January 2021 Bulletin Ref4

Parsha VAYISHLACH – Genesis 32:4-36:43

D’var Torah by Susan Aron – THE SOUND OF SILENCE

In this parsha, we learn that Jacob reconciles with his brother, Esau, after wrestling with a “man” or angel/G-d after which he is given the name Israel. He and his family travel to the city of Shechem. Dinah, Jacob’s only daughter, goes out into the city to greet the women and is raped by the prince of Shechem.  Jacob’s sons, Simeon and Levi, Dinah’s brothers, then deceive the prince and all the men of Shechem by requiring that they all be circumcised so that they can attack when the men are weak and sack the city in revenge for the rape of their sister.

I gave much thought to the silence surrounding the rape of Dinah and what can be heard through silence.  Reading the parsha and several commentaries, it is important to note that this is the only mention of Dinah in the entire Bible; and Dinah herself says not a word. This silence, the lack of a dialogue between Dinah and either her father or her brothers, is deafening.

There is further silence when Jacob learns of the rape; he says and does nothing, waiting instead for his sons to return from the field. Jacob learns that the prince wants to marry Dinah. Hearing this, Simeon and Levi then conspire to deceive the prince in retribution for defiling their sister. They tell the prince that for Dinah to marry an uncircumcised man would be an abomination and that he could marry her only on the condition that he and all the men of the city are circumcised.

The prince agrees that all the men will be circumcised so they can intermingle and that is where the brothers’ deception begins. Simeon and Levi wait until the third day after the circumcision when the pain is said to be greatest and the men are at their weakest, and they then attack the city. In an ultimate act of irony, they take the women of the city in revenge.

Earlier in the parsha we learn of the great lengths that Jacob goes to in order to separate his family into two armies in apprehension of how his meeting with Esau will go and in case he is attacked. Yet, when he learns that Dinah has been raped, there is only silence. Thereafter, when Jacob learns what Simeon and Levi have done, he is upset about how those actions will reflect on him. Again, not a word or thought of the effect of the whole event on Dinah.

Now, it would certainly be foolish not to acknowledge that these writings were written by men at a time when women were voiceless, as a matter of course, and while society has made great progress, there remain times in more modern history when reactions have been the same as in this story and where silence prevailed.

Many commentaries say this is the most disturbing parsha in the Torah. In reading the parsha we are uncomfortable with the story and by the reactions after the rape; by Jacob’s silence, as well as the hypocrisy of the brothers in pillaging the city and taking the women against their will. Some commentators view this discomfort as a sign of positive change.

However, we have seen that over time women, be they victims of rape or otherwise, have been silenced by family members for the sake of how an event would reflect on the family. Just a few generations ago, families sent away a young woman who became pregnant out of wedlock to have it “taken care of” and to spare the family shame, all too often not listening to what the young woman might want or need. This continues today, as we still hear of honor killings or female genital mutilation for the sake of the family without regard for the young woman herself.

The silence of both Dinah and Jacob here also made me think of today’s political climate and silence.  Just as we do not know what Dinah was feeling or wanted, whether this was really a rape or a consensual act, we also do not know what Jacob was feeling and why he was silent. Was it apathy or pain that stole his words?

Far too often, we talk more than we listen; we create an entire narrative around either someone’s words or their silence, one that fits neatly into our own beliefs. We talk of our own needs and beliefs to build such narratives without ever really listening to either what the person says with their words or by their silence. Often, what someone does not say is more important that what they do say. It reminds me of the line from the Broadway show “Hamilton,” when Aaron Burr tells Alexander Hamilton to “Talk less; smile more.”

Just as Dinah’s silence in this parsha is deafening, so too is the silence of today. But, perhaps we can allow positive change to come from this silence. Instead of only talking and assigning our own narratives to the words or thoughts of others, perhaps we could find common ground and compromise, if we were only willing to listen. Instead of perpetuating violence or apathy, we might strive not only to listen to others, but also to tell those who are silent that we are willing to listen and thereby give them the ability to break their silence and speak their own words.

B'nai Sholom Albany NY