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Vayislach 5784      December 2, 2023

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbis have been reading Parashat Vayishlach for thousands of years. Rabbis like to spend the time talking about the escape Jacob and his family made from his uncle Lavan. They like to talk about the wrestling with an angel in the middle of the night. They like to talk about the new name that Jacob received, no longer the trickster but Israel, the one who wrestles with God. They spend time discussing the dreaded meeting between Jacob and his brother Esau and how, in the end, the two men reconcile, and each goes his own way in peace.

One would think that Jacob/Israel would now live “happily ever after” but that is not to be. There will be one tragedy after another from here until the end of his life. When the family will go down to Egypt to escape the famine, Jacob will meet Pharoah in that country and Pharoah will ask about Jacob’s life. Jacob will reply “few and hard have been the days of my life…” It will not be easy raising twelve sons and a daughter.

We know very little about the daughter. Her name is Dina. She gets two whole sentences in our Parsha. In the whole Torah, these are the only two sentences that she will get. She does not speak. We are just told that she went to see the other women in the town of Shechem, was seen by the prince of the city who kidnapped her, raped her, and then, maybe in a moment of contrition, asks Jacob if he can marry her. The story ends badly. Dina is still in the hands of her rapist when her full brothers, Shimon and Levi, come to rescue her and they kill all the men in the city. They bring Dina home and that is the last we will hear about her.

Bex Stern Rosenblatt, a teacher at the Conservative Yeshiva sees this obscurity as a good thing. She healed from her trauma and went on to live a normal life. “Nothing special to see here, let’s just move along.” But Rabbi Ayelet Cohen, the Dean of the Rabbinical School at the Jewish Theological Seminary paints a much darker picture. Rabbi Cohen writes, Dinah is a singular character in Genesis. The only named daughter born to Jacob, her existence is something of a paradox in the Torah. Her whole story is contained in two verses. Far more attention is given to the story of her brothers’ avenging of her rape than the story of the rape itself. We know nothing of Dinah’s story before or after. Dinah herself never speaks.”

It is an ugly story, and it is told in as brief a way as possible. Jacob worries about other cities banding together to destroy him and his family after the rampage by Shimon and Levi and at the end of his life, Jacob curses them for their anger and their fury over their sister.

For three thousand years, the men who wrote commentaries on the Torah are not inclined to add any meat to the bare bones of this story. Some commentators will blame Dina for her rape. Not an unusual position in their day or in our times. Some will try and blame the rapist and that he got what he deserved. Still, we never hear a word from or about Dina; her feelings, her trauma, or her description of what happened. What do men know of such things?

But we live in different times and in our world women write commentaries on the Torah. These woman, after three thousand years, are trying to give voice to Dina in our parsha’s short, pithy story.

In her midrash in DirshuniContemporary Women’s Midrash, Rivkah Lubitch offers a few alternative readings, and she expounds on Dinah’s silence: “Dinah was a quiet person and had no voice. Why to such an extent? Because the members of her household did not listen to her and didn’t engage her in conversation, as the sages said, “Do not engage in excessive conversation with a woman.” And that is why she went out to see the daughters of the land.

Dinah was like a mute, as it says, And Dinah went out . . . to see. She went out to see and not to hear. What’s more, it says, he bedded her and abused her, and it does not say “and Dinah cried out.” Is it conceivable that she did not? But it’s as if she was mute, out of the pain and the shame she hushed up and fell silent.”

It is not for me to comment on Dina and her reaction to the trauma she endured. But I find I have to speak up about the silence that the Torah and the later commentators maintain about this story. Rape is a trauma that many women, to this day endure. I can’t speak to their trauma, but I can and must speak to the silence. To this very day, men and women don’t like to talk about the rapes and abuses of women. It is as if it is a dirty little secret, but a rape happens somewhere in this world many times every day. One out of every six American women is the victim of sexual assault. That is the undeniable reality of women’s lives, a reality that nobody wants to talk about. There is only silence.

War is particularly hard on women. October 7th is no exception. Over a thousand people were murdered. More than 200 were captured and were held hostage including women and children. Some bodies were burned so badly that it is almost impossible to tell who was captured and who was killed.

Also on that day, Israeli woman were sexually assaulted and killed. That is not a part of the story that gets told very often. There is only silence when that kind of violence is recalled. Who will speak for the women who were violated before they were killed? Who will give voice to the women who were raped and then taken hostage? What voice do we give to those who were assaulted and survived? Who will speak for them?

Rabbi Cohen writes, One of the most horrifying phenomena in the aftermath of October 7 is the attempt to erase and deny the brutal sexual violence that Hamas perpetrated that day against Israeli women and girls. This has even been true of international women’s rights groups whose mission is to document sexual violence as a weapon of war. To ignore the violence perpetrated against Israeli women is to erase their experience. … Many of the women and girls who were subjected to terrible sexual violence on October 7 have no voices—they were murdered or kidnapped or are suffering from unimaginable trauma. Those in the international community who would deny the sexual violence inflicted with such brutality on that day are willfully averting their eyes to further their own agenda at the expense of Israeli women.”

This is not something we can close our eyes to and ignore. Their voices, their cries for help, their screams of pain were long and loud, and we can’t just pretend that, like Dina, we can’t hear them. They were not mute. Their voices still echo in the deserted places where they once lived. This is not just another example of the double standard that the world inflicts on Israel. This is more than assaults against Israeli women being unimportant. This is about the voice of women who we refuse to hear.

There is a second group of women who were not assaulted and who lifted their voices in the days before October 7th and who voices went unheard. Rabbi Cohen recalls those voices as well writing, “There is another group of Israeli women who, like Dinah, saw and were not listened to: the tatzpaniyot, the spotters. For months before October 7 these young women soldiers, whose job it was to constantly survey the border with Gaza, repeatedly reported deeply concerning observations that they asserted were Hamas training for incursions against Israel. They were ignored and overlooked. And they paid some of the highest prices on October 7. Listening to their brave and insistent voices will necessitate an important reckoning on the climate for women in the Israeli Army, and on the Army’s state of preparedness before that terrible day.”

All too often the voice of women, voices that are clear and strong, go unheard and ignored. “After all, they are only women, what do they know?” Women see what men see. Women understand as men understand. Women speak up as men speak up. But somehow we don’t hear their voices, only the voices of men.

Jewish history has many stories of men who listened to their wives and lived in the face of disaster. Jewish history notes that when Esther the queen spoke up, she saved our people. When Devorah spoke, even the General of the Israelite forces stopped to listen. The midrash explains that one of the leaders of the rebellion of Korach was saved from death when his wife convinced him to quit the rebellion and stay home. When Beruyah, the wife of Rabbi Meir spoke, her words of wisdom were enshrined in the Talmud. There is wisdom in the voices of women, and in all people, and we need to listen to them all and guide our lives by the advice they give.

We live in a world where women have been given a voice. The women rabbis, first ordained just 40 years ago, have already made a significant impact on how we practice our Judaism today. Women doctors and lawyers have brought new dimensions to the practice of their professions. And yet there are still women who scream at the glass ceiling above them, and are unable to break through. They speak but their voices are not heard. All too often we brush their words aside, not hearing the wisdom of their experience, the wisdom of their gender.

Not listening to the women soldiers who warned about a pending attack, caused unforgiveable death and destruction. Not hearing the voices of those who suffer sexual abuse only increases their shame and hides their trauma. I know that this is not easy to hear, and it is not pleasant to recall those times when we could not, or would not hear, the voices of women to our own detriment. The times we held our heads down in shame as we heard them say, “I told you so!”

Three thousand years ago the cries of Dina went unheard. For three thousand years women’s voices have been silenced and muted. The time has come to hear the voices of the other 50 percent of the human race. The time has come to listen to the advice, the observations, and the opinions of women. We are all the richer, in wisdom and in life, when we stop assuming we understand a woman’s point of view and take the time to hear the voice of Dina, as Rabbi Ayelet Cohen teaches, “We must recognize that we see more of the story and indeed more of the face of God when we see every member of our community. In the name of Dinah, as Israeli women give testimony, we must listen, we must recount their stories, and we must amplify their voices.”

May God give us eyes to see and ears to hear everyone so that we can recognize the face of God in all people as we say … Amen and Shabbat Shalom

Sat, June 22 2024 16 Sivan 5784