah – and murdered.
When I lived in Ukraine I heard stories of people who denounced their neighbors – because as a reward they were given their neighbors’ apartment.
In Jewish law, two witnesses are required to convict a person of wrongdoing in a capital case. No one is allowed to indict herself. And as the Torah says, the very height of injustice is that which sweeps away the innocent with the guilty. Even HaShem expressed remorse after the Flood.
Times like this require us to review: every human being is created in the Image of G*d. Reducing anyone to a two-dimensional, single-issue soul is to do violence as great as that which we seek to abhor. While we pillory each other, what are we distracted from seeing? Powerful forces in our society seek to shred what’s left of our social contract; let our time-tested ancient Jewish ethical tradition support you as you seek to balance all the conflicting truths in the painful reality of our lives.

Shabbat VaYishlakh: Gratitude, Not Fear

As Parashat VaYishlakh begins, Jacob survives a confrontation with his brother Esau, from whom he has been estranged for twenty years – a generation, a lifetime, of distance. Jacob has prepared himself for the worst, splitting his family into two camps and sending lavish gifts to his brother in advance – according to the Midrash, he even hides his daughter Dinah in the luggage lest Esau, his disgusting thug of a brother, see her and want to marry her. 

Yet Jacob finds his brother forgiving and welcoming. Upon meeting him, Esau folds him in a loving embrace. What does Jacob make of this surprise? Generations of commentaries have related to this encounter in ways that reveal more about the commentator than the story.

One asserts – with a complete absence of evidence – that Esau’s embrace was meant to kill his brother, and only G*d’s protection of Jacob saved his life. Another insists that Jacob was punished for hiding Dinah, and in so doing manifesting his contempt for the brother who was so different from him, rather than believing that a match between Dinah and Esau could possibly have redeemed Esau, bringing him back into the main narrative of the family.

Unable to believe in the peace that Esau is apparently offering, Jacob makes excuses, falsely assuring his brother they will meet again soon, and then heading as far away as he can get. Jacob settles his miraculously intact family in Sh’khem, where the townspeople seem friendly enough. 

Jacob’s punishment then arrives. As often happens in families, the effect of his behavior falls not upon him but on Dinah. What happens is unclear in the text; Dinah goes out to see the town, and either falls in love and elopes or was kidnapped and raped. The Torah does not record her own feelings about the situation, only those of the men between whom she is caught. 

Jacob’s sons falsely assure the men of Sh’khem that it’s all right, and they then fall murderously upon the unsuspecting some in their beds. Many die in the ensuring conflict, and Jacob and his family flee, wanderers again, this time in their own home country. Jacob’s experience has gone from mistrust of a brother to misunderstanding with an entire community.

Was all of this inevitable, as the plight of homeless wanderers often seems unrelievedly tragic? Or was it possible that Esau and Jacob – twin brothers after all – really could have been reconciled? And that perhaps the tragedy of Sh’khem never needed to happen at all….

In a time of fear it is easy to assume that violence and hatred are around every corner. If only Jacob could have kept in mind the prayer of gratitude with which he traveled to meet his brother: קטנתי מכל החסדים ומכל האמת שעשית את עבדך – “I am too small (i.e. unworthy) for all the true kindness You have done for Your servant”. (Bereshit 32.11) If he had managed to maintain a sense of gratitude for all the miracles he had already known, could he have approached Esau with hope in his heart, rather than (just) fear?

Yes, for Jacob the world may have been ending, but he had known so much good until that moment. What shall we feel, those of us who have known so much good in our lives, and still do – gratitude for all the years? or shall we allow it all to be erased in moments of darkness and fear? What evil do we bring upon ourselves and our loved ones because we expect it? What good is murdered in its bed before it can be born?

We may be unworthy, but we have known so much good. On this Shabbat, may your gratitude overcome your suffering.

(Here is an amazing recording of Jacob’s prayer of gratitude by Israeli composer and musician Yonatan Razel: Katonti)