Monday, November 30, 2009

Vayishlach 5770-2009

"The Rape of Dinah: Impossible to Fathom!" --

In this week's parasha, parashat Vayishlach, we learn of the brutal abduction and rape of Jacob's daughter, Dinah.

The Bible in Genesis 34:1 tells us: "Va'tay'tzay Dinah bat Leah, ah'sher yal'dah l'Yaakov, lir'oht biv'noht ha'ah'retz," Dinah, the daughter of Leah, whom she had borne to Jacob, went out to look over the daughters of the land. Shechem, the son of Hamor, the Hivvite, who was then the prince of the region, saw her, abducted, raped and violated her.

Professing deep love for Dinah, Shechem attempted to appeal to her emotions to become his wife. When that failed, he demanded that his father, Hamor, negotiate with Dinah's family that she become his wife. Hamor and Shechem go to speak to Jacob. When Dinah's brothers hear the proposal they are outraged and answer Shechem and his father deceitfully, insisting that the only way Dinah could marry Shechem would be if all the men of the city of Shechem would undergo circumcision.

Obsessed with Dinah, Shechem convinces the men to undergo circumcision. On the third day after the circumcision, two of Dinah's brothers, Simeon and Levi, attack the ailing men and murder all the males of the city. Jacob's remaining sons then arrive to plunder the city, taking all the people's wealth, including their flocks and cattle, children and wives.

Jacob is profoundly upset with Simeon and Levi, accusing them of making him odious among the inhabitants of the land and opening the whole family up to attack by the Canaanite nations. Simeon and Levi simply respond (Genesis 34:31), "Should our sister be treated like a harlot?" When Jacob's family eventually leaves Shechem, Scripture (Genesis 35:5) testifies that G-d's fear was on the local people, and they did not pursue Jacob and his family.

The episode of the rape of Dinah raises many questions. One prominent issue is whether the actions of Simeon and Levi were in any way justified. From Jacob's reaction to Simeon and Levi, they seem to be entirely unjustified. However, since G-d put dread in the local population, it appears that their actions were indeed justified.

An even more formidable question, is the issue of Dinah herself. What could Dinah have possibly done to bring upon herself this horrific attack? Even asking such a question in this day and age is considered entirely inappropriate--as this may imply blaming the victim. However, since this question was raised by the Bible commentators of old, who viewed everything as coming from G-d, their views must be discussed even if they are disturbing.

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) comments on the verse in Genesis 34:1, that states that Dinah "went out to look at the daughters of the land." Noting that the verse specifically refers to Dinah as the "daughter of Leah," and not the daughter of Jacob, indicates, says Rashi, that Dina was a "yatzaneet," excessively outgoing, and extremely forward, very much like her mother Leah.

On what occasion was Dina's mother, Leah, excessively outgoing? In parashat Vayeitzei, (Genesis 30:14), we learn that Reuven finds duddaim--mandrakes, a fertility drug or an aphrodisiac, and brings them to his mother, Leah. Rachel, who is barren and desperate for a child, insists on having them, and trades her night with Jacob for the mandrakes. That evening, when Jacob returned from the field, he is met by Leah who brazenly insists that Jacob spend the night with her, since she has "hired him" with her son's duddaim. The commentators suggest that this immodest behavior proved ruinous for her daughter, Dinah, who, following her mother's example, went out into the lawless city of Shechem, and as a result was attacked.

However, Rashi's comments in a previous episode, suggest still another reason for the rape of Dinah. Before confronting his brother Esau after many years of estrangement, Jacob quietly transfers his family to the other side of the river Jabbok. Scripture notes in Genesis 32:23 that Jacob arose that night, took his two wives, his two handmaids and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. Rashi famously asks, "V'Dinah hay'chahn hay'tah?" Why does the verse mention eleven sons, but not Jacob's daughter, Dinah? Rashi, citing the Midrash, maintains that Jacob had placed Dinah in a sealed box so that Esau would not lay his lecherous eyes on her and seek to marry the lovely girl. Despite the fact that Jacob was trying to protect Dinah from Esau, says Rashi, Jacob was punished, because by keeping Dinah from his brother, he prevented Dinah from possibly influencing Esau and perhaps returning him to goodness. Instead, she fell into the hands of Shechem.

As opposed to his comments in Vayishlach, Rashi's approach here suggests that the rape of Dinah was not punishment for Dinah's actions, but rather for Jacob's failure to allow Dinah to positively influence his brother Esau.

To many observers, both answers cited by Rashi are highly unsatisfactory. After all, our bible in Deuteronomy 24:16 states emphatically, "Ish b'chet'oh yu'mah'too," every person is responsible for his own sin! Judaism does not countenance an innocent person being punished for the sin of another person.

Rejecting the possibility that the "reason" for Dinah's rape was possibly due to her own dealings or Jacob's inappropriate actions, leaves the entire issue unresolved.

Sidestepping the issue of cause or guilt, the rabbis of the Midrash seem to assert that this entire episode was not at all a punishment, but simply the playing out of Jewish destiny. According to the Midrash, Dinah becomes pregnant and gives birth to a girl, named Osnat. Dinah's brothers are very unhappy to have the child of a rape in their home, and demand that the child be expelled. This troubled Jacob very much. Without going into the details that may be found in the Midrash, Osnat ultimately winds up in the house of Potiphar, where she saves Joseph's life and eventually marries him. She bears him two children, Ephraim and Menashe, whose great loyalty to Jewish tradition merits them the distinction of becoming the progenitors of two full-fledged tribes of Israel. The reason for Dinah's pain and trauma is unaddressed, but the end result is a dramatic change in the destiny of the Jewish people.

When all is said and done, for many students of the Bible there are no adequate answers, and the episode of Dinah's rape remains unfathomable and impossible to understand. It is another chapter in the never-ending quest to make sense of human suffering.

My son, Naphtali Buchwald, shared with me an interesting insight concerning Rashi's second opinion that states that Jacob hid Dinah in the box preventing her from influencing Esau. Naphtali notes that by the Midrashic account, Dinah at that time should be about six years old and Esau 97 years old. How would it be possible for such a young girl to influence a grown man whose fierce attitudes had already been shaped? After all, his own father Isaac was not able to influence Esau, nor was his mother Rebecca, or his brother Jacob? How then could this little child be expected to influence Esau? Naphtali cited the opinion of the Darshan of Jerusalem who answered that question with three simple Yiddish words, "A Yiddishe veib!" a Jewish wife, implying that when a Jewish woman puts her mind to something she can surely achieve it. If she wishes to influence her husband, she can have more influence on him than even Abraham, Isaac or Rebecca. That is the power of Jewish wives.

There are a lot of Jewish men who can testify to the fact that there is much truth to this claim. I am surely one of them.

May you be blessed.

A complete archive of Rabbi Buchwald's Weekly Torah Messages can be viewed here

Monday, November 16, 2009

Toledot 5770-2009

"The Jew Under the Microscope" --

In this week's parasha, parashat Toledot, the Torah tells us that, once again, there was a famine in the land of Canaan, aside from the first famine in the time of Abraham. Like his father Abraham, Isaac goes to Grar, the land of the Philistines, where Abimelech is king.

Isaac settles in Grar, and when asked about his wife, he says that Rebecca is his sister.

In Genesis 26:8, Scripture tells us that after sojourning in Grar for a while, King Abimelech gazes down from his window, "Vayar, v'heenay Yitzchak m'tzachek et Rivka eeshto," and behold, Isaac was sporting with his wife, Rebecca. Abimelech summons Isaac and angrily berates him for identifying Rebecca as his sister, when in reality she was his wife. Isaac, apologetically explains to the king that he was afraid the men in Grar would kill him because of Rebecca's beauty. Having learned from the plague that befell the people of Grar in the times of Abraham and Sarah, Abimelech warns his people not to harm Isaac and Rebecca in any manner.

Unlike the king of Egypt who expelled Abraham and Sarah from his land, Abimelech allows Isaac to remain in Grar. Isaac begins to cultivate the land, and, in his first year, reaps one hundred fold. In Genesis 26:13, Scripture reports, "Va'yigdal ha'eesh, va'yay'lech ha'loch v'gadayl ahd kee gah'dahl m'ode," and the man [Isaac] became greater and greater, until he was very great. Eventually, Isaac had so many flocks, herds and enterprises, that the Philistines began to resent him.

Unable to stomach Isaac's successes, the Philistines purposely stop up all the wells that Abraham's servants had dug, filling them with earth. Finally, Abimelech says to Isaac (Genesis 26:16), "Laych may'ee'mah'noo, kee ah'tzahm'tah mee'meh'noo m'ode," go away from us, for you have become much mightier than we!

Isaac departs from Grar, sets up a new camp away from Abimelech and his people, digs new wells of water, and continues to prosper. Thereupon, the herdsmen of Grar quarrel with the herdsmen of Isaac, insisting that the recently discovered water is theirs. Isaac digs new wells that are also disputed. He finally relocates from there to Rechovoth, where he digs a well that is not disputed.

Not long after, Abimelech, together with a group of his friends from Grar, and Phichol, Abimelech's general, seek out Isaac. Surprised by their visit, Isaac asks (Genesis 26:27): "Why have you come to me? After all, you hate me and drove me away from you?" They finally acknowledge that they have seen that G-d is with Isaac. They then press Isaac to make an oath and a covenant with them to ensure peaceful future relations between the two camps and their descendants.

As we have stated in the past, a significant portion of the Torah's narratives are governed by the principle (Sotah 43a), "Mah'ah'say avot see'mahn l'vanim," the deeds of the fathers are a prognostication for the children. This principle asserts that not only is history repeated with Abraham and Isaac, but repeated throughout the annals of the Jewish people. Consequently, there is much to learn for our own safety and security, if we only pay close attention to the details.

Professor Umberto Cassuto (Moshe David Cassuto 1883-1951, Prof. of Bible, Hebrew University) has pointed out that the repetition of the famine story and going down to Egypt and Grar is clearly a paradigm for the future experiences of the people of Israel. There will be a famine, the people will go down to Egypt, the Egyptians will attempt to kill the male children but allow the females to live, and eventually the people will leave with great wealth.

The particular paradigm that is played out in Genesis 26 in the story of Isaac and Abimelech is remarkably subtle and requires careful study and examination. The Jew [Isaac] comes to town. The local inhabitants immediately recognize that he and his family and their lifestyles are different. They ask personal questions about his family and are particularly interested in his wife, who happens to be very beautiful.

A Jew must always be concerned about his behavior and actions, because others are always looking for him to stumble. Abimelech has his binoculars out, keeping a close watch on Isaac, even noticing how he behaves in his bedroom, sporting with his wife. The more the Jew tries to keep a low profile, the more curiosity it creates.

Despite many distractions, Isaac is able to focus on providing for his family. He plants his field and reaps "may'ah sh'ah'reem," one hundred measures, an immense amount of produce. Despite the fact that he is a newly arrived immigrant, his willingness to work hard and his business acumen allow him to eclipse all the other farmers. The Jew's economic success leads to resentment and jealousy among the populous. Unwilling to confront them and fight over the wells and his success, Isaac leaves Grar only to have his enemies follow him to his new location and stop up his new wells. When he moves far enough away, however, he is finally able to ensure a secure source of water, and is no longer bothered by his enemies. Ultimately, the enemies have a change of heart, and come back to Isaac to sue for peace.

Undoubtedly, what had happened with Isaac and his family is what usually happens after Jewish expulsions. It happened in England, Spain, Portugal and in many other Jewish diasporas. After the Jews were expelled, the economy of the country took a nosedive. The leaders then come back to the Jew to try to coax him to return to their country.

The deeds of the father are the signposts for the children. History repeats itself, again and again.

One of the fascinating sidebars of contemporary history, that is not very well known, is that the German government has been, for several years, recruiting Jews to move to East Germany. All Jews (especially those from the former Soviet Union) who can prove that they have any ancestral connection to Germany are entitled to immediate citizenship in Germany, and are given generous government stipends upon arrival. In fact, more Jews from the former Soviet Union have moved to Germany during the past ten years than have moved to Israel. Apparently, the Germans expect the "resourceful" Jews to revive their stagnant economy.

There is much to learn from the expulsion of Isaac, and his relationship to Abimelech, king of Grar. We dare not ignore the nuances that are found in the Torah's narrative. They are there to teach us and to warn us. The Jew in galut, in exile, is always under the microscope.

We may think that the Jewish experience in America, an experience that has been so blessed, is different. But, we have to remember that we have been blessed before--in England, France, Spain, Italy, and North Africa. Let us hope that we will learn from these ancient lessons and be fortunate enough to ward off the enmity that has historically, and apparently, inevitably, ensued.

May you be blessed.

A complete archive of Rabbi Buchwald's Weekly Torah Messages can be viewed here