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Friday, December 9, 2011

Parshat Va'yishlakh. The Rape of Dinah, the Death of Compassion

This week's parashah/portion is Va'yishlakh (Bereshit/ Genesis 32:4 – 36:43). The parashah begins with Jacob wrestling through the night with the stranger/divine being/angel (take your pick) and his reunion with his brother Esau. It then continues with one of the most disturbing narratives in the Torah, the rape of Jacob's only daughter Dinah.

In this narrative (Gen. Ch. 34) Dinah, the daughter of Jacob and Leah, “goes out to see the women of the land.” Then, Shekhem, the son of Hivite, chief of the country in which they were dwelling (also called Shekhem) “saw her, and took her and lay with her by force.” We then read that he is in love with “the maiden” Dinah and he demands that his father get her for him as a wife.

Hamor negotiates with Jacob for Dinah. Jacob has already heard of Dinah's rape, but says nothing. His sons, who had been working in the fields, are incensed by the fact that Shekhem had “committed an outrage against Israel by lying with” Dinah. Not aware of this, Hamor asks Jacob and his sons not only to allow Shekhem to marry Dinah, but for the sons of Shekhem to intermarry with the daughters of Jacob's people, settle in the land and acquire holdings in the area. 

Finally a deal is struck whereby Shekhem may marry Dinah, and the women of Israel may marry the men of Shekhem, but only if the men are first circumcised. Hamor agrees and brings the news back to Shekhem and his people.

Three days after the mass circumcision of the men of Shekhem, Jacob's sons Shimon and Levi attack the men who are still recuperating. They kill Hamor and Shekhem and rescue Dinah. Then the other brothers sack and plunder the town. The men are killed and the women, children and property are taken as booty. Thus ends the saga. Never again do we read anything about Dinah.

Many feminists have written commentaries on this disturbing text. I also wrote my first midrashic story approximately 17 years ago in the form of a letter from Dinah to her brothers upon hearing of the death of their father Jacob (perhaps I shall post this here for Parshat Va'yehi, which is when it would fit in the narrative). Though feel free to message me if you'd like to read it). However, I wanted to attempt to tackle this story from a mindfulness perspective. But what on earth could this story teach about mindfulness?

In re-reading the story, what first caught my eye was the description of Shekhem as simply seeing Dinah, taking her and “lying with her.” Yet, immediately following the rape, the text says that Shekhem's “soul cleaved” to that of Dinah. He suddenly loved her.

Rape, which is always an act of violence and power in real life, is described in this story as an act of passion and desire, which then miraculously turns into love. This is, of course, problematic. It can easily be seen as a romanticizing of a violent act (which, unfortunately, is not unusual). However, for my purpose, I want to focus on the issue of desire and passion. In mindfulness, we learn to acknowledge and become aware of our desires and passions, but not to act based upon them. For our passions and desires are rooted in the ego and are about nothing more than self-satisfaction.

Here, the desire is clearly for sexual satisfaction. But somehow it morphs into is portrayrd as love. And yet, it is not. For Shekhem does not speak tenderly to Dinah and she never speaks to him at all. Nor does he say to his father “I love her. Please talk to her father and see if he will consent to our marriage.” Rather, he simply says “Get me this [nameless]girl as a wife!” This is clearly still about passion and desire, about wanting something and wanting it now! It is still about ego.

And the brothers reaction is not much better. They act quickly and rashly. They act out of anger and a sense of betrayal. They are driven by their emotions and by their collective ego. Shekhem has defiled their sister, and therefore their entire family has been defiled. Let's not take the time to think this through and seek some kind of retribution in a thoughtful (read: mindful) way. Instead, we will simply follow our passions and desires!

The impulsive decisions of the men in the story brings about only pain, suffering and destruction. On the other hand, Jacob seems to say and do nothing. His inability to act allows the tragedy to progress. We know that Jacob has a history of acting from a place of ego and desire, as when he tricked his father and stole his brother's birthright. We know that he can do extraordinary things when his passions dictate so, such as working a total of 14 years so that ultimately he could marry Rachel, the sister he desired,. But here, it is as if he is stuck. We don't know what he is thinking. But we know that he does not act.

These are the men in this narrative. They are either guided by passion, desire and ego or they are unable to act. What about the women?

We know nothing of Dinah's reaction to the rape. We never hear from her after the story. As a matter of fact this parashah brings about the disappearance of all the remaining women in Genesis. For right after this narrative ends, we read that Rebecca's nurse Deborah dies and is buried (35:8). This is unique, in that it tells of the death of someone who is never mentioned elsewhere in the Torah. And a woman, no less! It also marks the death of the women of the eldest generation of the family.

We read that the place where Deborah was buried was name Allon-bakut. Translated as the “tree of weepings”, a midrash states that actually, two women died and two women were buried in that place: Deborah and Rebecca. For the death of Rebecca is nowhere mentioned in the Torah. Nor is the death of Leah, Dinah's mother. However, we do read at the end of the book that Jacob had buried her in the Cave of Machpelah, where his ancestors were buried. So I am going to assume that she is no longer living when these actions occur. After all, if she were, I would find it hard to believe that the text mentions nothing of her reaction to her only daughter's rape!

Finally, in Chapter 35, verses 16-20, we read of the Rachel's death, which occurs immediately after giving birth to Benjamin. And so, as far as we know, there are no women remaining in the “immediate family.” I couldn't help but think that. Somehow, the passionate, ego-driven, impulsive behavior of the men in the story (or the inaction, Jacob's case) set in motion the loss of women from a narrative which, until this point had quite a few strong female characters.

The final woman to die is Rachel, and she dies after her son exits her womb. In Hebrew the word for womb, rehem, is also the root of the word for compassion, rahamim. It is as if the violence of the men culminates with what is a violent and deadly birth process for Rachel. And this has left the story, and the family, without any source of compassion. Perhaps Rachel knows that, with her death, so too will compassion and mercy die. Perhaps that is why she actually names her son Ben-oni, the son of my affliction. This affliction is not only her pain and suffering. Rather, she is able to see beyond herself to the true affliction, the recognition that mercy and compassion shall die with her. She could see this happening when the sons of Jacob acted as they did. And she knows that with her death, this family/community of impulsive men who simply take what they want when they want it, will have nothing to bring balance to their lives.

In Jewish thought, din (justice, judgment, strictness and boundaries) must be balanced by rahamim (compassion and openness). But in this narrative, the din sought and enacted by the brothers totally overwhelmed any rahamim which may have existed. And the denouement of the story occurs when Jacob actually changes the name of the son Rachel bore from Ben-oni, son of my suffering, to Ben-yamin (Benjamin) son of the right (hand) or son of strength. With this, the remembrance of Rachel's suffering, whih was the last vestige of hope that compassion would survive, disappears. And in its place we are instead reminded of the centrality of strength and power.

It is through connecting with the suffering of others that we find compassion within ourselves. Perhaps if the brothers had not acted impulsively, non-mindfully, they would have been able to sense the suffering of their sister. And perhaps they would have sought her return without the use of violence and show of power. Perhaps if Shekhem had stopped for a moment and recognized Dinah's vulnerability and then her suffering, he might not have raped her or at least not completed the act.

Perhaps if Jacob had been aware of all of the suffering going on around him instead of, as I imagine, being caught up in the stories his own ego was telling him, he might have acted in order to both rescue his daughter and prevent any further violence.

And so, at least for today, I read this story as a cautionary tale, but not in the usual sense. Rather, it is a cautionary tale that reminds us of the need for compassion and awareness in every moment. Compassion not only for ourselves, but for all. It is a cautionary tale which teaches of the need to stop, pay attention and be in the moment before we follow the lead of the ego and act on our impulses, passions and desires. And ultimately, it is a story which reminds us that without compassion, we are left with a world that is guided solely by the desire for strength, power, domination and ego. Alas, we know that all too well.

But as we continue next week with the Joseph narrative, we will begin the long process of healing and reconciliation to be achieved at the end of the book of Genesis. Perhaps not ironically, this is ultimately brought about by the same Benyamin (Ben-oni) born in this week's parashah and due in great part to the actions of Yehudah (Judah) who is the namesake of the Jewish people. And so the journey continues, as does our ability to learn from it.

Shabbat Shalom.

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