Every three or four years, more or less, we read this week's parashah / Torah reading on the Shabbat preceding New Year's Eve . . . so we are watching the book of Breishit/Genesis come to a close along with the secular year.
It's an evocative combination: A calendar year comes to a close, the first book of Torah comes to a close, the life of a patriarch comes to a close . . .
Like the time leading up to the beginning of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, this week or so in the secular calendar is a time for both looking back and looking forward. Amidst the unrelenting hype of post-Christmas sales, we are meant to consider the events and actions and relationships of our lives and resolve to do better. Despite the ads by Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers, I imagine that these new year's resolutions should go beyond the number of pounds we promise ourselves we'll lose in the next calendar year.
The end of the book of Breishit/Genesis marks the end of a foundational text of the Torah. In Breishit we witness the creation of the world culminating in the creation of humanity and the establishment of the principle of Shabbat. We watch the first bumpy steps in the relationship between God and the most uncontrollable element of creation: curious, vindictive, disobedient, faithful, courageous, loyal, principled . . . people.
At the end of his long and eventful life, Jacob lies on his deathbed surrounded by his family in the closing chapters of Breishit. Jacob metes out judgment. At the end of his life, he reviews not his own behavior and actions, but those of his progeny. Son by son, Jacob evaluates past actions and comment's on that son's character: Reuben is "unstable as water"; Shimon and Levi are "tools of lawlessness . . . cursed be their anger . . . I will scatter them in Israel"; Judah--"the scepter shall not depart from Judah...and the homage of peoples shall be his"; Asher's "bread shall be rich". And like his father, Isaac, delivers a death-bed blessing to a younger son: to Joseph he says "The blessings of your father surpass the blessings of my ancestors to the utmost bounds of the eternal hills . . . . "
In Israel, New Year's Eve is referred to as "Sylvester", a nod to the non-Jewish roots of the festival. According to the Hebrew version of Wikipedia, the festival of the last night of the year called Sylvester in Israel and in some European countries is associated with Pope Sylvester I ( who served as Pope from 314 to 335) who died during the night of December 31st - January 1st. The date is, thus, a sacred day of remembrance within the Catholic world, and has become an international day of festivity since the Gregorian calendar became the internationally accepted standard with no thematic connection to Pope Sylvester, of course.
A week like this, when we re-watch the death-bed scene of Jacob's and are encouraged to contemplate the consequences of our actions by virtue of the ticking over of another calendar year, we should consider, perhaps, what Jacob did not: the aftermath of his own actions.
When Jacob died, surrounded by his twelve sons (and, one supposes, his daughter, Dina, although she is not mentioned) the Torah reports: "Joseph flung himself upon his father's face and wept over him and kissed him." (50:1) Reuben, Gad, Issachar, Asher, Dan, Shimon, Levi, Naphtali, Benjamin, Zevulun, Judah . . . nothing. By this account, Jacob has left behind one bereaved and eleven disaffected sons. Probably in shock at hearing their father's final words to them.
A few verses later, and we find those eleven brothers turning to Joseph contending that their father had left instructions that Joseph was to forgive his brothers their offense of selling him into slavery and then they offered themselves as slaves to Joseph. Jacob has left behind a dysfunctional family whose only hope for healing is found in the favored son, Joseph. Joseph does indeed, bless his brothers will healing words: "Have no fear! Am I a substitute for God? Besides, although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result--the survival of many people. And so, fear not, I will sustain you and your children." (50: 19-21)
It is not his father's love that has inspired Joseph to such maturity and perspective, but the opportunity provided to him by God to reach for, and attain, lofty goals . . . to feed those who might otherwise starve. From such experience, the dysfunction of his own family must seem easily addressed: compassion comes easily to Joseph after all his life experience.
There is value in taking the time to stop and consider our actions and our behavior and our relationships from time to time. If that contemplation is triggered by the ticking over of the Gregorian calendar year, great! Any moment of self-reflection that draws us into an evaluation of that which motivates us, inspires us, shapes our actions and guides us in our relationships with those we care about is a good moment, whichever calendar we're looking at.
This week's Torah reading contains one of the most disturbing passages in the entire Hebrew Bible: the rape of Jacob and Leah's daughter, Dina. The story is a challenging one for us to understand in the first place, and it also highlights the struggles of many women throughout history. I am grateful to Rabbi Laura Geller for the following commentary on this biblical passage. Rabbi Geller's insights are comprehensive and I feel the best I can do is share them with you with no further comment from me:
Comforting Dina: The rape of Dina...and other horrible, contemporary acts of violence. By Rabbi Laura Geller
[Jacob is journeying back to Canaan, his homeland, to meet his estranged brother, Esau. He journeys with his wives, concubines and children....]
Somehow, alone, separated from his "two wives" and his "eleven children," Jacob discovers the face of God in his adversary--and Jacob is blessed.
Eleven children cross the river? But Jacob already at this point has twelve children. What about Dina, his daughter? What happened to her? Rashi, quoting a midrash, explains: "He placed her in a chest and locked her in." While many commentaries understand that by locking Dina in a box Jacob intends to protect her from marrying his brother Esau, we know the truth of the story. Hiding Dinah--locking her up--is a powerful image about silencing women. And that silence echoes loudly through the rest of the Torah.
What happens next? Dina gets In an ultimate act of silencing, the commentaries understand Dina's rape as Jacob's punishment for withholding her from Esau. Dina's rape is Jacob's punishment? What about Dina? What has she done? How does she feel? Out text is silent. We only know what her brothers and father think: that she has been defiled (34:5-7), that she must not be treated as a whore (34:31). No one in the Torah or the midrashic accounts asks her what she wants, what she needs, or how she can be comforted.
Her silence is loud enough to reverberate through the generations. We hear it in the reports of other fathers who perceive their daughter's rape as their dishonor, their punishment.
Fortunately for Dinah, in Genesis the blame and punishment fall entirely on the perpetrator and his people, not on her. Other women are not as lucky. In 1998, in Pakistan, Arbab Khatoon was raped by three men in a village in Jacobabad district. She was murdered seven hours later. According to local residents, she was killed by her relatives for bringing dishonour to the family by going to the police. In 1999, Lal Jamilla Mandokhel, a 16-year-old mentally retarded girl, was reportedly raped several times by a junior clerk of the local government department of agriculture in a hotel in Parachinar, Pakistan. The girl's uncle filed a complaint about the incident with police--who took the accused into protective custody but then handed over the girl to her tribe. The elders decided that she had brought shame to her tribe and that the honor could only be restored by her death; she was killed in front of a tribal gathering.
Similar stories are reported not only in Pakistan but also in Bangladesh, Great Britain, Brazil, Ecuador, Egypt, India, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Pakistan, Morocco, Sweden, Turkey, Uganda-as well as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran. No wonder women are silent!
This outrage is only part of a much larger problem of violence against women. For example, according to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), more than five thousand brides die annually in India because their dowries are considered insufficient. Widney Brown, advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, says that "in countries where Islam is practiced, they're called honor killings, but dowry deaths and so-called crimes of passion have a similar dynamic in that the women are killed by male family members and the crimes are perceived as excusable or understandable."
The practice, she said, "goes across cultures and across religions." In the few cases when public outcry around the world and international pressure were used, a woman's life was spared. But stories that capture the headlines do not begin to address the scope and range of the problem.
We hear Dina's silence as well in the challenges to reproductive rights happening right now in the United States. If Dina were raped and pregnant while living in South Dakota in 2007, she might not be able to get an abortion.
What happens to Dina in the aftermath of ordeal? We do not know. We never hear from her, as we may never hear from the women and our generation who are victims of violence and whose voices are not heard. But the legacy of Jacob as the one who wrestles, demands that we confront the shadowy parts of ourselves and our world--and not passively ignore these facts. The feminist educator Nelle Morton urged women to hear each other speech." Dina's story challenges us to go even further and be also the voices for all of our sisters.
Reprinted from The Torah: A Women's Commentary,
edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss
(New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.