Yom Rishon, 23 AdarI 5781
Sunday, 7 March 2021
Parashat Vayishlach 2011

Parashat Vayishlach by Cantor Gershon Silins
7 December 2011

The story of Dinah is one of the most disturbing ones in the Torah. Amid all the troubled relationships that comprise the inheritance of the family – our founding family – that we meet in the book of Genesis, this one stands out because there is no hint of redemption in it, nothing but pain and loss.

The story is often called The Rape of Dinah, which immediately provides a justification for the anger of Dinah’s brothers, if not for their brutality, which even their father seems to find shocking. But what really happened here, and is there anything that we can learn from it?

After Jacob and his family settled in Canaan, Jacob’s daughter Dinah went out to meet the women of the area. We are told that Shechem, the prince of the people near whom they lived, saw her and “took her, and lay with her, and humbled her. And his soul cleaved to her, and he loved her and spoke comfortingly to her.” We can’t know what happened. To her brothers, it was a defilement. It cannot have been this in the eyes of Shechem and his family, because as the story continues, they continue to act as if what happened was the first step of a betrothal, a peaceful and enduring unifying of two families. To Dinah’s brothers, it was an act that was so horrifying and degrading that it turned Shechem and his family from neighbours into animals.

Shechem wants to marry Dinah, and he and his family offer that, as well as the prospect of many other daughters and sons of the two families marrying.

Dinah’s brothers agreed, but insisted that Shechem and all the males of the family be circumcised. They did so, and while they were recoveriing, the brothers attacked them and killed them all.

It appears that the dehumanization was the first step towards what ultimately became the carefully pre-meditated massacre of a whole family.

Not only were Shechem and his family turned into non-persons; so was Dinah. Although the text implies that she had been taken by force, that is only one possible interpretation of what occurred, and we are never told what she thought of the matter. She was living with Shechem and his family when her brothers came to kill them and bring her home, and we are not told that she was held there against her will. She has no voice in this story, no opportunity to decide her own fate and family, or even to tell her side of the story. She also is a non-person.

It would be nice to believe that we have gone beyond this, that we live in a world open to many different cultures that can co-exist in peace and some measure of mutual respect, and where women can choose their own lives. But every day’s news reminds us that this is only partly true. In many cultures, honour killings are the result when women choose partners that their male relatives disapprove of. In our own society, women are still underpaid for the same work that men do. On our streets, peaceful public demonstrations are met with violent responses from the police and well publicized threats from intolerant public figures.

But we ourselves can fall into the trap of dehumanizing others. Sometimes this comes as a response, when we ourselves are dehumanized by others; sometimes it occurs because we simply cannot see the other person or persons, or because they or their actions make us afraid.

In a comic strip published many years ago, one of the characters says, “we have met the enemy and he is us.” It is a good thing to remember that our enemies can go on being our enemies – we don’t have to agree with them – but they are as human as we are, and we must guard against the temptation to think otherwise.