Drash on Parashat Vayishlach 2018

Drash on Parashat Vayishlach 2018

Rabbi Jeffrey B Kamins
Emanuel Synagogue
Woollahra, NSW

Appropriate Responses

Eight years ago Rabbi Paul Jacobson wrote the following D’var Torah on this week’s parasha:

The rape of Jacob’s daughter Dinah by Shechem and subsequent verses (Bereshit, chapter 34) is one of the most disheartening episodes in the entire Torah. Shechem takes Dinah by force and violates her. Hamor, Shechem’s father, speaks with Jacob and Jacob’s sons, and suggests that their tribes intermarry, an act which will permit Jacob and his tribe to move freely in Shechemite territory. Jacob’s sons are so outraged by Shechem’s act that they will only accept this agreement if the Shechemite males circumcise themselves. The Shechemites assent but three days later, Dinah’s brothers Simeon and Levi set upon the Shechemites and slay each male, while the rest of Jacob’s sons plunder and pillage the town.

We seek deep meaning from Torah’s words, and yet this episode in our parashah leaves us wondering about so many things. The behaviour of the Shechemites, Jacob, and Jacob’s sons is downright abominable. Shechem accepts no direct responsibility for his action; he is consumed only by his apparent love for Dinah. Jacob’s sons are rightfully incensed but turn into unsanctioned vigilantes hell-bent on exacting revenge. And Jacob is silent, until the very end of the chapter, when he expresses his fear that Simeon and Levi’s crusade will impact negatively on his own circumstances.

Even more troubling is the subject of Dinah herself. Where is Dinah’s voice in this narrative? What did Dinah think and feel? Who comforted her after such a frightening episode? Sadly, shockingly, we never hear from Dinah. She speaks not a single word in the entire chapter, or throughout the Torah. In fact, we might suggest that Torah seems far more concerned with explaining the needs and actions of the men around her, instead of recording the suffering, battered voice of one of God’s children.

What can we learn from such an episode? We must begin by acknowledging the harrowing truth, a hard fact to swallow indeed, that such a terrible tale, laden with so many painful moments, is included among the stories of our people’s most sacred literature. Further, we cannot change the past, we cannot change Torah, but we can continue to learn and grow from our text. Sometimes, this means learning what not to do. We cannot be silent to the needs of “Dinahs” in our world or silent in general. And we cannot respond to violence with violence.

Next week we will commemorate “White Ribbon Day” (25 November). White Ribbon Day began in 1991 in Canada, when a group of men organised a special gathering on the second anniversary of man’s massacre of fourteen women in Montreal. In 1999, the United Nations declared 25 November as International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. Over the past twenty years, men have shown their support for this campaign by donning white ribbons, and swearing never to commit or condone any act of violence against a woman.

It is fitting that we read Parashat Vayishlach, including Dinah’s story, around the 25th of November. Dinah’s story reminds us, albeit painfully, that our world is not yet complete. Truly, we cannot afford to model the silence, the complacency, the passivity and the shocking indifference of our ancestors. Women who suffer acts of violence are our mothers, our wives, our sisters, our daughters, and our friends. Torah calls upon us to respond, to stand up and make a difference, to support those among us who are in need, insuring that we will not stand idly by while our neighbours, our loved ones, bleed.”

I wish to add the following note.

We need to understand that the objectification of women has been endemic to human society for millennia, reinforced by the Scriptures of all religions, including the Torah. While the Jewish tradition has generally tried to modify this objectification, we see its continued manifestation when we read some of our stories as prescriptive when they are rather, sadly, descriptive. Still today in many parts of Judaism we know that women do not have full and equal rights – why is that they are the ones who are agunot, prohibited from remarrying if their husband refuses to give them a gett. (By the way, the etymology of the Hebrew word for husband, “ba’al” has the dual meaning of master/owner and penetrator). Why is that women are the ones who sit behind the mechitza and whose voices cannot be heard or skin exposed, because men cannot control their urges? What does this say about ourselves, our society, our values? 

This is not a problem of just Judaism, but of humanity. The MeToo movement has serious claims on our attention. As Jayne Gilmore wrote in the October 9th article in the Sydney Morning Herald entitled, Six women have been killed in five days, “Our compassion is fatigued by the daily drain of women being beaten, raped, assaulted, ignored, dismissed, blamed, ridiculed, murdered. How exhausted we all are by the violence women live and die with.” We know that the problem in Australia, where on average one woman is killed weekly in domestic violence, is worse in other places around the world – women enslaved, women raped in marriage, women seen as men’s sexual property and playthings.

This Shabbat let us feel the outrage of Dinah’s brothers, but in a way that says “enough”. Not in terms of revenge, but in terms of teaching our children from an early age about the equal dignity and being of everyone regardless their gender, and that no one ever has the right to have the power over another human being. Until men join with women to ensure that women have the right to speak their voice and have sovereignty over their own body, nothing will really change.


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