Resisting the brutality of arrogance

Parashat VaYishlach, 5781

This parasha describes the dramatic meeting between Yaakov and Esav after a separation of over two decades. Yaakov learns that Esav was approaching with an entourage of 400 men. Yaakov could have made any number of emotional decisions. He could have decided to apologize to Esav. Alternatively, he could have decided to muster his own forces and fight to defend himself and his family. He chose neither. Instead, and characteristically, he resorted to a plan of cunning and flight. He separated his family into two camps. He ordered his servants and his wives to collect generous gifts for Esav to appease him by approaching Esav in sequence. These bribes, Yaakov hoped, would soften Esav’s determination to kill him. Of course, Yaakov inferred this entire scenario. He had not communicated with his brother in over twenty years, and so the ways in which Yaakov approached the impending rapprochement was with cunning and trickery.

Then, alone in the middle of the night, an unidentified man suddenly appeared and began to wrestle Yaakov. This is the epiphanic moment of Yaakov’s life, transforming him from Yaakov into Yisrael. The name, Yisrael, means, “Wrestler with God and humans.” Finally, Yaakov does not let go. Finally, he does not run. He demands to know the man’s name. Some commentators say that Yaakov wrestled Esav. Others, with Esav’s military commander. Hasidic interpretations see Yaakov wrestling within himself. We all have demons of one sort or another. Some come from without, and others, from within. Yaakov was prepared to wrestle with his inner demons, transforming himself into the spiritual giant God hoped would emerge for the family and nation.

From that evening on, and for the rest of his life, Yaakov is sometimes Yaakov, and sometimes Yisrael. When Esav invited him to travel together, Yaakov lied again, saying his family traveled slowly; he’d catch up. Then he went in the opposite direction. Tragically, once in the city of Shalem, his daughter Dinah was raped by Shechem, the prince of the city. (The Rashbam clarifies that the phrase, vayavo Yaakov shalem ‘ir Shechem, means, “the city Shalem where Shechem ruled,” and not as is commonly understood, “Yaakov arrived in the city of Shechem safely.” Rashbam’s analysis is impenetrable grammatically, and corroborated by the Bechor Shor. I also prefer this translation for rhetorical reasons. It makes powerful literary sense to have the events of Dinah’s rape echo Avraham’s war again Sdom to rescue Lot, and the subsequent treaty with MalchiTzedek, the King of Shalem.”(cf., Bereshit 14:18)) Yaakov remained silent and discerning in response, while Shimon and Levi avenged their sister’s rape by slaughtering the men of the city after tricking them into becoming circumcised. While the brothers indeed avenge her defilement, Yaakov remained more stayed and equivocal.

Why did Yaakov remain silent upon learning of the rape of his daughter, Dinah? Why did he criticize Shimon and Levi for avenging her abuse? There is no more scarring and dehumanizing trauma than rape. Certainly, Yaakov knew this. What does Yaakov’s silence and subsequent criticism of his sons mean for his development and life journey? How are the episodes of Yaakov’s wrestling in the middle of the night and his reaction to Dinah’s rape related to each other?

Yaakov’s entire life was not always a wrestling match. He first had to become aware of his own compulsion to get ahead through extortion, trickery, and flight. God is in this place, but I did not know….Enlightenment must of necessity bring with it the feeling of awe, that is its nature. Without awe, enlightenment has no meaning. (Sefat Emet, 1872) When Yaakov awoke from his famous dream of the angels ascending and descending that ladder bridging heaven and earth, he was humbled. Yaakov awakened to the power of humility, gaining a consciousness that propels one towards intentioned empathy, compassion, truth, and resilience.

Rabbi Menachem Nachum Twersky of Chernobyl, in his Meor Einayim, noted this awakening in Yaakov:

Our patriarch, Yaakov,… struggled with Esav’s commander in chief as it says, He saw that he could not defeat him (32:25). The struggle was with the attempt to redirect events that would inevitably unfold as a result of the behaviors of future generations. This was precisely the transformation of Yaakov himself, [his willingness to enter into this struggle] to repair himself. He struggled so successfully [with himself] that he was able to defeat the force of self-destructive compulsions (sitra ‘achra) in an attempt to insure that no wickedness should befall his future progeny, God forbid.

In that moment, Yaakov’s inner eye opened expansively, and he looked beyond himself. Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, the first Gerer Rebbe, juxtaposes the angels accompanying Yaakov on his journey, the angels on the ladder in his dream, and the wrestling match in the middle of the night. Through this juxtaposition, he attributes Yaakov’s awakening to his willingness to hold on to all of his constructive and destructive impulses. Writing from the tradition of mystical interpretation, the author of the Sefat Emet asserts that all impulses come from God. Indeed, there are no realities outside of the divine energies that permeate every aspect of existence–inside of us as well as outside. Something happened that night, enabling Yaakov to acquire this knowledge in a process that required struggle, holding on, not letting go, and confronting. Yaakov demanded to know his opponent’s name. He demanded a blessing. He discerned that this opponent was deeply attached to himself. What will he do with this self-knowledge?”

You have wrestled with God and people and triumphed…. God will order divine angels to protect you wherever you go. (Psalms 91:11) There are two angels here, and both come from God. Therefore, this verse refers to our constructive and destructive ambitions, yetzer hatov v’yetzer hara’. For indeed, every internal drive a person has contains within it an essential life-force of divine energy. (Sefat Emet, 1873)

Yaakov’s answer to this question, concludes the Gerer Rebbe, is Yaakov’s determination to infuse his worldly drives and impulses with a vision of humanity from God’s perspective. In his words, Our world is at once physical and divine. The world constantly needs a person who is able to infuse our mundane, physical existence with divine energy. (1879)

Easier said than accomplished. Yaakov/Yisrael is now a changed person, and has become a paradigm for each of us. Yaakov, forever, limps. His imperfection embodies his tikkun, his inner repair, leading to an essential process of humbling. “Tell me your name,” he says to the unnamed antagonist, hagida na shemekha. That phrase alliterates with the source of his infirmity, of his limp: gid ha-na-she. His injury, like the covenantal sign of the brit milah, embossed inner wrestling as an endemic feature of  spiritual enlightenment into his sciatic nerve. That nerve supplies sensation through the leg to the sole of the foot, precisely what enables one to take a journey. His identity has now been somatized. Yaakov/Yisrael became, from that moment, a person who struggles, wrestles, and refuses to let go of his own drive to lie, to run, to hide, to disguise himself.

These impulses are recognizable. But now, Yaakov can look at them, and make measured decisions about how to respond. He can create inner distance, understand himself better, and choose more measured, intentional pathways. His limp has slowed him down and given him perspective. Yaakov was always driven towards privilege and entitlement (a quality that emerges boldly in his favored child, Yosef). He was driven towards a birthright and blessing. Now, every drive and compulsion will give him pause. He has become aware of the choices he makes, and of their implications for either a more fractious, hateful, violent humanity, or one that can protect the world like the garden God created for us to inhabit. The two episodes in this parasha that demonstrate Yaakov’s ability to see more nuance and the implications of his actions are the rape of his daughter, Dinah, and the sexual impropriety of his son, Reuven with his wife, Bilhah. Both episodes are parallel, one with an antagonist outside of the family, and the other, from within.

When he finds out about the rape of Dinah, Yaakov astoundingly remains silent. He neither fights, nor runs. Rabbi Chaim of Chernowitz (1760-1816) explicates the moment of confrontation between Yaakov and his sons in his work, Be’er Mayim Chayim:

Yaakov heard that Shechem defiled his daughter. ….He chose to suffer in silence, just as Aharon did in the wake of the death of his children….The rabbis taught that Yaakov received merit by silently accepting God’s decree. His sons, however, were not silent, and they reproached Yaakov by saying, Should we allow our sister to be abused like a harlot? What they meant was, “Even if our father is willing to waive his honor, we are unwilling to waive ours! Even if Dinah’s only merit were the fact that she is our sister, nevertheless, it is morally reprehensible to degenerate and abuse her as if she were a prostitute.” (Bereshit 34:5)

Yaakov, however, is not concerned with kavod, honor. He is concerned with the morality of response. His silence, like Aharon’s generations later, is filled with the unspeakable pain of his daughter’s dehumanization. But the response has to come from a place of both justice and compassion, and not zeal. Shimon and Levi, on the other hand, were driven by a call to “make the family great again,” and are disgusted by their father’s seeming passivity. The rabbis in Pirke d’Rabbi Eliezer capture Yaakov’s understanding that rage perpetuates hatred and violence, which brings a curse to God’s world:

Shimon and Levi were exceedingly zealous in response to the rape of Dinah. That’s what they meant by saying to Yaakov, Shall we allow our sister to be turned into a harlot? Therefore, they took their weapons and slaughtered the men of Shechem. However, upon hearing this, Yaakov became afraid. He said, Now the local population will congregate against me and kill me. He began cursing his sons’ anger. He expressed this at the end of his life when he said, Cursed be their anger, their wrath is relentless. (Bereshit 49:7) In addition, he cursed their weapons….Meanwhile, the surrounding populations became terrified and said, “If only two of Yaakov’s sons can destroy an entire city, imagine if all of his sons organized themselves! They could destroy the entire world!” And they feared God, and desisted from pursuing Yaakov. (Pirke d’Rabbi Eliezer 38:3)

His son’s reaction did not surprise Yaakov. Quite the contrary; he knew that their response was the accepted way of nomadic culture. Their response to rape has been preserved through modern times in the poetry and lore of contemporary Bedouin culture:

[In Bedouin culture],…the law is aware that if rape were commonplace, women could not go alone to pasture and men would have to stay close to home. Such restrictions would restrict the Bedouins’ economy, as well as the maintenance of their security interests, which often necessitate the presence of men elsewhere. To deter potential rapists, therefore, the law allows for the victim’s clansmen to carry out both murder and pillage, against not only the rapist himself, but also his entire clan….In some ways, then, the punishment for rape is more severe than revenge for murder…The law ignores parity and allows for killing as many men of the rapist’s clan as circumstances permit, all with impunity. (Clinton Bailey, Bedouin Law from Sinai and the Negev, pg. 109)

This describes the situation of Yaakov’s family perfectly. The women in the patriarchal families, indeed, were the shepherds. Yaakov was traumatized by the rape of Dinah. At the same time, he understood that perpetuating further violence would only deepen the animosity, the enmity, the hatred between clans and populations that would take generations to heal. You have made me putrid before the people of the land, said Yaakov to his sons. Ibn Ezra explained, “they will hate me,” the way people hate something that has become putrid.” Rabbeynu Bachye explained Yaakov’s inner state more explicitly:

You have polluted me, insofar as you have spilled innocent blood. The word, ‘achira’s primary meaning refers to darkening wine with its dregs. Therefore Yaakov is saying to his sons, “You have clouded my reputation amongst the people of the land, such that they will now say, “Those entitled people deserve unbridled torment.”

(הִרְעוּ לְאַנְשֵׁי שְׁלוֹמָם…)

There cannot be collective punishment. Indeed, whatever led to her rape, Shechem’s entire society should not be held responsible and punished. Their blood was innocent. Yaakov’s was the silent voice of measured justice, of holding on to empathy, of letting go of ego and kavod. His was the misunderstood voice of hesitation and reflection, of taking a wider view, of responding without hyperbole. His was a voice bereft of slogans, and a silence filled expressively with the pain of his daughter’s abuse. Rabbi Yitzchak ben Moshe Arama, 15th century Spain, stated explicitly that Shimon and Levi’s impulses were catastrophically sinful:

How much did Jacob’s sons err when they destroyed a city situated in the midst of a densely populated area, an action that was bound to be followed by retaliatory measures by the whole district, and which could ultimately have resulted only in their collective deaths? Yaakov remonstrated with them, “You have troubled me to make me odious” (Bereshit 34:30). Had it not been for “the fear of the Lord” which overcame the inhabitants of the neighbouring towns, inevitable, horrific consequences would have resulted.

Immediately after the murder and plunder of Shechem’s clan, Yaakov returns to Bet El, the place of his initial dream. Now, however, he is Yaakov/Yisrael, a transformed person. This moment frames the narrative of Yaakov’s life. On both occasions, Bet El is identified as Luz. On both occasions he builds a monument of stone. Both occasions contained covenantal promises between God and Yaakov. On both occasions, Yaakov built an altar. Yaakov’s journey started with Rivka sending him away, and his falling in love with Rachel. Yaakov’s journey closes with the death of Devorah, Rivka’s wet-nurse, and Rachel herself. (Devorah represents Rivka, who had already died but whose death is not mentioned. See, Rashi and Ramban, Bereshit 35:8) Once in Canaan, at Migdal-eder, the Torah then relates the following event which is parallel to the rape of Dinah:

Israel journeyed on, and pitched his tent beyond Migdal-eder. While Yisrael stayed in that land, Reuven went and lay with Bilhah, his father’s concubine; and Yisrael heard…..(35:22)

The verse ends abruptly, cut off. Rashi quotes the midrashic tradition in the Talmud that makes every effort to re-interpret the wording so that it describes a very different event. Accordingly, Reuven certainly did not have sexual relations with his father’s wife. Rather, upon the death of his beloved Rachel, Yaakov moved Rachel’s bed into Bilhah’s tent, so that when he would go to her, he would remember Rachel. Bilhah, however, was Leah’s maidservant. Reuven, Leah’s oldest son, therefore, became indignant of the insult to his mother. It was bad enough that Rachel, his mother’s younger sister, was Leah’s antagonist. Now that she was dead, Leah could feel some relief. Instead, Yaakov perpetuated the reduction of Leah’s status, and with a maidservant no less! One sees how hard the midrash tries to re-interpret what is plain in the text of the Torah. Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno was willing to work with the plain sense of the text when he wrote: “And Yisrael heard. Nevertheless, he did not cease to count Reuven among his sons because he had no doubt that he repented immediately.” This is the Yaakov/Yisrael who limped, who wrestled, who now would not act with arrogance of zealotry, but would weigh consequences to actions, no matter how horrific the circumstances.

In response to both events, Yaakov confronted and rejected the reaction that would have been widely accepted, the response of harsh retribution. Strength, moral fortitude, is exhibited by staying one’s hand more often than not. It is intentional that Yaakov is called, Yisrael in response to Reuven. In response to both events, Yaakov lay the groundwork quietly and silently for a revolutionary way of perceiving violence and hatred, lust and avarice, mendacity and cruelty. Yaakov stood up to the violence perpetuated by his own children and chastised them. He listened with deep sorrow, shame and humility to the news of Reuven’s misconduct. But he understood that arrogance must be tempered by humility, and humility is the only hope for a deeper, more sustainable respect between people.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Dov

About the Author
Rabbi Dov Lerea is currently the Head of Judaic Studies at the Shefa School in NYC. He has served as the Dean and Mashgiach Ruchani at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, as the Director of Kivunim in Jerusalem, as the Dean of Judaic Studies of the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in New York, and as the Director of Education at Camp Yavneh in Northwood, New Hampshire. Rabbi Dov has semicha from both JTS and YU. He is married and is blessed with sons, daughters-in-law, and wonderful grandchildren. He loves cooking, biking, and trying to fix things by puttering around with tools.
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