Va-Yishlah- on brothers, on brutality, and on borrowing Gods and traditions

In this portion we have examples of the best and the worst of human behaviour. We have the reconciliation between Jacob and Esau. We also have rape and murder. Jacob knows an encounter with his brother is inevitable as he moves towards his land. He prepares for battle and separates his assets into two camps in the hopes that one would survive in the event of attack. He is informed that Esau is approaching with four hundred men – indeed suggesting that attack is likely. When the brothers see one another, however, they embrace. The text does not tell us for sure whether they had been planning to do battle and then softened at the site of one another, or whether Esau was approaching with peaceful intentions all along. What is clear though is that despite their painful rivalry the brothers are able to find peace. One reason that is given for this, in addition to the hopeful implication that the inextricable bond between brothers is stronger than their quarrels, is that both admit to having enough. Their rivalry over their father’s favour was very likely about insecurity. At the time, their futures were uncertain and uncertainty can make people behave poorly. Now that the brothers are each affluent in their own right, they are able to see their brother less as an enemy and more as a friend. This is a reminder that behaving with goodness is the responsibility of all, but that it is easier to do so when our basic needs are met. This should compel us to address poverty in our present day in our pursuit of Tikkun Olam.

In this portion we also have the renaming of the house of Jacob to “Israel.” This happens in a couple of different textual moments. The disjointed nature of some of the writing in this portion suggests multiple writers, perhaps with competing ideas of how the story should be told. At one moment, Jacob struggles with a being by the river Jabbok. When he successfully fights the being off, the being tells him that his name should be Israel. The text tells us that this being is supernatural; he is in the shape of a man but something more like an angel or demon. Many commentators have interpreted this moment as a struggle between Jacob and himself. Whether the incident is really a dream, many feel that the being is Jacob’s “shadow” (from Jungian terminology), or other aspect of the subconscious. Is this his feeling of dread approaching his brother? Perhaps. Perhaps it is some other source of inner-conflict. We find that his triumph over the being can be read, in this light, as the triumph we too may experience when we face our “inner demons” head on.

As soon as “Israel” is named, it becomes tainted with scandal. We have in this portion the very troubling narrative of the rape of Dinah. Most commentators understand that Dinah is raped,and violently, although the JPS version suggests that there may be a way of interpreting the text as suggesting improper sexual relations as opposed to rape. This would make the scene about intermarriage as opposed to sexual violence and change its interpretation entirely. We know that Hamor, father of Shechem the rapist, encourages Jacob to allow intermarriage between the tribes when he goes to ask for Dinah’s hand in marriage for his son. Shechem gets circumcised and convinces the other men to do so as well in the hopes that this will make the marriage possible. All of this makes the rape narrative murky. The response by Dinah’s brothers Simeon and Levi, ostensibly to the rape but also perhaps to the suggestion of tribal intermingling, is to kill all the men who have just been circumcised and take their goods and women for their own. If it is the aspect of sexual relations between the tribes, as well as sex before marriage, that is the crime in this text, there is no doubt that Dinah’s brothers slaughtering the entire town as a response is an inexcusably violent and horrific response. If the crime was rape we may read their response as justifiable, although certainly the extreme violence of it and the killing of innocent men along with the guilty one should give us pause. Certainly commentators have seen Simeon and Levi as justified, even though Jacob forbid this sort of action directly.

The text is silent on Dinah’s will (she does not speak during the entire narrative) and so we cannot know whether this was a rape in her view. The text is also silent on the other women who are taken as part of the onslaught. Obviously this is not a world in which women have the power to say “no” and so the circumstances of Dinah’s rape are even more murky. The text is clearly using it as symbolic of something else. This does not prevent commentators from using this narrative to perpetuate familiar problematic tropes about rape. Some blame Dinah for the jewellery she adorned. Others read the text, which says she went out to find the local women, as her choosing to traipse about and therefore, in some sense, she’s “asking for it.” All of this shows us that sexism is endemic to our Jewish society as well as our broader societies. The text can help us see the problematic tropes and offers a chance to discuss and demystify them in our communities.

Towards the end of the portion is the story of Rachel dying in childbirth. In the last portion I mention that her death along the road becomes emblematic of the deaths of many Jews while leaving/moving/in exile, etc. Rachel named her son “Ben-omi” for “son of my suffering” (it can also be “son of my strength,” which suggests an interesting dichotomy). He is renamed Benjamin “son of the right hand” or “son of the South.” Although Jacob builds a pillar to commemorate the spot where she dies, Rachel’s own naming of her son does not stand. This is a particular Torah portion in which the words of women do not seem to amount to much. Dinah disappears from the narrative (and most commentators believe from the house of Jacob altogether – worrying for those so concerned about intermarriage and the purity of Jacob’s line), and all that is left of Rachel is a pillar (reminding us of the pillar of salt that Lot’s wife became).

The final aspect of this week’s Torah portion that is interesting from a umanistic perspective is the naming of the God-character. The text tells us that when Jacob arrives “in the city of which is in the land of Canaan” he is thankful for his safe arrival and so sets up an alter. He calls it “El-elohe-yisrael.” The JPS Jewish Study Bible notes that “through this confession El, the supreme Canaanite deity, is identified as the God of Israel” (69 n20). Immediately after this is the rape of Dinah and the suggestion of Hamor that the groups intermarry. We know that the Israelite culture borrowed tremendously from Canaanite culture, and here is a moment in which the text gives us proof. Perhaps fears over how much integration would be too much is what influences the telling of the rape story that immediately follows. Later in the story, after the retaliation by Simeon and Levi, Jacob moves again. Again, he is grateful for safe passage. He thanks God, who once again renames him Israel (suggesting this was a separate version of the story than the one in which the angel/demon tells Jacob of the name change that we have earlier in the text). God also says to Jacob “I am El Shaddai.” While this is one of the names for God, its origin is uncertain. Some have argued it is a reference to Ugaritic, others Mesopotamian Gods or even Goddesses. Again, however, we have a sense that as Jacob and his tribe move, they pick up from the cultures around them. It is ironic that the response to suggestions of intermarriage are treated with such violence in the very narrative that gives us proof that it is the very intermingling of cultures that gives us the culture we call “Israel.” Just as Jacob earns the name “Israel” through his travels, the Jewish people have become part of the tribe of “Israel” (and its successive generations) through the global migrations that have brought us into contact with others. This is clearly not a view of the text that most rabbis would celebrate, but for us it is a sign that our culture, like all cultures, has always been a process of human creation and has evolved and changed as we have. This is not something to bemoan, nor is it something to address by attempting to fix or freeze our culture in one arbitrary “original” or “authentic” moment. It is something to acknowledge. Change and tradition have always been mutually constituting processes. While that may seem to be a contradiction, it is also undeniable and is encoded in our very foundational text itself.

4 thoughts on “Va-Yishlah- on brothers, on brutality, and on borrowing Gods and traditions

  1. According to many biblical scholars and historians, much of ancient Israel was native to Canaan and would have recognized a version of El as their primary god. It is speculated that Yahweh was imported (possibly from the south according to the Shasu / Kenite / Midianite hypothesis) and there he eventually absorbed El. The “E” text seems to indicate this by its insistence that El was the name originally known to the patriarchs while Yahweh only became known as his name during the time of Moses (“P” follows this line of thinking and makes it explicit in Exodus 6). In any case, the ancient Israelites (proto-Israelites?) seem to have been united around the concept of a unique relationship with Yahweh who was able to unite them in ways that El alone could not! It’s great fun to dig under the layers of the text!

    Liked by 1 person

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