photo by Jesse Andrews, used under Creative Commons
There are times when we are subjected to the choices of others, either malicious or indifferent, with limited ability to protect ourselves. At such times it can become difficult to keep fighting. Whether as a victim or a guilty party, there is the temptation to hide one’s shame. Shame can be useful, just like pain, it is a sign that some standard has been violated, and we can negotiate with shame to contain and channel it for good. With a prayer on our lips, gratitude for what we do have, recognition of our virtues (1), we can have faith that despite the troubles we face, we may yet triumph in the end. I explore these themes through the life of Jacob, mainly as they appear in the Torah reading this week, Vayishlach.
We encounter Jacob very afraid and upset (2) about meeting his violent brother Esau who he had cheated out of their father’s blessings years earlier (3). His prayer is full of pathos, “Please save me, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I am afraid of him, lest he come and strike me, [and strike] a mother with children” (4). Yet, despite the urgency for Jacob, God does not reply to this prayer.
I see great symbolism in the fact that Jacob remains “alone” when he wrestles with a man (5), who commentary tells us was his brother’s guardian angel (6). Jacob prevails in his wrestle with the angel, admitting that yes he is Jacob, which means the usurper (7), yet standing his ground. The meeting with the brother works out ok, after Jacob sent him many gifts, his brother kisses him and tells him “My brother, let what is yours, be yours” (8), which is interpreted “as my brother, there is no need for the gifts” (9) and perhaps even conceding that Jacob can keep the disputed blessings (10).
Shortly after the reunion with his brother Esau, Jacob’s daughter Dina’s, an only girl among a family of boys (11), goes out to seek some female company with the local girls or alternatively she is more keen to “be seen” to show off her good looks (12). She is noticed, then abducted and raped by Shchem the son of the local ruler “who sleeps with her and pains her” (13) (see note 12 regarding the offensive linking of mode of dress with rape). When Jacob hears about the rape, he waits silently for his sons (14) and leaves them to do the talking (15). They make a dishonest offer of intermarriage with the people of Shchem on condition that all the men in Shchem circumcise themselves which enables Jacob’s sons to kill the ailing townspeople. They don’t bother to seek Jacob’s guidance or permission. Jacob’s protests weakly about PR damage and fear of reprisal. His sons dismiss his concern with a rhetorical question “should he make our sister into a harlot?!” (16). I see Jacob withdrawing from leadership because of the pain and shame of the situation.
Jacob, shattered by the episode with Dina, still manages to pull himself together to provide some religious guidance to his sons about disposing of any idols among the spoils (17). It is not long before Jacob seems to withdraw again. After his beloved wife Rachel dies, the text tells us that his son Reuben “went and slept Bilhah (this is not a typo, it does not say slept with), his father’s concubine, and Jacob heard” (18).
There is great controversy about the meaning of the verse. Some sages are adamant that it is not to be taken literally (19). It could be argued that they are seeking to whitewash or cover up what really happened according to the plain meaning of the text and the views of other sages (20). At a time when the Torah used to be translated for those who did not understand Hebrew one sage instructed the translator not to translate this verse (21). One commentator (22) cryptically suggests that the sages have interpreted this verse well, citing the proverb “and the wise, have their shame covered” (23). This view is strongly rejected, while it is “permissible” to say that Reuben did in fact sin, it is absolutely forbidden to” suggest that the sages who did not take the story literally were engaged in a cover up (24).
Certainly in the modern context we know that hiding problems such as child abuse is a terrible omission that can lead to great suffering, honour killings is another crime that might be motivated by the desire to avoid shame. According to commentary Dina has a daughter to Shchem who is later named Osnat, and her brothers want to kill the baby girl so that no one will say that the house of
In the end Jacob survives all these troubles. His last years are happy ones, spent with his powerful and much loved son and wonderful wife,Joseph and Osnat, yes the same Osnat daughter of Shchem and Dina (26).
References and Notes
1) R. Yosef Yitchak Shneerson argues that one must know ones positive points just as one must be aware of ones faults
2) Genesis 32:8
3) Genesis 27
4) Genesis 32:12, (translation with minor modification from chabad.org)
5) Genesis 32:15
6) Beresheet Rabba
7) Gensis 32:28 as interpreted by my colleague Donna Jacobs Sife
8) Genesis 33:9
10) Rashi, Baal Haturim, indicates that the Gematriya, the numerical value of the letters in the words אחי יהי לך אשר לך (my brother let what is yours be yours) is the same as זה הברכות they both equal the number 645.
11) Ohr Hachayim
12) Tanchuma Yashan Vayshlach 10 who goes on to suggest that her arm was revealed, “because it could not be that she would have gone out without covering her face” (based on Torat Cohanim and Yefat Toar), see also in Midrash Agada, Lekach Tov cited in Torah Shlaima Vol. 2 p. 1317-1318. I agree with the modern view that showing off her beauty is no excuse for rape, these commentaries written over a thousand years ago do not suggest that it is a justification but they do contextualise her abduction with this commentary.
13) Genesis 34:2, which is interpreted as Shchem raping her (Ramban)
14) Genesis 34:5, an alternative interpretation is that he is that he initially sends two servants to bring her home, Shchem and his men banish Jacob’s servants but not before Shchem sits Dina down and kissed her and hugged her in front of them. They reported back to Jacob on what they had seen. It is a this point that Jacob goes silent (Sefer Hayashar)
15) Genesis 34:13, Radak points out that Jacob is silent while this negotiated. He does not speak falsehood with his lips but leaves it to his sons to do.
16) Genesis 34:30-31
17) Genesis 35:2-4
18) Genesis 35:22, while the verse seems to suggest that he was passive, commentary suggests that he heard and rebuked him (Yalkutim Hatemanim, cited in Torah Shlaima Vol. 2 p. 1362, 96).
19) Talmud Shabbat 55b some of the sages, Rashi, Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel, Chizkuni. The proof cited in support of the non-literal view is the fact that the Tribe of Reuben stands on Mt. Ebal and utters the curse against anyone who sleeps with his father’s wife, which would surely not be appropriate if this was a sin committed by the founder of their tribe and their ancestor.
20) Other opinions in the Talmud Shabbat 55b, Oonkelus, Bchor Shor and Radak who explains that Reuben thought that Bilhah was not really his father’s wife but a mere concubine. Another source that would not be considered authoritative is Sefer Hayovilm 33 (which was found with the dead sea scrolls). It gives a vivid description of the event.
21) Talmud Megilah 25b
22) Ibn Ezra
23) Proverbs 12:16, וכסה קלון ערום
24) Sefer Emunat Chachamim, L’Rabbi Eliezer Sar Shalom 22, cited in in Torah Shlaima Vol. 2 p. 1362, 96
25) Midrash Mayan Ganim, manuscript, cited in cited in in Torah Shlaima Vol. 2 p. 1318, 6
26) Genesis 41:45, as interpreted by Pirkey DRabbi Eliezer 38
27) Susan Jeffers, the name of her excellent book, an earlier variation of this concept is also articulated by Abarbanel.