Now Dina, the daughter of Leah whom she had borne to Yaakov, went out to see among the daughters of the land. And he saw her: Shechem son of Chamor the Hivite, chief of the land, and he took her and he lay with her and he raped her. Then his soul was drawn to Dina, daughter of Yaakov, and he loved the young woman and spoke tenderly to the young woman... (Genesis 34:1-3)
This is the only story we have about Dina, the only daughter of Yaakov and his wives. She might be literally a teenager or a young adult woman. The language of yetzia, "going out", is used also about Yaakov himself and about Moshe, when they were teenagers or young men. And this is what happened: she went out to be among other young woman, "to see". And her life was interrupted by another "seeing", from Shechem son of Chamor, a powerful man. The result -- the twisted love from him, and the revenge against Shechem's people by Yaakov's sons -- is the only result we hear. We don't hear any more of Dina's story.
Part of the cruelty of sexual assault and sexual abuse is the physical violence. Part is the taking over of a life -- the hijacking of the victim's own story, own path. Dina's story opens with something so interesting -- we don't have other biblical stories about young people going out among themselves, other than to herd sheep or draw water. What were they doing? What kind of interesting young woman were they? But now, we have only "the rape of Dina" and nothing else.
In the verses I've quoted, the Hebrew word for young woman is read aloud as na'ara, but the written Hebrew in the scroll says na'ar -- a lad, a young man. Against the backdrop of the Penn State sexual abuse scandal this lept out at me. Shechem's assault was against a young woman, but it could have been against a young man or a boy. The violence, the consequences, are the same.
We ask: what more is there to learn? What more might we not already know about rape, abuse, assault, sexual harrassment? So this year the Torah isn't coming to teach us something we don't know. Instead, it is reminding us of all the things we do know. We're reminded, through Penn State and Syracuse University, that we have not finished building systems of accountabiity, so that those who witness or suspect sexual abuse are obligated to come forward. We have not finished building cultures or havens that protect abusers.
Rabbi Brad Hirshfield of CLAL, reflecting on Penn State, recently made the case for vigilance, which he defines like this. Vigilance means a willingness to be more on guard than usual on behalf of people who are especially vulnerable. To put aside even loyalty and the presumption of goodness we usually have about other people, and for the sake of those who are vulnerable to entertain the possibility that the worst may be true.
Rabbi Hirschfield argues that being vigilant does not mean thinking that everyone is an abuser or even that every secondhand story one hears is true. It does not mean giving up our faith in others, in teachers and coaches and advisers. But when something credible comes to us, we have a duty -- especially to children -- to pursue it, to confront if we can, to see that it's not swept under the rug.
There are all kinds of reasons it is hard. It's easier to be a bystander, not to take sides, not to get involved. But the fact is: abuse, whether it's physical or sexual or emotional, is real and it happens, and there is no part of our society that is yet free from it.
So we have to remind ourselves of our duty not to turn away if we know or if we hear something. Children especially need to know that if, God forbid, they have to summon the courage to speak to us about something that happens to them or to a friend, that we will listen and not dismiss it, or look for reasons not to take it seriously. We -- their parents. We -- their teachers, their youth group leaders, their rabbi.
It's the same in the case of adults who tell of abuse or harassment. The kinds of things Herman Cain was accused of occur in private. They are the situation of Dina and Shechem, where one person holds particular power over the other -- whether it's financial or emotional or physical. It's hard to prove, and incredibly frightening for the victims to contemplate what might happen if they speak out. Those who have been abused or threatened or harassed stand in a position of particular vulnerability, especially against the powerful, whether it's a boss or a coach or any kind of leader.
We have to keep reminding ourselves that no one is beyond reproach simply because of their position of power. Certainly not a football coach, and not even a person who fancies himself the President of the United States. It is our duty, imitating God, to look out for the less powerful, for the vulnerable.
That is vigilance, one of the things we need reminding of. The other is that we have to tell our children that we will listen if, God forbid, they have to tell us about something that happened to them or to someone they know. We have to be there if a friend or a neighbor, God forbid, has to tell us that they are in danger, to be ready to call the police if necessary or to find safety. In our community, one place to turn in a case of abuse of any kind is Bridges, which is one of the best organizations in our area for victims of domestic or child abuse in any form -- the phone number 24 hours a day is 603-883-3044.
In our synagogue this week, it is USY Shabbat, a celebration of youth and leadership. They are the truest honor to the legacy of Dina, daughter of Leah and Yaakov.