Wrestling with Outrage and Danger

November 23rd: Vayishlach
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

The most famous part of Vayishlach is the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel. It is a mysterious passage that begs for symbolic interpretation—especially since we get our group name, Israelites or Children of Israel, from the new name given to our Grandfather Jacob. Here is a paragraph in our prayer book that draws some lessons from the story (page 150):

We Jews who are called “The Children of Israel” should always remember how we got the name. It was the name given to our grandfather Jacob—Jacob who wrestled the angel, Jacob who would not let go. “Israel” they called him for he was a wrestler. “Israel” they call us for we are wrestlers, too. We wrestle with God as we search for wisdom. We wrestle with people as we struggle for justice. And, we wrestle with ourselves as we make ourselves better and more holy. Yes, we Jews are the Children of Israel, the children and grandchildren of a man who wrestled an angel.

Wrestling is not a gentle sport, and sometimes matches can be quite brutal. In a less famous story in the par’shah, our family finds itself in a very difficult situation, with some real wrestling to do. In Genesis 34.1-31, we read about Jacob/Israel and his family returning to the Land of Canaan from Padan Aram (Syria) and settling near Shechem (modern day Nablus, a town about thirty miles north of Jerusalem). Everything seems fine until Shechem, son of the local chieftain Hamor, sets his eyes on Jacob’s daughter, Dinah. One day, when she goes “out to visit the daughters of the land,” Shechem takes her by force and rapes her. Declaring his love for Dinah, he initiates negotiations to marry her. Her family has mixed reactions. Some seem to think that marriage would be the best course. Others are “very angry because he had committed an outrage in Israel!”

The pitch for the marriage—made by Shechem’s father, Hamor—is worth examining. He sees it as an opportunity to combine the tribes. “My son Shechem longs for your daughter. Please give her to him in marriage. Intermarry with us: give your daughters to us, and take our daughters for yourselves. You will dwell among us, and the land will be open before you. Settle, move about, and acquire holdings in it.”

Modern readers will note the glaring omission of any concern about Dinah herself. What is her feeling about the liaison? Does she want to stay with Shechem’s family—having been brought there by force? What is her desire in re marrying the man whose “affection” is so brutal? Though she certainly has feelings, they do not seem to be part of the ancient conversation. (For a fascinating midrash on Dinah’s feelings and experiences, see The Rent Tent by Anita Diamant.)

The eventual answer is to allow the marriage, but with one important condition. Hamor and Shechem and their entire tribe must be circumcised. For an Israelite maiden to marry an uncircumcised man would be “a disgrace among us.” These “words pleased Hamor and Hamor’s son Shechem,” and they proceed to arrange a mass circumcision. Is it a matter of overwhelming love—Shechem’s love for Dinah, Hamor’s love for Shechem, and the entire tribe’s love for Shechem, or are their intentions more nefarious? Knowing that Shechem’s approach toward the woman he loves has not been respectful, the commentators look for clues to their motivation in the appeal that Shechem and Hamor make to the tribe. In verse 21, we read: “These people are our friends; let them settle in the land and move about in it, for the land is large enough for them; we will take their daughters to ourselves as wives and give our daughters to them…their cattle and substance and all their beasts will be ours, if we only agree to their terms, so that they will settle among us.” In other words, the circumcision is seen as a painful but lucrative strategy so that “their cattle and substance and all their beasts will be ours.” Shechem and Hamor are planning to seize everything Jacob and his sons own, and their tribesmen agree to be part of this strategy.

The wickedness of Hamor and Shechem sort of justifies the surprise strategy and vengeance of Dinah’s family. “On the third day, when they (the newly circumcised tribesmen) were all in pain, Simon and Levi, two of Jacob’s sons, brothers of Dinah, took each his sword, came upon the city unmolested, and slew all the males. They put Hamor and his son Shechem to the sword, took Dinah out of Shechem’s house, and went away. The other sons of Jacob came upon the slain and plundered the town, because their sister had been defiled.”

Is this strategy a reasonable or fair response to the rape of their sister? Is it a proportional response? Or is their response responding to a much larger offensive—an offensive that only begins with the rape of Dinah? If you know your enemy has no respect for you—thinks you are weak and can be lulled to lethargy with words and incremental aggression, must you play a quid pro quo game of proportional responses, or should you recognize the threat being mounted and stop it? Or, getting back to Dinah, does not such an outrageous crime demand justice (when you know the tribe is not going to let Shechem alone be punished)?

Jacob is unhappy with what his adult sons have done. “You have brought trouble on me, making me odious among the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites and the Perizzites.” He seems to think that their actions are way beyond reasonability, but his sons see things differently. When they respond to Jacob with, “Should our sister be treated like a whore?” I believe they are saying that the best defense is a devastating offense.

We do not have a complete history of this period of Jewish history, but the Torah does not report anyone else in Canaan messing with the Israelites after this.