What lessons about masculinity can be learned from Yaakov‘s life? When Yaakov learns that his brother Esav is approaching their reunion with four hundred men, he understandably prepares for the worst by sending ahead peace offerings and dividing his camp. (Gen. 32:7-24) He is then momentarily alone, and is set upon by a man who turns out to be God’s messenger. (32:25) While managing to prevail and extract a blessing from this messenger (32:27), Yaakov nevertheless incurs a permanent injury that leaves him limping. (32:32)
We therefore can’t help but expect the reunion between Yaakov and Esav to be anything but confrontational and violent. Incredibly, though, this man Esav who previously wanted to kill Yaakov (27:41) instead runs to meet Yaakov, “hugs him, falls on his neck and kisses him (33:4) / וַיְחַבְּקֵהוּ וַיִּפֹּל עַל צַוָּארָיו וַֹיִֹשָֹׁקֵֹהֹוֹּ.” And rather than fight each other, they dissolve into tears together.
Yaakov‘s life has other moments of vulnerability as well, of course. He runs from his brother out of fear for his life. (Gen. 27:43) When he sees Rachel for the first time, he is overcome with emotion: “Yaakov kissed Rachel, and raised his voice and cried / וַיִּשַּׁ֥ק יַֽעֲקֹ֖ב לְרָחֵ֑ל וַיִּשָּׂ֥א אֶת־קֹל֖וֹ וַיֵּֽבְךְּ” (Gen. 29:11). Then, only two passages later, Yaakov’s uncle Lavan “ran towards him, embraced him and kissed him / וַיָּ֤רָץ לִקְרָאתוֹ֙ וַיְחַבֶּק־לוֹ֙ וַיְנַשֶּׁק־ל֔וֹ” (Gen. 29:13). And now the reunion with Esav.
Notice the increasing vulnerability: the first time, kissing and crying; the second, running, hugging and kissing; and the third, running, hugging, kissing and crying. There is also a progression in interconnectedness: while the first two passages are more unilateral, with Yaakov showing his affection for Rachel and then Lavan for Yaakov, in the third, after Esav breaks through with a hug and kiss, they both cry.
Tony Porter, in his TED Talk “A call to men,” describes what he calls “the man box.” He contends that when males act according to socially constructed stereotypes, they do not express weakness or fear, and they do not cry openly; they show no emotion except anger.
Thankfully, in these opening passages of Parashat VaYishlach, our ancestors do not restrict themselves within this “man box.” This is especially impressive with regard to Esav, as mentioned earlier; elsewhere the Torah in fact describes him as “a hunter and man of the field (25:27) / אִישׁ יֹדֵעַ צַיִד אִישׁ שָׂדֶה.” Later, his father prophecies that he will “live by the sword (27:40) / וְעַל חַרְבְּךָ תִחְיֶה.” Yet here he is, overcoming that prophecy and his youthful physicality and anger to show affection towards his brother.
A good sign for things to come with regard to masculine identity in this week’s reading? Not so fast.
Far more violent and troubling is the story of Dinah’s rape and the revenge of Shimon and Levi. When Shechem sees Dinah, “he takes her, sleeps with her and violates her / וַיִּקַּח אֹתָהּ וַיִּשְׁכַּב אֹתָהּ וַיְעַנֶּהָ.” Dinah is then commodified in the subsequent conversation between Yaakov and Shechem’s father, and she becomes part of a larger transaction between the peoples. When Yaakov’s children find out, though, their reaction is different: “they grieved and became very angry (34:7) / וַיִּתְעַצְּבוּ הָאֲנָשִׁים וַיִּחַר לָהֶם מְאֹד.”
But which emotion do they act upon? The anger, by killing every male of the city and taking vengeance on everyone. (34:25-29) Which leads me to mention another element Tony Porter’s “man box”: that masculinity means aggression and dominance – the demonstration of power and control – especially over women. This is the conduct of Shechem, and then to some degree of Yaakov when negotiating about Dinah. And while it true that Shimon and Levi rush to Dinah’s defense, the Torah actually uses the same verb to describe them saving her as it did to describe Shechem attacking her: “they took Dinah from Shechem’s house and left (34:26) / וַיִּקְחוּ אֶת דִּינָה מִבֵּית שְׁכֶם וַיֵּצֵאוּ.”
Is Yaakov’s response somehow a corrective to their conduct? Not at first. His initial reaction is about protecting himself and the entire family (also understandable), not the violence against Dinah or the violence perpetrated by Shimon and Levi. (34:30) On Yaakov’s deathbed, though, his condemnation is clear. Speaking of Shimon and Levi he says: “Cursed be their wrath for it is mighty, and their anger because it is harsh (49:7) / אָרוּר אַפָּם כִּי עָז וְעֶבְרָתָם כִּי קָשָׁתָה.” And what consequence does he describe? He, their father, does not want to be counted among them: “Let my soul not be included in their counsel; my honor, not be joined in their assembly (49:6) / בְּסֹדָם אַל תָּבֹא נַפְשִׁי בִּקְהָלָם אַל תֵּחַד כְּבֹדִי.” Thus does Yaakov distance and disassociate himself from their violent anger, their aggression and need to dominate, their “man box.”
Yaakov then goes one step further, when he prescribes that they be disenfranchised among the people: “I will disperse them throughout Jacob, and scatter them throughout Israel (49:7) / אֲחַלְּקֵם בְּיַעֲקֹב וַאֲפִיצֵם בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל.” This does not, however, mean they are excluded from the people altogether. As Rabbi David Stav notes, towards the end of this week’s reading we learn that Reuven disrespected Yaakov. Nevertheless, the Torah makes it a point to mention immediately thereafter that “Yaakov had twelve sons (35:22) / וַיִּהְיוּ בְנֵי יַעֲקֹב שְׁנֵים עָשָׂר.” Why? Because no matter what the misdeeds, the missteps and mistakes, they were still his children and therefore included. Inclusion without education, though, is not enough. Thus in addition to Yaakov’s final words to Shimon and Levi, he also warns Reuven that he “shall not dominate (49:4) / אַל תּוֹתַר.” This is the crucial lesson that must be learned; in their times and in ours, the allure of “the man box” is a social force that must be reckoned with.