When Leah got pregnant for the seventh time she prayed that the child should be female (Targum Yonasan Gen. 30:21). Leah knew that Jacob was destined to father twelve tribes. She realized that Jacob already had ten sons six from her, two from Bilhah and two from Zilpah, and she said: “Shall my sister Rachel not even be as one of the handmaidens?” God accepted her prayer and changed the fetus in utero. Gen. 30:21, therefore, states: “Afterwards she bore him a daughter,”—meaning, after Leah’s prayer.
Dinah, having been female, a consolation prize and born at around the same time as Joseph, was pretty much overlooked. Scripture records the birth of Leah’s children by using the words vaTahar (she conceived) then vaTeiled (gave birth) followed by the name of the child and an explanation of the name that was given. The attention that each child received helped forge their identity. The mention of Dinah’s birth is curt (Gen. 30:21):
וְאַחַ֖ר יָ֣לְדָה בַּ֑ת וַתִּקְרָ֥א אֶת־שְׁמָ֖הּ דִּינָֽה
And afterwards, she bore a daughter, and she named her Dinah.
The brief description of her birth indicates that she did not get the same attention as the others. She craved to be “seen”, i.e.valued as an individual. She, therefore, went out looking. She went to see what the neighboring girls of Shechem were doing to fill that void. This made her easy prey for Shechem, who was the most honored in his father’s household. Shechem saw her, took an interest in her, and exploited the situation and raped her. We are told he appealed to her emotions as he held her captive as it says (Gen. 33:3),
וַיְדַבֵּ֖ר עַל־לֵ֥ב הַנַּֽעֲרָֽה he spoke to the girl’s heart.
Interestingly, Joseph goes through his own ordeal that is strangely similar to Dinah’s. Juxtaposed to Dinah, Joseph is the favorite son. He was treasured by Jacob as the long-awaited firstborn of his favorite wife, his beloved Rachel. Joseph was the most noticed and recognized of the brothers, given the special striped coat highlighting his distinct position. He is commanded by his father to go to the city of Shechem to seek out his brothers.
Shechem was the place where both Dinah and Joseph’s lives take a dramatic turn as they search for something. Joseph seeks familial approval as well but directed at his brothers in attempts to confirm his own sense of self-importance. Instead, they are jealous and hateful. They stripped him of his coat, threw him in a pit and left him for dead. Joseph ends up in Potiphar’s home where like Dinah, he is seen, desired and almost raped but manages to refuse her advances and escape.
The most fascinating result is hidden in the Midrash and its lesson is powerful. Joseph ends up in Egypt marrying Osnath. Osnath is the child born to Dinah from the rape and later adopted by Potiphar. The union of Joseph and Dinah’s daughter is a perfect fit. Joseph is the beacon of sexual morality, a virtue Osnath must have valued and admired, for it was due to the weakness of her biological father’s urges that forced her mother to undergo the trauma of rape. Dinah was then coerced by her brothers to abandon Osnath who was then adopted by Potiphar. Their shared values and shared understanding of what it means to be estranged from home strengthened their union and yielded stellar children, Ephraim and Menashe. They are the prototypical brothers who model what it means to love and care for the other as themselves. This is the trait that not only is critical for surviving exile but the recipe for hastening the redemption.
The marriage of Joseph and Osnath re-establishes the gene pool as would have been if Joseph had been born to Leah and Dinah to Rachel due to Leah’s prayer. The outcome of greatness stems from both Rachel and Leah who both, at one point in time, intervened for the other despite their potential loss. It is precisely this kind of self-sacrifice for the well-being of others that builds the necessary strength of character for a nation meant to endure forever.
*This blog post was inspired by Rabbi Ari Kahn whose thought-provoking lectures always inspire me.