Vayishlach

This week’s Torah portion contains within it the story of the rape of Ya’akov’s daughter Dina, and the revenge of her brothers on the perpetrators of that deed. “Leah’s daughter Dina, whom she had borne to Ya’akov, went out to visit some of the local girls. She was seen by Shechem, son of the chief of the region, Chamor the Hivite. He seduced her, raped her, and afflicted her. He became attached to Dina, and fell in love with her...” (Bereishis 34; 1-3). Though his crime was unspeakably horrendous, it does not seem from the text that Shechem was a sociopath, or serial rapist. Were that the case he would not have come to Dina’s father to ask for her hand in marriage, and certainly would not have agreed to circumcision, which was the demand made of him and his village by Shimon and Levi, Dina’s brothers. Through a closer examination of this incident we can gain an insight into Shechem and behaviour (though it is without justification).

Not only was Shechem the name of the son of the Chief of the town, it was also the name of the town itself. It seems that Chamor named the town in honour of his son, to show the world his love for his son. The word Shechem actually means ‘treasure’ or ‘special portion’ (see ibid. 49; 22), so Chamor’s name for his son denotes the special place he had in his father’s heart.

The name Chamor is related to the word Chomer, meaning ‘substance’ or ‘material’. We have a tradition that a person’s name gives us an insight into who they really are, so the Torah seems to be telling us that Chamor was someone who was very connected to the physical world. He showed his affection to his son through materialism, by naming the town after him, and presumably by giving him any worldly possession that he wanted.

We see from Shechem’s request of his father, “Get me this young girl [Dina] as a wife” (ibid. 34; 4) that he was used to asking for and receiving anything he wanted. Similarly, when negotiating with Ya’akov and his sons, Shechem shows that he is used to getting anything that he wants: “I will give you whatever you ask. Set the bridal payments and gifts as high as you like - I will give you whatever you demand of me. Just let me have the girl as my wife.” (verse 12). His assumption is that everything has its price, and his father can afford to purchase anything for him.

Since Shechem considered that his father would give him everything that he wanted, perhaps he assumed that it was already his for the taking. If he saw a woman that took his fancy, he would first take her and rape her, confident that since he desired her his father would ensure that he could marry her. In his mind the whole world was his to do with as he wished, since he was the son of the Chief.
Shechem and Chamor were living in a totally money oriented society. Ya’akov realised this from his first encounter with the place. The Torah tells us that Ya’akov’s first action upon arriving in Shechem was to purchase the land for his tents. We are even told the purchase price of that real-estate, 100 kesitas (33; 19). The focus on money in Shechem is in sharp distinction to the place where Ya’akov had just left. After his encounter with Esav, Ya’akov went to a place named Succot, where he built a house for himself and temporary shelters (succot) for his livestock. By naming the place Succot he demonstrated that he was only going to be there temporarily, and that he was not interested in the permanence of lavish housing or accumulating wealth. When he left that place, he arrived in Shechem Shalem, ‘complete’. Rashi quotes the Midrash which explains that he was complete in his finances and complete in his health. In other words he lacked nothing, and therefore was not interested in money, possessions or acquisitions. He had freed himself from the rat race of chasing after material well being, and was thus free to complete himself spiritually. This is what he had intimated to his brother as explanation for the gifts that he had sent to Esav, “I have all [I need]” (verse 11).

Thus Ya’akov elevated himself above concerns with materialism and possessions. He was unable to understand the world-view of Shechem and Chamor, who treated not only objects, but even people as belonging to them, and having primarily a financial worth. Though Chamor did mention love in his negotiations with Ya’akov for his daughter, his main concern was that this arrangement would bring financial gain to both parties, “The land will be open before you. Settle down, do business here, and the land will become your property.” Ya’akov does not even speak in the negotiations that follow, since he cannot even understand the concept of negotiating for a person as if they were only chattel.

Shimon and Levi did negotiate with Shechem and Chamor, but instead of asking for money they demanded that they must circumcise themselves in order that Shechem be able to marry Dina. Though this may have been only a ploy to weaken the defences of the town so that they could attack, we could also perhaps understand their terms and conditions as trying to explain that their sister was not a physical object for sale. The Rambam explains (Moreh Nevuchim section 3) that through circumcision a Jewish male shows that he does not view sexual relations solely in terms of physical pleasure, but as a spiritual means to fulfil G-d’s will. It seems that Ya’akov’s sons wanted to teach Shechem that women are not merely objects, and that marriage is primarily a spiritual commitment.

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Devorah the Unknown (1)

The Torah portion tells us that, as Ya’akov and his family were heading home after their encounter with Esav, “Devorah, Rivka’s nursemaid, died there and was buried [on the slope] beneath Bet-El, beneath an oak tree. They named that place Alon Bachot (Weeping Oak)”(2). This was the same woman who had accompanied Rivka from her home in Padan Aram, when she left with Eliezer to marry Yitzchak. “They [Lavan and his mother] sent Rivka their sister, and her nursemaid and Avraham’s servant (Eliezer) and his men... and they went”.3 Why does the Torah need to tell us about this nursemaid, and why is there such sadness at her death?

Furthermore, why was she travelling with Ya’akov and his family; we would have expected her to remain with Rivka? Finally, why is the place named Bachot, in the plural, implying that everyone was weeping at her death? It would appear that Ya’akov’s wives and children would hardly know Devorah at all.

We all know that the strongest influences on a person are those he or she receives at home during childhood. We often think that we are being open minded about issues by not influencing our children, and giving them the option to decide for themselves later on in life. Unfortunately, in most cases that attitude in and of itself influences the child, so that by the time they have reached maturity the issue has already been resolved in their mind, and they are unable to make an objective, informed decision. Children absorb the atmosphere of the home, and subconsciously take on the value systems and ideals of their parents, or their closest childhood influences.

Devorah had heard about the tremendous things that Avraham and Sarah had done. Padan Aram was the place where Avraham and Sarah came to their realisations and began their preaching; therefore, Devorah knew about them first hand. She had probably heard them speak and become taken by their knowledge of G-d and by their own ethical behaviour, a thing quite foreign to contemporary Aramean life.

Devorah chose not to follow Avraham and Sarah when they left for Israel, but as she raised Rivka she would tell her stories about the lives of these two spiritual giants, and imparted to her the greatness of their beliefs and the importance of their values. Imagine young Rivka encountering Eliezer and hearing that he was searching for a wife for Yitzchak, the son of these two wonderful people she had heard so much about as a child. She literally jumped at the chance to become a part of this family, and join in their efforts at making the world a better place. She took her nursemaid, Devorah, with her as she left, wanting to introduce her future husband and in-laws to this tremendous woman who had made such an impact on her life.

Once Rivka had children of her own, she knew that one day they too would be looking for wives. Where would they find women worthy of being the next matriarchs of this fledgling religion? Knowing that we must create our own destiny, Rivka asked Devorah to return to her home town, and act as nursemaid to Lavan’s two daughters. Rivka was certain that Devorah would be able to impart to them the values that had led to Rivka becoming the wife of Yitzchak. Therefore, when Ya’akov has to leave to seek a wife, Rivka instructs him to go to Lavan and begin his search there. She knows that Rachel and Leah have been raised by Devorah, therefore absorbing the ideals and character traits necessary to continue the nation.

When Ya’akov returns home with his wives and children, Devorah,now an old woman, accompanies them but passes away before they reach home. Yet her legacy lives on; she has left her mark on history, having raised two generations of women who became leaders and shaped the world. Now we can understand why everyone was mourning her passing. Her influence touched the entire family, and the future of the Jewish nation. No wonder the Torah mentions her death. It marks the end of an era.

1 Based on the chapter of the same name in Rabbi Yisrael Miller’s What’s Wrong with Being Happy?
2 Bereishis 35; 8
3 ibid. 24; 59

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“It is not good for man to be alone” (Bereishis 2; 18). With this introduction G-d prepares Adam for the creation of his wife, Eve. The purpose of creation is to imitate G-d, as the Torah tells us that mankind were made in the image of G-d. Just as G-d has no needs, and therefore only gives, so too a person should strive to become a ‘giver’ and not a ‘taker’. For Adam to remain alone would have deprived him of the opportunity to give to another, who has different requirements to him. This is why G-d created men and women with distinct emotional, physical and spiritual needs.

However, ‘aloneness’ is only a negative thing when it deprives a person of the opportunity to give to others. But to be ‘alone’ in the sense of self-sufficient, and not needing to receive from others is also a form of imitating G-d. Yishaya (2; 11) tells us that G-d is ‘alone’, “The L-rd ‘alone’ shall be exalted”. This is the meaning of the verse “One who hates gifts will live.” (Mishlei 15; 27). The goal of self-sufficiency is best described by Ben Zoma in the Mishna (Pireki Avos 4; 1) “ Who is rich? Someone who is happy with their portion.” We see from here that spiritual perfection does not depend on others, but on utilising the capabilities and tools that a person has themselves.

This embodies the difference between Ya’akov and Esav. When they meet and Ya’akov offers his brother gifts (Bereishis 33) Esav responds “I have much”. Ya’akov on the other hand, says, “I have everything.” Someone who has a lot always wants more, but someone who feels that they have everything is ‘happy with their portion’.

“And Ya’akov remained alone” (ibid. 32; 25). Normally we think that the guardian angel of Esav was able to attack and wrestle with Ya’akov because he remained alone, without perfection. However, Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz explains that it was precisely because he had reached the level of spiritual independence and self-sufficiency that is referred to by the Torah as ‘alone’, that he was able to battle and defeat the angel. Ya’akov had spent 20 years with Lavan perfecting himself to be able to return and face his brother Esav. He was only able to survive his encounter with his brother because he had attained such a level of independence that he was able to send a message to Esav saying “With Lavan I remained a stranger (garti), and remained there until now” (ibid. 32; 5). Rashi points out that the word garti has the numerical value of 613, the number of commandments. Despite, or perhaps because of, dwelling with Lavan, Ya’akov was able to remain firm to all the laws and commandments of the Torah.

This quality of ‘aloneness’ was part of Bilam’s blessing of the entire Jewish nation, “This is a nation that dwells alone, and is not considered with the other nations” (Bamidbar 23; 9). Though popular culture changes the value system every few years, the strength of the Jewish nation is that we are not swept away by every passing phase, but are able to remain true to our Torah values regardless of how we are viewed by the rest of the world. We too are able to wrestle with the angels of Esav, and defeat them, because we define ourselves independently of the culture and society in which we live.