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Torah Sparks

December 13, 2008 – 16 Kislev 5769

Annual: Genesis 32:4-36:43 (Etz Hayim, p. 198; Hertz p. 122)
Triennial Cycle: Genesis 34:1-35:15 (Etz Hayim, p. 206; Hertz p. 127)
Haftarah: Obadiah 1:1–21 (Etz Hayim, p. 222; Hertz p. 137)

Prepared by Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, New Jersey

Torah Portion Summary

Returning to Canaan after 20 years away, Jacob nervously prepares for a reunion with his brother, Esau. The messengers he sends return with the report that Esau is coming to meet Jacob with 400 men. Jacob divides his family and flocks into two camps, hoping that one will survive if the other is attacked. Jacob sends his brother a lavish gift of animals. That night, Jacob wrestles with a mysterious “man” who injures his thigh and blesses him with the new name – Israel. Jacob and Esau meet without incident and then go their separate ways.

Jacob arrives at Shechem, where the local prince, Shechem son of Hamor, rapes Jacob’s daughter Dinah. Dinah’s brothers take revenge, killing all the men of Shechem, taking the women and children captive, and seizing all their property.

God tells Jacob to go to Bethel and build an altar. There, God appears to Jacob, confirms his new name, and once again reaffirms the covenant. Rachel dies in childbirth and is buried on the road to Ephrat. Reuben lies with Bilhah, his father’s concubine. Jacob finally returns to his father’s house. Isaac dies at the age of 180 and is buried by Esau and Jacob. The parashah concludes with the genealogy of Esau’s descendents.

1. Blaming the Victim

Now Dinah, the daughter whom Leah had borne to Jacob, went out to visit the daughters of the land. (Bereisheit 34:1)

  1. The man subdues the woman, and the woman does not subdue the man. But, if she walks about a lot and goes out into the marketplace, she finally comes to a state of corruption, to a state of harlotry. And so you find in the case of Jacob’s daughter Dinah. All the time that she was sitting at home she was not corrupted by transgression, but as soon as she went out into the marketplace, she caused herself to come to the point of corruption. (Tanhuma Vayishlach 8:12)
  2. Rabbi Berekiah said in Rabbi Levi’s name: This may be compared to one who was holding a pound of meat in his hand, and as soon as he exposed it a bird swooped down and snatched it away. Similarly, “Now Dinah... went out” and forthwith “Shechem son of Hamor... saw her.” Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahman said: her arm became exposed. (Bereisheit Rabbah 80:1)
  3. Rabbi Yehuda said in the name of Rav: When Moses ascended on high, he found the Holy One sitting and affixing crowns to letters. Moses asked, “Lord of the universe, [why use crowns to intimate what You wish]? Who hinders Your hand [from writing out in full all of Torah’s precepts]?” God replied, “At the end of many generations there will arise a man, Akiva ben Joseph by name, who will infer heaps and heaps of laws from each tittle on these crowns.” “Lord of the universe,” said Moses, “permit me to see him.” God replied, “Turn around.” Moses went and sat down behind eight rows [of Rabbi Akiva’s disciples and listened to their discourses on law]. Not being able to follow what they were saying, he was so distressed that he grew faint. But when they came to a certain subject and the disciples asked Rabbi Akiva, “Master, where did you learn this?” and Rabbi Akiva replied, “It is a law given to Moses at Sinai,” Moses was reassured. He returned to the Holy One and said, “Lord of the universe, You have such a man, yet You give the Torah [not by his hand] but by mine?” God replied, “Be silent – thus has it come to My mind.” Then Moses said, “Lord of the universe, You have shown me his Torah – now show me his reward.” “Turn around,” said God. Moses turned around and saw Rabbi Akiva’s flesh being weighed out in a meat market. “Lord of the universe,” Moses cried out in protest, “such Torah, and such its reward?” God replied, “Be silent – thus has it come to My mind.” (Menahot 29b)
  4. Rava said: Length of life, children, and sustenance depend not on one’s merit, but on one’s mazal. Consider Rabbah and Rav Hisda. Both were saintly sages, completely righteous – when one prayed for rain, it came, when the other prayed for rain, it also came. Yet Rav Hisda lived to the age of ninety-two, but Rabbah only to the age of forty. In Rav Hisda’s house, sixty wedding feasts were celebrated; in Rabbah’s house, sixty bereavements. In Rav Hisda’s house, there was bread of the finest flour even for dogs, and it went to waste; in Rabbah’s house, barley bread was for human beings, and even that was hardly to be had. (Moed Katan 28a)

Sparks for Discussion

Perhaps the greatest challenge to religious faith is the existence of undeserved suffering. Our commentators offer three explanations for the rape of Dinah: it wasn’t undeserved – she brought it on herself (Tanhuma, Bereishit Rabbah); it was God’s will (Menahot); it was random bad luck (Moed Katan). How do you explain why bad things happen to good people?

The midrash suggests that if Dinah had stayed home and had not tried to mingle with non-Jewish girls, nothing would have happened to her. This attitude persists – she shouldn’t have worn such a short skirt, he should have known not to drive a new car into that neighborhood, what did they expect after years of eating junk food. Why are we so eager to blame the victim?

2. Speaking with Guile

Jacob’s sons answered Shechem and his father Hamor – speaking with guile because he had defiled their sister Dinah – and said to them, “We cannot do this thing, to give our sister to a man who is uncircumcised, for that is a disgrace among us. Only on this condition will we agree with you; that you will become like us in that every male among you is circumcised. (Bereisheit 34:13-15)

  1. The request that they should circumcise themselves was made either in the belief that they would refuse, or that they would be unable to convince their townspeople to do so. (Rabbi Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno, 1475-1550, Italy)
  2. They could see no other alternative. Either they would not agree, and this was most probable, or their ruse would succeed and then, in the weakened condition of the place, they would be able to free their sister. They could give no reasonable objection to refuse the offer of intermarriage proposed by the prince of the land. In all this there was not yet much that was blameworthy, for to rescue a sister from such a shameful situation, any lawful means are permissible. (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, 1808-1888, Germany)
  3. “Because he had defiled their sister Dinah.” The Torah gives the reason why they spoke with guile; it was because they gave themselves a halakhic heter (permission), namely because Shechem had committed an outrage; protect the honor of the sons of Jacob. (Shabtai Ben Yomtov, Hamikra Kifshuto)

Sparks for Discussion

Sforno and Hirsch (and many others) argue that the brothers never intended to massacre the men of Shechem. They simply were trying to rescue their sister. Their guile was intended to accomplish this with little or no bloodshed. Do you agree? If so, what went wrong?

Shabtai Ben Yomtov disagrees. He believes that the brothers, or at least Shimon and Levi, convinced themselves that they had a legal right to take revenge. Do you think most people are capable of such rationalizations? How do we guard against this danger, of being able to rationalize any behavior?

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