In 1974, the film “The 81st Blow” was released, dealing with the events of the Holocaust from the rise of the Nazis to power til the extermination of the Jews. The name of the film was taken from the testimony of Michael Goldman-Gilad, a Holocaust survivor, who was handed eighty terrible lashes by the Nazis, but the 81st blow , the hardest he suffered, was the indifference with which the survivors’ stories were received in Israel.
Is this how this awful national trauma we live in, will be remembered? The world’s reaction, or rather – inaction, which includes especially various women’s organizations that should have been among the first to shout and scream against, in the face of the mass rape and horrific murder of Israeli-Jewish women on October 7?
In the 8th week of the war, we come to the Torah portion of “Vayishlach” with Dinah’s story, and honestly, chapter 34 of the Book of Genesis, which tells her story, could have easily been removed from the Bible altogether, and nothing would have been missing from the main story’s flow. And yet , the Torah chooses not to give up on it, perhaps telling us, first and foremost, that we make room for the most difficult and painful things, and we will deal with them as honestly as we can, in spite – and perhaps precisely because of – their complexity.
“Now Dinah, Leah’s daughter whom she had borne to Jacob, went out to visit the daughters of the land” (34:1).
Rashi in the name of the midrash wonders why Dina is described as “Leah’s daughter who she had borne to Jacob” and explains that “like mother so is her daughter: Leah ‘went out’ towards Jacob and Dina likewise was also a ‘goer-outer’” (which in Modern Hebrew can be a synonym to a prostitute, or – promiscuous woman).
But the Malbim (Rabbi Meir Leybush, 1809-1879, commentator who lived in the Russian Empire, Prussia and Romania) thinks differently, and his commentary helps me navigate this awful story. And so he says:
“And Dina went out”: to let us know that Dina is not at fault, lest you say, that it’s her who broke the boundaries of modesty, but she was Leah’s daughter, who herself was modest in her tent; “whom she had borne to Jacob” – whose birth is from Jacob, and she was modest and appropriate, for she did not go out to wander after the guys, but rather, just went “to visit the daughters of the land” and their festivities.
He continues to the second verse: “Shechem son of Hamor the Hivite, chief of the country, saw her, and took her and lay with her and tortured her”, and comments that the text does not say that she entered into improper (sexual) talk, but that he’s the one who saw her first, and he took her, by force, and no one can be saved from him for he was the leader of the land;
Therefore, Shechem’s sin was of three fold: 1. He took her by force and that is total robbery; 2. He slept with her, and by doing so, he defiled her for he was uncircumcised; and 3. And he tortured her, for she did not want this, and it was rape, done forcefully, and it was torture for her which was a double robbery.
Shechem’s abuse continues in the demand: “take to me this girl for a wife”. She’s just a child, cries out the text alarmed! And later, when Shechem’s father explains: “My son Shechem has a desire for your daughter. Please give her to him in marriage” (verse 8). In our words we’d say that he “feels like” he wants her, as if this is some capricious way, something that is here for a moment, then gone, and in Malbim’s words: “that desire is different from love and want, for this kind of desire has no eyes and no taste, and because it has no rhyme or reason, he can find better, prettier girls among his own people he’d feel like as well; And when he says, give her to him to be his wife, he means, in doing so, you will benefit yourselves”… so mansplains Chamor, son of Shechem, common, I’m doing you a favor! This is so good for you! Such a deal!!
Once the stage is set this way, Jacob’s stoic and sad reaction is clearer. Why was he “silent” and did not yell and cry and do something?
According to modern psychology, during time of real and immediate danger, each living creature has access to “4F’s”, with an instinctive choice in line with the situation:
Fight – the assertive response, and at times even aggressive, expressing a desire to defend, fend and create clear boundaries for the attacked.
Flight – the reaction of escape, disconnect and avoidance. This can be a reaction, stemming not necessarily from fear and panic, but rather, when we identify a situation in which we can’t fight.
Freeze – a kind of disconnect with extra avoidance. During the state of freeze one can accumulate energy to continue survival efforts.
Faint – state of “shut-down”; the system saves energy and turns itself off, for example, when a person loses consciousness, and even when the event is over, s/he remembers only certain parts of the event while others are pushed to the subconscious.
Beyond the 4F’s, recently Fraternize – the desire to join with others in order to increase fighting responses and Fawn – subservience / niceness / flattery to create greater options for compromise and ultimately, survival.
Malbim explains Jacob’s reaction as follows: “for if Jacob knew that she hasn’t been defiled, he would have sacrificed his life to save her, but since he heard it was too late, and his sons were in the field and he wouldn’t gain anything with speed, he kept silent till they came”… his helplessness hits him and us. After generations in exile, the family of the Hebrews returns to its promised country and homeland, and they are a minority in their own home, surrounded by neighbors who can be hostile and dangerous. What can be done in such a situation? What is the “proportional response”, the right, balanced, considerate, holding, expressing the family’s moral values along with its strength and gravity?
Jacob is silent, but the brothers, as representatives of the next generation, the less rooted in exile, understand the double disaster differently, calculating their response: “the men were saddened and very angry” (verse 7). The Malbim explains the dual verbs here: “sadness is over something bad that happened because of the event itself, for even if he slept with her at her will, it would have been an abomination among the Children of Israel… and they were not angry over Shechem not knowing the customs of Israel, and over that it was said, ‘they were saddened’ (but), the forceful rape itself… for that they wanted revenge, for even the Noahides are not to behave this way”.
More often than not, the brothers are described as “hotblooded”, but it’s also possible that they recognize their complex status, especially as Dina herself is still held at Shechem’s as a hostage and captive, so they want to act with “cunningness and wisdom” against their sister’s objectification (“for he objectifies the daughter of Jacob” verse 19), her immediate release with no harm, and her safe physical as well as her honorable return. It’s possible that until October 7, their reaction made us shiver: cheat people into circumcising themselves in order to kill them while they are in pain? That’s not ok!
But their extreme reaction also communicates something that we might understand differently when read this year.
The question asked often is, why did they kill everyone? If Shechem and his family are at fault, well, ok, I get they need to be punished, but why the whole city? One answer might be that getting rid of just the “prince of the land” and his family, would not have been enough, because they were the city’s chosen and beloved leaders, behaving in a manner that reflected the city’s values, which means that when there’s a new king, the same thing can and will happen again. The brothers therefore wanted to do two things: solve the immediate situation, while sending a strong don’t-mess-with-us message to anyone out there who might even just toy with a similar idea ever again.
To be very clear: I am not advocating for the same punishment today. Jacob himself is upset with Shimon and Levy, the brothers who led and executed this operation, for ruining his “chances for diplomacy” with his neighbors. Later, he will not offer them favorable blessings, which will complicate their life from here on. And yet, at the same time, wouldn’t we too wish that this don’t-mess-with-us message was clear to all, and the idea of raping any of us, would not have even crossed anybody’s mind, already on October 6, not to mention after….? Which is maybe the biggest question we’re left with at the end of this story: how do we conduct ourselves in a manner that sends this message, while maintaining our moral and ethical values?
And within all this, there are a few voices missing. First, of course, is Dina’s voice: what happened to her? what did she think? who was she talking to? what did she tell her daughter, according to the midrash, who was born later? And there, there’s Shechem, investigated in the ShaBaK’s cellars…what did he say? does it matter that he at least was not purposefully sent by a terror organization? as it turns out, does he too even enlarge the national tragedy we’re living in?
And what about Gd’s voice? Why does Gd not say anything in this chapter? Does He not care? Agrees? Opposes? Is He indifferently silent like the world around us, or maybe, makes it clear to us that He is not going to show up to clean up our messes, but rather, that it is on all of us to make sure things like this don’t happen?
I hope and pray for the peace, healing, and safe return of all hostages and captives as well as the women and men suffering from sexual abuse, whether during time of national or personal war.