Parshat Vayeshev: Wishing for Tranqulity?

Parshat Vayeshev opens with the statement that Yacov settled down in Canaan. He had not had an easy life until then: He’d left home to flee Esav, endured years with the swindler Lavan, and suffered the trauma of Dina’s kidnapping and its aftermath. The midrash elaborates that Yakov now hoped to live “b’shalva,” in peace and tranquility. Surely that’s something we can understand.

Chazal, however, viewed Yakov’s desire for “shalva” as problematic. “Yacov wished to live at ease, but the ordeal of Yosef sprang upon him,” says Rashi, citing the midrash. “When tzadikim ask for tranquility, God responds: “The peace of the world-to-come awaits them, yet they also want to dwell at ease in this world?!” This interpretation is based on a seeming connection between Yacov’s desire to settle down, and the subsequent events: intense jealousy between the brothers, the sale of Yosef, and Yacov’s suffering in the belief that Yosef had been killed. 

Yet, there is something bothersome in this commentary. Doesn’t everyone deserve and need tranquility? Should tzadikim never be settled in this world, always doing and moving?

In contrast to the negative view of Yacov’s request for shalva, the Shulchan Aruch cites a custom for women to refrain from work on Hanukkah during the time the candles are lit. The Magen Avraham explains – since “they too were part of the miracle.” This is a time to rest, be thankful, and draw inspiration from the Hanukkah miracle.

Perhaps this is the reconciliation of these two views of the desirability of rest and tranquility: Yacov wanted prolonged tranquility with no end. But endless repose is not the way to live out one’s life. We never fully “retire.” In contrast, women pause on Hanukkah temporarily, at a designated time. Periodic rest and reflection provide the opportunity to recharge ourselves, to renew our creativity, energy and purpose in life. Shabbat Shalom and Hanukkah Sameach! – 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


Toldot: Rivka’s Moral Clarity

There is a moral dilemma in Parshat Toldot: Why was it okay for Yacov and Rivka to deceive an older and recently blinded Yitzchak, in order to ensure Yacov received the blessings?! 

When Yitzchak ages and his eyes grow dimmed he decides it is time to give the brachot to his favored son, Esau. The commentaries see deeper meaning in his blindness being mentioned at this point in the narrative. One of Rashi’s explanations is that Yitzchak went blind from the smoke of his daughter-in-laws’ idol worshipping incense. This interpretation is based on the narrative juxtaposition of Yitzchak’s blindness with Esau taking Canaanite wives, bringing bitterness to his parents. The weakness in this interpretation is expressed by the midrash Tanhuma — why then did Rivka not go blind as well?! 

Sforno, takes a different approach and views Yitzchak’s blindness as a result of his turning a blind eye and not protesting Esau’s numerous faults and transgressions over the years. Sforno compares Yitzchak to Eli the kohen in the book of Samuel who refuses to see his sons’ inappropriate behavior. This position supports the idea that Yitzchak’s spiritual blindness did not begin in his old age, but earlier. When the Torah says that Yitzchak loved Esau because ציד בפיו, there was “hunting in his mouth,” the midrash comments – he would entrap and deceive Yitzchak with the words which came out of his mouth. Similarly, Rashi concludes that Yitzchak was made blind to set the stage for Yacov to take the brachot he rightly deserved, initiated by Rivka, who could see clearly regarding Esau and Yacov. 

The commentaries learn from Yitzchak’s blindness: ignoring and rewarding bad character traits has consequences. Rivka had moral clarity and could see who was deserving of the brachot. Shabbat Shalom and Chodesh tov!


Courageous Women

“The best protection any woman can have…is courage.” – Elizabeth Cady Stanton

In discussing the laws of going to war, parshat Shoftim provides a model for coping with fears and anxieties as well as insight into what courage and commitment look like in serving one’s nation.

When the people approach a battlefield, the kohen is instructed to address them. His speech encourages the people to overcome their fear and to rely on their belief in Hashem as a source of strength. True courage is when one takes action despite one’s fears. In a voluntary war, the Torah lists several groups of exemptions due to circumstance. Surprisingly — given the kohen’s previous exhortations to overcome fear — the list of exempted people culminates with a person who is “afraid and disheartened.” Rabbi Akiva understands this to be literal: the Torah recognizes that some may be unable to overcome their anxiety, and ensures that they are encouraged to leave so they do not spread panic.

However, in a biblically mandated war (milchemet mitzvah) such as a war of self-defense, everyone is required to participate, even those who are fearful. Necessity and duty outweigh fear. According to the Mishna, even women are included in a milchemet mitzvah. The Radbaz says this is only a suggestion, and states that women served in support roles but not in combat. This is the halakhic basis for women who choose to serve in non-combat units in the IDF.

Stepping up (and leaning in) takes courage. This week marked the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage. The right to contribute to society — to vote, to pursue education, to choose to serve in the IDF — may seem natural for women today, but it took courage and vision. Drawing on the strength and courage of the women and men who fought to make the world better, there is much more we can do. Shabbat Shalom and Chodesh Tov


Healthy Sexuality

Parshat Ki Tetze opens with a disturbing law: when a Jewish man goes to war and desires a foreign woman among the captives, he may take her home on the condition that he waits one month during which her beauty is neglected and must then marry or free her. When seen in its biblical milieu and through the eyes of the midrashic rabbis, this law teaches us a lesson about healthy approaches to sexuality and the necessity of consent, and is particularly relevant for Israeli society this week.

The Torah emphasizes the soldier’s physical desire: He takes her based solely on her physical appearance: he “sees” her, “desires” her. She is known as “eshet yefat to’ar,” a beautiful woman. The woman has no voice or choice. The Torah’s concession to human weakness in allowing this woman to be taken would be unthinkable today and would be deemed a war crime. However, in the context of antiquity, the idea of putting constraints on victorious soldiers was revolutionary and significantly limited wartime rape. The midrash further discourages this behavior. Noting the incongruous placement of this law next to a law regarding polygamy and then the rebelious son (ben sorer u-moreh), the midrash teaches, “one sin leads to another sin.” Meaning, taking the eshet yefat to’ar into one’s house will cause conflict and a catastrophic breakdown of family relationships. It might be permitted, but it is toxic for everyone involved.

The Torah and the midrash were beacons of morality in a world where a female captive had no rights, which thank G-d is no longer the case. They remind us that sexual relations without consent has disastrous effects, and healthy sexuality goes beyond mere physical attraction.