Vayishlach: Following in the Footsteps of Avot and Imahot

Yacov is often depicted as travelling – “on his way.” The Sages viewed Yacov’s journey, and the experience of the avot in general, as a blueprint and guide for the destiny of the Jewish people throughout history, especially in the diaspora. What about the imahot? Parshat Vayishlach teaches that there is also power and protection to be found in the actions and experiences of the matriarch Rachel. 

Ramban teaches that this parsha has enduring significance for the Jewish people. The phases of Yacov’s relationship with Esau recurs in the relationship between bnei Yisrael and the descendants of Esau. This principle, “ma’aseh avot siman le-banim – the actions of the fathers are a sign to the children,” means history repeats itself. When Jews face external threats, Ramban says that if we are guided by the actions of Yacov in preparing to meet Esau, we too will be saved and protected.

The children of Israel are given another source of protection toward the end of this week’s parsha. When Rachel tragically dies during childbirth, Yacov buries her separately from the family’s burial place “on the way to Efrat.” The midrashim see great significance for future generations in Rachel’s burial place being “along the way.” Pesikta Rabbati teaches that Yacov wanted to bury her in ma’arat ha-machpela, but God refused so that Rachel could pray for Israel while they were in exile, “along the way.” Eicha Rabbah teaches that after the destruction of the beit ha-mikdash, Jeremiah called on the avot to pray for God to have mercy on Israel. None of their requests were accepted. Only Rachel’s prayer, invoking the sacrifices she made in her life, is able to stir God’s mercy.

Like the forefathers, Rachel’s sacrifices in her life and after-life become a symbol of hope for Am Yisrael throughout their historical journey. The midrashic traditions about her burial “along the way” provide a paradigm of “acts of the mothers being a sign and benefit to the children.” Shabbat Shalom – Karen Miller Jackson

In Praise of Dina: Parshat Vayishlach

Parshat Vayishlach, contains one of the darkest incidents in the story of Yacov’s family: the taking and rape of Dina. Yet, the inclusion of this account in the Torah suggests that it is important not to ignore the topic of sexual abuse and to find ways to talk about it, protect against it and advocate for the victims. 

The commentaries on Dina’s story grapple with two issues which require moral clarity and which are still relevant today: lack of consent and the tendency to blame the victim. Dina goes out, “va’teze,” to see the women of the area. Shechem saw her, took her and “vaye’aneha.” Studying the interpretations of these two words can be a springboard for discussing the importance of consent in sexual relationships. One possible reading of “vaye’aneha” is that he debased her, downplaying the violence and her lack of consent. Ramban, however, based on other occurrences of this word in Tanach, provides a voice of moral clarity: “The Torah tells us that she was forced, and she did not consent to the prince of the country — to her praise.”

Interpreting the word “va’teze,” the midrash calls Dina a “yatzanit,” she liked to go out, seeming to imply that she shared responsibility for what happened to her. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, however, interprets this to her credit: being a yatzanit was a positive attribute in Dinah, since she had the potential to positively influence others. Blaming the victim only further stigmatizes abuse.

Ramban says this story teaches the praise of Dina – לספר בשבחה – in that she remained true to her values as a daughter of Israel. I would add that Dina is also to be praised for giving us her story to raise awareness about abuse, and to talk to our children about healthy relationships. Shabbat Shalom – Karen Miller Jackson