Struggling With a Deceitful Heart

Vayishlach, Genesis 32:4−36:43

D'Var Torah By: Rabbi Stephen S. Pearce, Ph.D.

two people engaged in a tug of warThe inner turmoil that marked Jacob’s life of deceitfulness as well as his struggle with his father, brother, and sons are exposed in Vayishlach. After many years of separation, Jacob, about to meet his estranged brother, Esau, slept in a dream-like state of wakefulness on the shore of the Jabbok River where a man wrestled with him until the rise of dawn. In the text we read:

Then he said,“Let me go; dawn is breaking.” But [Jacob] said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” The other said to him, “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.” “No more shall you be called Jacob, but Israel,” said the other, “for you have struggled with God and with human beings and you have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked, “Pray tell me your name.” But he said, “why do you ask my name?” And he took leave of him. (Genesis 32:27-30)

There is no way to rank the variety of events that led to the turmoil and agony Jacob was fated to live with. However, a reader can only imagine that the most painful experience that Jacob had to endure was the rape of his daughter, Dinah. This androcentric chronicle, a story in which only males are prime movers, is troubling on a number of levels. It is a love story thought by some scholars to be an Israelite “Romeo and Juliet,” but also a story that has gone awry. Dinah has no voice in this narrative and furthermore, when it comes to the conclusion, the reader never hears about Dinah again.

Dinah’s brothers, Simon and Levi, bring dishonor to the clan by the way they deal with the rapist and his tribe. Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut,1 suggests that this account “fits into the overall pattern of the Jacob tragedy, with deception once again playing a central role.”

The text records that Dinah “went out to see the women of the locality” (Genesis 34:1). Although the meaning of the text is unclear, later commentators suggest that Dinah invited the crime of which she became the victim. Certainly today, comments that blame the victim for a crime are unacceptable.

In this love story, Shechem, the son of Hamor, the chief of the country, forcibly raped Dinah. However, in an uncharacteristic turn of events, Shechem fell in love with Dinah and hoped to marry her. Shechem visited Jacob and asked for Dinah’s hand in marriage, saying:

Let me find favor in your sight, and I will give you whatever you ask. Exact from me bridal money and gifts to excess, yet I will pay whatever you demand of me; only give me the girl to be [my] wife.” (Genesis 34:11-12)

Though Jacob’s sons “were grieved and became extremely angry” (Genesis 34:7) nothing was said to Hamor or Schechem about the crime. Nothing was said on whether or not Shechem’s proposal was acceptable to Dinah or about the fact that his family was still holding Dinah. Nevertheless, the marriage of the victimizer and the victim was in agreement with the custom of the land, because later in Exodus, the text requires that the ravisher must marry the unbetrothed victim, unless her father objects:

If a man seduces a virgin for whom the bride-price has not been paid, and lies with her, he must make her his wife by payment of a bride-price. (Exodus 22:15-16)

Jacob’s sons, Simeon and Levi, Dinah’s full brothers, gave their consent but required that all the men of Shechem’s tribe become circumcised. However, Simeon and Levi had other plans for the tribe that agreed to this mass circumcision: while the men of Schechem’s tribe were healing, the brothers killed them, seizing their possessions and taking the remaining population captive in retribution for Dinah’s rape.

Although Dinah’s name means “justice,” she received none. After this incident, Dinah disappears from the text. Although Jacob never commented on the crime against his daughter, he did protest his sons’ strategy. Jacob castigated Simeon and Levi, worrying that his reputation suffered on account of their action, and he and his tribe would be subject to retribution because of their action:

You have made trouble for me by making me odious to the land’s inhabitants — the Canaanites and the Perizzites. Since I am few in number, they will gather themseles against me and strike at me, and I and my household will be destroyed. (Genesis 34:30-31)

Furthermore, the matter rankled Jacob for the rest of his life because on his deathbed Jacob rebuked his sons:

Simeon and Levi are partners;
instruments of violence are their plan …
for they killed a man in their wrath, …
Cursed is their wrath so fierce,
and their fury so harsh!
I will disperse them in Jacob,
scatter them in Israel. (Genesis 49:5-7)

In addition to the issue of women like Dinah having no voice in their own welfare, the rape of Dinah and the troubled life of Jacob raise the question why some people have lives of ease and others struggle with misfortune. Some of what happens to people is simply the result of luck — being in the right place at the right time or conversely, being in the wrong place at the wrong time. And some of what happens depends on a person’s response to a given situation, positive or negative. Yet sometimes individuals do not have control over outcomes that impact their lives.

Jacob’s struggles are very human because they are everyone’s struggles. Battling ghosts and night creatures is a universal experience. Like Jacob, individuals often struggle with akov halev, “a deceitful heart.” And there is no satisfactory answer for what makes some people kind and others cruel, or why some have lives of ease and others face constant pain and sorrow. The fact that there is no answer does not go unnoticed by the tradition, as Rabbi Yannai commented: "It is not in our power to explain either the prosperity of the wicked or the afflictions of the righteous" (Pirkei Avot 4:19).2

1. W. Gunther Plaut, gen. ed. The Torah: A Modern Commentary, rev. ed. (NY:URJ Press, 2005), p. 218

2. Shown as 4:15 in Kravitz and Olitzky, eds. and trans., Pirke Avot (NY: UAHC Press, 1993), p. 65

Rabbi Stephen S. Pearce, Ph.D. is senior rabbi emeritus of Congregation Emanu-El of San Francisco, and a faculty member of the Fromm Institute for Lifelong Learning at the University of San Francisco, and the Beyond The Walls: Spiritual Writing Program at Kenyon College. He is the author of Flash of Insight: Metaphor and Narrative in Therapy and other articles, poems, and books.

Confronting Mistakes in Order to Grow

Daver Acher By: Rabbi Sarah Mack

Ice cream cone that fell on the groundGrowth often comes from the things we wish most to avoid. That is just what Jacob discovers on that dark night on the banks of the Jabbok River. He confronts his mistakes and in the process transforms from his former self, Ya-akov, which can mean “usurper” or “birthright stealer,” to Yisrael a name meaning “one who struggles with God.” The Jacob of  "a deceitful heart" described by Rabbi Pearce above develops into a righteous and accountable man.

In Vayishlach, Jacob goes forward to face his contentious brother Esau and then moves on to the city of Shechem where his daughter Dina’s rape takes place. His troubles definitely don’t end. Yet the text (Genesis 33:18) describes Jacob as shalem, “whole.” Asking about this unusual choice of words, the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 33b) explains that he was “whole in body, whole in fiscal worth, and whole in his knowledge of Torah.” Jacob was not destroyed physically, financially or, most important, spiritually by his trials. He made mistakes, he suffered, he learned, and although he may have carried bruises from his experiences, he somehow remained intact.

Categorized as deceptive by his very name, Jacob is a testament to what introspection and transformation look like. His strivings enable him to transcend his worst self. It is not despite his imperfections but rather because of them that Jacob finds wholeness. His story is a reminder that our disappointments, our losses, and our failures form the patina of experience that give our lives depth and meaning. We need not be perfect, for it is our blemishes that make us whole. In fact there is no exact word for “perfect” in Hebrew. Shalem means whole or “at peace.” Tam means “complete” and “having integrity.” Jacob is described as both at various points in his life. Jacob is a complex character: deception, integrity, and wholeness are all part of his very being. Isn’t that true of us all? Our parashah is a reminder that our strivings for our best selves are holy as we, like Jacob, pursue our full potential.

Rabbi Sarah Mack is a rabbi at Temple Beth-El in Providence, RI. 

Reference Materials

Vayishlach, Genesis 32:4−36:43
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 217–237; Revised Edition, pp. 218–240
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, pp. 183–208
Haftarah, Hosea 11:7–12:12
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 349−351; Revised Edition, pp. 241−243

Originally published: