ReformJudaism.org

Jewish Life in Your Life
 

Search URJ.org and the other Reform websites:

Welcome to Questions

  • Welcome to Questions

    Vayishlach, Genesis 32:4−36:43
D'var Torah By: 

To the familiar "How odd of God to choose the Jews" we might well add, upon reading the story of Jacob/Israel, "But stranger still is Israel/It's odd indeed to be his seed/Part cheat, part mouse, yet we're his house/How come we're known as Jacob's own?"

The text of Vayishlach is unbearably dense, and to the degree to which we learn still more of Jacob's character in the course of reading it, our earlier opinion of him is confirmed. Through much of his story, he appears remarkably passive. Note especially his response to the rape of Dinah where he demonstrates none of the outrage of Dinah's brothers, his sons. When he finally raises his voice, it is not against the murder and plunder his sons have committed but against the damage their actions have done to his reputation. This last is yet another indication of his profound self-involvement and his insensitivity to the others in his family: his placement of Leah and her children in the more vulnerable position as the meeting with Esau draws near; his consistent rejection of Leah in earlier sections of the story; and, of course and most powerfully, his cheating of Esau with respect to the birthright.

More generally, the Jacob story is about a man who repeatedly suffers insult, injury, and tragedy and whose suffering is in no small measure a consequence of his own behavior. Turn the pages, and over and over again, we find Jacob in a compromising position, father of a manifestly dysfunctional family. And how could it not be, given his exploitation of Esau, his dishonesty towards his father, his meanness towards Leah, and his later blatant favoritism towards Joseph?

All of which raises at least two difficult questions: Why was he chosen for the blessing; why is his name attached to us all, his descendants? And then, how can a man blessed by God - perhaps even in person, as it were - be so cursed? Happiness and contentment were never part of the blessing. On the contrary, the blessing is highly specific, having to do only with Jacob's status as progenitor. It is, in a manner of speaking, a biological blessing to be fulfilled in the course of time, well beyond the span of Jacob's years.

Perhaps, after all, it is the fate of anyone who is father to "a nation and a company of nations" to be troubled.

Or, perhaps, we are meant to understand not only that our early ancestors were real, hence imperfect, people but also that our story is one of growing moral discernment, that it is only later, at the base of a mountain in a wilderness, that we will begin to understand the intended connection between our behavior and our reward.

A final question: How is it that Jacob, who is twice told that his name has been changed to "Israel," continues to be remembered in our liturgy by his former name?

If now you're vexed, please read the text.

Leonard Fein is the past Director of the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism.

Rape and Affection
Davar Acher By: 
Emily Feigenson

In the tale of the rape of Dinah (Genesis 33:18 - 34:31) the Torah gives an astonishingly clear picture of people's confusion in responding to rape. People are especially confounded when the rapist feels affection for his victim.

Similar ambivalence characterizes contemporary society's responses to rapes that occur in the context of a relationship and/or affection: Date rape and marital rape are examples of forced sex in which affection can exist before or after the abuse. The perpetrator's affection confounds those who attempt to respond to the violation. There are parents like Jacob: When a son-in-law offers a daughter financial security along with the occasional abuse, they remain silent and hopeful. There are men like Shechem, who give sincere gifts of affection to the women they have attacked. There are those like Dinah's brothers, who hope a relationship that initially includes violence will ultimately evolve into a healthy marriage. And there are women like Dinah: Having ventured into the world and been attacked, they are left silent amidst the whirlwind of people's reactions.

  1. Explore each character's response to the mixture of violation and affection; organize a choral reading of the passage. Assign all the roles, including that of a narrator. Other participants stand in back of each role to give voice to that person's internal fears, reactions, feelings, thoughts. Listen carefully for the way Jacob, Shechem, Simon/Levi, other brothers, and Dinah comprehend the meaning of the rape.
  2. In their book From Generation to Generation, Rabbis Mowshowitz and Orenstein note that the rabbis of Bereshit Rabbah assign blame not only to the rapist but also to others: Jacob's passivity, Dinah's brothers' duplicity and uncontrolled anger, and Dinah's dress and going out are all criticized. Discuss the ways society blames people other than the perpetrator. Is it appropriate to blame those who stand silent in the face of abuse? Should the victim share responsibility for the breakdown of civility?
  3. Clearly the rape is seen as something very wrong in the Torah. How does each character attempt to "fix" the sexual violence, to make the world right again? Examine contemporary ways of making the world right again after a rape, including the use of the mikveh for new cleansing rituals for sexual abuse victims.

For Further Reading:
Women and Jewish Law
, Rachel Biale, New York: Schocken Books, 1984.

Rabbi Emily Feigenson is the rabbi of Adat Chaverim in Los Alamitos, CA.

12/24/1996
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

When do we read Vayishlach

2018, November 24
16 Kislev, 5779
2019, December 14
16 Kislev, 5780
2021, November 20
16 Kislev, 5782
Sign up for the Ten Minutes of Torah Emails