D’var Torah: Rabbi Beth Naditch (Vayishlach)

In Vayishlach, Jacob and Esau reunite for the first time after many years, having not seen each other since Jacob stole both Esau’s birthright and blessing, and fled. The night before this momentous meeting, Jacob wrestles with a being until morning, refusing to end the struggle until blessings are granted. Usually, when I write or speak about Vayishlach, I choose to focus on one of these events, which are but two of the happenings in a parasha rich with family drama, self-reflection, struggle, and reconciliation. Because there is so much homer l’drosh, or “material on which to drash,” one key event in this parasha is usually skipped over in favor of more “pleasant” subject matter. In today’s political climate, however, I find it increasingly problematic to navigate around the harder parts of the text, rather than wrestle with them. I refer to the story of the rape of Dina, which we also read this week.

Dina is the one daughter amidst the large family of Jacob’s sons. We read “va-tetze Dina,” Dinah the daughter of Leah, whom she had borne unto Jacob, went out to see the daughters of the land. Unlike Jacob, who, when he went out from his home (vayetze Yaakov), was rewarded with a communication from God and a dream that has captured the Jewish imagination throughout the ages, Dina meets a different fate. Upon her going out, she is seen by Shechem, a prince of the land, who forcibly “took her, and lay with her, and ‘humbled her,’”

There are multiple responses to what happens next in the text. We know of three: Shechem apparently spoke words of “comfort and love” to Dina, and asked to have her as his wife. Shimon and Levi, also sons of Leah, seem to use the rape as an opportunity to attack and plunder a whole city, using revenge as their justification. Jacob, upon hearing of the rape, neither says nor does anything until his sons come in from the fields. Rashi, commenting on the text, is less than helpful as he offers a 10th century version of blaming the victim, noting that Dina herself went out into the fields as a yatzanit – implying that a young woman who goes out alone could hardly expect any other result.

Whose voice is missing from this entire episode? Dina’s. We don’t know what plans she had that day, as she “went out to see the daughters of the land.” We don’t know how or where she encountered Shechem, or what her experience was. We don’t know what it was like for her to be in his home after the rape. We don’t know what it was like for her to have her father stay silent, and we don’t know what it was like for her to have her brothers deceive a whole city, and then kill all of the men of the city, purportedly on her behalf. Leah is not even mentioned as an actor in the story. What we do know is that Dina’s silence has reverberated across the generations, and that her silence is usually reinforced in favor of the “easier” parts of the story to digest. Particularly in this political climate, it is incumbent upon us to address both active and passive messages that our children are receiving about how to behave in the world. We do not want even one more emerging adolescent or adult to believe that he or she is a prince of the land, entitled to take forcibly whatever strikes his or her fancy. Additionally, we should be trying to create communities and spaces where survivors do not have to remain silent. Our wrestling is teaching our own children how to navigate our world, how to respond to challenging and troubling events that are all too common, how to stand up for those whose voices are not heard. As we do this, perhaps we can demand a blessing for our work as well.

Rabbi Beth Naditch, ACPE Supervisor/Spiritual Care Educator at Hebrew SeniorLife, Schechter Parent

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