Emanuel Synagogue

Parashat Vayishlach

This week’s drash deals with violence against women and may be triggering for some readers, you may wish to skip this week’s parasha. 

This week we continue the story of the patriarchs and we focus on Jacob: his night of wrestling with an angel, the reconciliation with his brother Esau, the death of Rachel, his favourite wife, in childbirth and the continuation of his line. We learn about Jacob’s twelve sons, the men who would found the twelve tribes, but nothing in the genealogy speaks about his daughter Dinah. We only know of her existence because of a short story in the midst of this week’s parasha.

It tells us that Dinah, Jacob’s daughter was taken by Shechem, a foreign ruler and raped. Shechem then wants to marry Dinah and he approaches her family for permission. Two of Dinah’s brothers say that he can marry Dinah, but even better, all of his tribe can marry Israelite women, provided they are circumcised. Shechem, in a feat of great persuasion, convinces the men of his tribe to be circumcised and while they are in pain from their operations, Dinah’s brothers avenge the violation perpetrated upon her, by slaughtering all the men of the tribe. For this action they are condemned by their father and later when he bestows blessings on his sons, their blessing is more rebuke than gift.

The rape of Dinah and the subsequent actions of her brothers make for a disturbing and difficult episode in the Torah, not only for the facts it reveals but also for the content of the story. We hear nothing from Dinah, we do not know how she feels, her response to the violation upon her, we do not know her story except through the eyes of her brothers. Indeed, it seems that the episode is not recounted to teach us about Dinah but rather to cast a light upon her brother’s actions. In fact, Jacob, her father, when he hears of what happened to Dinah is silent. It is only after her brothers attack Shechem and his people that Jacob speaks and then it is to chastise his sons for putting the family in danger. Dinah has no voice in the story. Her position and perspective are subverted and the horror of what happened to her swept to the side. Some commentators even cast blame upon Dinah for what happened to her and for causing her brothers to behave as they did; if she had not been out walking alone amongst the people, they argue, none of this would have happened. 

What a tragically familiar story. Violence perpetrated against women, their voices silenced, blame cast upon them for the crimes committed against them, the perpetrators excused, their crimes justified. 

From the 25th November 16 days have been set aside by the UN as Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence. Dinah’s story, the stories of so many women have the shadow of violence and violation. We need to bring these issues into the light, to give survivors a voice, to prevent gender-based violence and to bring healing. 

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Jacqueline Ninio