Parashat Vayishlach – Erev Shabbat 13 December 2019
Week of 8-14 December 2019
Torah portion: Genesis 32:4-36:43 Haftarah: Obad. 1:1-21
Theme: Interpreting Women’s Experiences

Parashat Vayishlach (“And he sent”) is an action-packed portion that keeps you on the edge of your seat. It contains the stories of Jacob wrestling with a mysterious man; the encounter of Esau with his contingent and Jacob with his family; the story of Dinah; the death of Deborah and Rachel; the birth of Benjamin and the death of Isaac. It is worth noting that the genealogy of Esau covers a large portion of this parasha (36:1-43), thus showing Israel’s connection to Edom. However, the haftarah emphasizes the tension rather than reconciliation as pointed out by Etz Hayyim: “The narrative in the parashah and the prophecy in the haftarah stand at two opposite points in the historical spectrum of relations between Jacob (Israel) and Esau (Edom).” [Etz Hayyim, 221]

I wish to focus this parashah commentary on the story of Dinah. After the encounter with Esau, Genesis 33:18 tells us that “Jacob arrived safely in the city of Shechem […].” There is almost a sigh of relief here after all the preceding events. We anticipate, at this point, that all will be well. He and his family have a parcel of land where they could stay, purchased from the “children of Hamor.” [Gen. 33:19] But shortly after this comes the story of Dinah.

Etz Hayyim comments: “Incidents like the rape of Dinah were probably not uncommon, yet Jacob’s family seems unprepared for such an event and does not know how to react.” [Etz Hayyim, 206] While this remark could be ascribed to ancient times, it still rings true in contemporary times. Gender, oftentimes associated with power or lack of it, is deeply intertwined with violence and crime. Assaults on women still continue to this day. Our perspectives related to women and their experiences impact on the way we read this particular portion and judge the main characters. If we think that it is not proper for a woman to travel alone, then, we can judge Dinah’s action as inappropriate. She should not have gone out. She has made herself vulnerable to the attack. If we are on the side of Shechem, who, after the attack, wants to take Dinah as his wife, whom he was pining for, and make a conclusion that this was supposed to be like a fairy tale “and they lived happily ever after” we might judge that it is proper for a woman to marry the one who assaulted her. If we agree that the action of her brothers is justifiable to defend the honor of the family and that of Dinah, we can justify violent attacks. But Dinah is muted. We do not know how she feels, what she thinks. The Torah does not give us that. It is very poignant. The Torah teaches, but as a teacher, she is exacting and demanding. She presents the complexity of human life. The Torah does not answer questions but makes us ask the questions so that we can be better human beings. The Torah impels us to ask questions not only about the text but also about Dinah. Women’s experiences must be considered in our search for answers to this moral predicament

For Reflection and Discussion: [1] What is your personal opinion about the story of Dinah? [2] How much do we consider the complexities of social issues that we encounter?

Bibliography: Lieber, David, ed., Etz Hayyim: Torah and Commentary (New York: 2001).

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