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December 4, 2020 – Vayishlach

Shabbat Message from Rabbi Brigitte Rosenberg

Parashat Vayishlach

2nd Shlish: Genesis 34:1-35:15

This week’s parashah, Vayishlach, is full. It offers a narrative of Jacob’s life, much of which most of us are familiar. In the beginning, Jacob and his family are returning to Canaan and he is faced with seeing his brother Esau once again. It is within this early part of the narrative that Jacob wrestles with a being, perhaps an angel, and he is given the name Israel, “one who wrestles with God.” This is a fitting name for Jacob, and ultimate for us as B’nai Yisrael, children of Jacob, as throughout the text and the many millennia of our people, we have questioned and we have struggled with God.

At UH, we read Torah on a triennial cycle. This allows for us to read the entirety of Torah in a three-year span.  Moving to this cycle meant that we would deal with all parts of the Torah, the good and the not so good, which means that this week, in parashat Vayishlach, we don’t get to skip over the difficult, the not so good.  The section of Vayishlach that we read this Shabbat contains the narrative known as the Rape of Dinah. Dinah is the daughter of Leah and Jacob and as far as we know, she is the only daughter, making her the 13 child (her brothers make up the 12 tribes of Israel). In chapter 34 of Genesis, we are introduced to Dinah as she proceeds to leave the family compound and visit the women of the land. It is during this visit that she is noticed by Shechem, a prince of the area, and the text tells us that he lays with her by force. After, he decides that he loves her, wants to marry her, and asks his father, Chamor, to get her as his wife. Jacob finds out that Dinah has been raped and is basically silent. He allows his sons to answer Chamor, and their requirement is that all the men of Shechem become circumcised. There is an agreement and while the men of Shechem are recovering from their circumcisions, Simeon and Levi, Dinah’s brothers, kill all the men of Shechem and plunder the area. Jacob’s response is puzzling, and the chapter ends with a question by Simeon and Levi, “Should our sister be treated like a harlot?” The question is really a rhetorical one, as no one answers it and it is like a scene ending in a play, the lights go down and we move on to a different part of the story.

Sadly, what is missing from this section of the text are voices – the voice of Dinah, Jacob, Shechem, and even Leah and the other members of Jacob’s household beyond Simeon and Levi.  I think because of this, for generations the commentators haven’t really known what to do with this section of our text. It is as if they aren’t sure about how to deal with rape committed by an outsider and with revenge killing when one of their own is defiled and harmed. The commentators seem hesitant to comment, and I’m struck by the fact that a section that brings up many more questions than answers simply ends with a question.   I can’t help but wonder, why?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, z”l, teaches, “Judaism is a religion of questions. Where did it come from, this Jewish passion for questions? Clearly, it owes much to the fact that three times in the Torah, Moses speaks of children asking for an explanation of religious practice, and in another place, it says, ‘On that day you shall tell your son . . .’ … To ask is to grow. But questioning goes deeper than this in Judaism. The heroes of faith asked questions of God, and the greater the prophet, the harder the question. Questioning is at the heart of Jewish spirituality. Religious faith has often been seen as naïve, blind, accepting. That is not the Jewish way.”

For me, this particular question suggests that there are infinite answers and ways to consider and tackle this text. Is Dinah the only victim? Does Shechem, the initial perpetrator, become a victim? What do we do with revenge that leads to killing? Are there historical implications to this text, i.e., there are two groups of people, Israelites and Shechemite with differing laws and rules about what is ok – how do we deal with this? What does Dinah think? And how do we look at this text within the context of midrash, such as a book like the Red Tent, that seeks to give Dinah voice and make this a love story?

Perhaps the intent of the question was to point to the very fact that there are no simple answers within this story. Each of us, reading the text, in whatever time and generation, and with whatever life experience we have, may find different and differing answers to how to deal with the topics at hand. This, as Rabbi Sacks teaches, is the essence of Judaism. We don’t accept just one answer, rather we question, we challenge, we turn the story round and round, recognizing that even though it is not a story we want to read, there is still much to be learned from it.  This is true of Judaism, as a whole, we don’t just accept, we question, we challenge, and in so doing we connect with not only a rich tradition of stories and laws, but we can also connect on a spiritual level with God, recognizing that questioning sometimes leads to more questions as opposed to answers and this is the essence of faith – finding meaning in those things for which we sometimes cannot find answers.

This Shabbat, I challenge you to ask a great question!!

I hope you’ll join us for Kabbalat Shabbat services this evening, Shabbat morning services tomorrow, and please note the new time of 6:00 pm for our Next Week, Now Havdalah.

Shabbat Shalom!!