A bad week for anti-Semitism in the U.S., wrapped around a controversy about anti-Semitism itself. There was the murder of Jews at a kosher market in Jersey City, which seems to be an anti-Semitic hate crime. The president of the United States, addressing the Israeli-American Council, threw in some gratuitous remarks about the Jews in front of him (wealthy, real estate developers, "not nice people at all"), his own ambassador to Israel ("he loves this country, but he loves Israel"), and in general the ways Jews should love Israel. The president's rhetoric frames a question of how to assess a leader with power who says and does things that are good for Jews and also says and does things that are bad for Jews.
The bigger controversy has been about an executive order the president signed related to anti-Semitism on college campuses. The debate within the Jewish community has been about whether the executive order defines what Jewishness is in a way that is detrimental to Jews as Americans or simply counter to how we define ourselves. (There is another debate about the right of free speech; I'm not addressing that here.)
I'm posting here links to a number of texts that relate to how the concepts of "nation" and "religion" apply to Jews. This is hardly an exhaustive list, but it's a suggestive one. These come from both inside the Jewish community and outside. One is not friendly.
There is an inside question for Jews of "what kind of group are we", and a number of outside questions including "how should our group be described in American law."
I may add to this list. I am going to speak about this on Shabbat morning.
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.
I wrote this midrash early in rabbinical school -- it's somewhat rough and unpolished, but it has some interesting things in it and I've left it pretty much as it was. I was thinking about how we add the phrase "Elohay Rachel" (God of Rachel) to our prayers, yet we do not have as many stories about Rachel for that phrase to recall as we do for her husband Yaakov. This story just came to me one day. I'm not sure exactly all that it means. But I let my thoughts follow some Hebrew wordplay in last week's parasha and this week's. This midrash is a take on the incident of Yaakov's wrestling with a figure at night in Parashat Vayishlach:
25 Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. 26 When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob's hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him. 27 Then he said, "Let me go, for dawn is breaking." But he answered, "I will not let you go, unless you bless me." 28 Said the other, "What is your name?" He replied, "Jacob." 29 Said he, "Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed." 30 Jacob asked, "Pray tell me your name." But he said, "You must not ask my name!" And he took leave of him there. 31 So Jacob named the place Peniel, meaning, "I have seen a divine being face to face, yet my life has been preserved." 32
* * * * *
It became a topic of much conversation in Yaakov's household, this incident which he had kept to himself until the ominous meeting with Esav had passed. Yaakov told of wrestling with someone in the night, hearing his name, gaining a blessing. Did it happen, or did he dream it? Yaakov wasn't sure, but he felt that it had happened. Rachel knew otherwise -- she knew it must have been a dream.
She knew, because she had dreamt this dream before. She would dream it again.
In time, the discussion around the fire turned to the question: Who had Yaakov wrestled with? Those who told and retold the story said: vaye'avek ish imo -- a man wrestled with him. But who was this ish, this man?
This Rachel did not know. For though she had the same recurring dream, the ish was always different.
The first time Rachel had the dream was in Paddan-Aram. It was night, and she was alone. Then, a man. They wrestled -- vaye'avek ish imah. Or perhaps it was an embrace: vay'chabek. In the twisting and locking of hands, she heard a name, her name, and Yaakov's. She turned to see the face whose hands wrapped around her -- was it God? Then she felt the tap, and the blessing. When she awoke with the light of the dawn, she felt within her the pain, a new pain, a pain she had never known before -- but Rachel knew it was a pain toward new life, toward birth.
Rachel thought she understood the dream. She had asked her husband Yaakov to be God, the Progenitor and Source of Life. She had asked Yaakov to give her the blessing of life and more life, to open her womb as he had opened her life the day arrived from the land of Canaan. He had been angry with her -- "Can I be God?" -- they were estranged, and then one night -- it was that night, that same night -- the night of the dream, that night she conceived Yosef. On the night of the dream she conceived Yosef, "master of dreams."
Rachel dreamt the dream again the night her father Lavan overtook them, as they stole out of his home to make their way back to Canaan. It was night, and Rachel was alone, in her tent. A man, a white-haired man placed his arms around her -- vay'chabek ish otah. A warm, fatherly embrace -- or was he trying to strangle her -- vaye'avek? In the clasping and squeezing of hands, she heard her name, twice, in two overlapping voices -- one calm, soothing, warm and one cold, distant, angry. She tore loose a hand and reached out -- was this God? Then she felt the slap, the ambiguous blessing, and when she awoke at the break of dawn, she again felt the pain.
Again, Rachel thought she understood the dream. She uncovered the pack of her father's idols, hidden under her bed, and looked at them. Her father, Lavan. How many nights when she was but a girl did he tell her stories of her aunt, his sister Rivka, his beautiful sister Rivka, his virtuous and generous sister, who had left her home and her father's house? And Rachel had tried to grow to be Rivka, the mysterious ancestor she had never met. The day Yaakov, Rivka's son, arrived in Paddam-Aram, Rachel was Rivka, bringing him water. And the day Rachel cried out for a child, she was again Rivka.
Her father had given her one of the most precious treasures a parent gives a child: someone to live after, to live like. But he had not given her that other most precious treasure: a God.
These idols, these small gods, these trafim! They have made my father Lavan a white-haired man, a colorless old man as far back as I can remember. These trafim, who have torn the cloak of dignity from my father, and made him a petty man, a joke in the eyes of my husband and in my own eyes. What God did Father give me, to pass on to my children? I have only these trafim. My son Yosef, the dreamer, wakes up screaming, dreaming that these trafim are wild beasts, come to tear him apart and leave only his bloody cloak behind.
The pain was again the pain of women -- Rachel had not lied to her father, for she was again pregnant. But she did not want her godless father to see this second child.
Rachel dreamed the dream one final time, the night before she gave birth for the second and last time. It was night, in the hills of Canaan, and she was aone. She felt the pounding inside of her, those little hands and feet beating her from the inside. Vaye'avek ish imah -- a man, a little man, struggling with his mother. She thought she heard her name, muffled, speaking to her from inside. Was it God? She reached out for the dream embrace, but instead she felt the push, and the blessing. When the daylight awakened her, she felt the pain, the birth-pain, the death-pain.
As her soul departed, Rachel tried to understand the dreams, the single recurring dream. But the images fell over each other, clasping hands in struggle and embrace. Yaakov, Lavan, Ben-oni, God; husband, father, son, God; her name, Rachel, o tender little lamb -- was this all she had been? God protect my children, be WITH THEM, gather them wherever they disperse. So wept Rachel as she died -- and her cry is heard by God, generation after generation.
From Genesis 33: 1 And Yaakov lifted up his eyes and looked, and, behold, Esav came, and with him four hundred men... 4 And Esav ran toward him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him; and they wept. 5 And he lifted up his eyes, and saw the women and the children; and said: 'Who are these with thee?' And he said: 'The children whom God has graciously given your servant.'... 8 And he said: 'Who is for you all this camp which I met?' And he said: 'To find favor in the sight of my lord.' 9 And Esav said: 'I have enough; my brother, let that which is yours be yours.' 10 And Yaakov said: 'No, please, if I have found favor in your sight, then receive my present from my hand. For this reason I have seen your face, it is like seeing the face of God -- and you were pleased with me. 11 Take, please, my blessing that is brought to you; because God has been gracious with me and because I have everything.', And he urged him, and he took it. 12 And he said: 'Let us take our journey, and let us go, and I will go before thee.'
Most of Parashat Vayishlach is filled with carefully, artfully written passages like this one. As Yaakov returns to the Land of Israel, he becomes aware that Esav is coming toward him with a large band. Is it a war party? The text heightens the anxiety into the very beginning of verse 4. Is Esav running with a sword, or is he running as Avraham did to greet travelers?
Then when the two brothers finally speak, the dynamics of power between them are fascinating. So much is between the lines. The blessings that their father Yitzchak had proclaimed to each of them have come true -- both are wealthy. Yet Yaakov refers to himself as "your servant." Is he trying to soften the words Yitzchak had said, that "nations would serve you [Yaakov]" and that "you [Esav] will serve your brother"? Who is on top in this dialogue? Is Yaakov simply freightened, uncertain of Esav's intentions?
And yet, Yaakov at the end offers Esav a gift from the wealth that he is bringing. He calls it first a gift, then he says Take, please, my blessing. A blessing or bracha in biblical Hebrew can certainly mean a gift out of one's substance. But surely this is twisting the knife. Esav could hear it on so many levels. Are you offering me your blessing, the one from Abba? Are you reminding me that despite my large army, you are the one with Abba's highest blessing, and God's ("for I have everything")? Why mention the hand, the very thing you and our mother used to cheat me out of the blessing?
But then again, Yaakov says that seeing Esav's face is like seeing the face of God. Of everything said between the brothers, surely this is the most genuine. Surely Yaakov would not take God's name in vain, not after wrestling with and being blessed by a being who may have been a messenger sent by God. Yaakov's words here bear out one interpretation of that episode from the previous chapter. Some say that the man represented Esav, or the memory of Esav with whom Yaakov has been wrestling since the womb. In Hebrew, there is a chain of word-association between the roots 'akav/ayin-koof-bet (Yaakov's name, also meaning "deceit" or "heel"), avak/aleph-bet-koof ("wrestle, struggle"), and chavak/chet-bet-koof ("embrace"). Even the nearby river -- Yabbok -- is in the act.
At the end of the passage, it's thoroughly unclear who suggested to whom that they should part ways. They leave each other either in peace, or at least without overt hostility.
In a few short lines, the Torah gives us a snapshot of family that resonates. Past history is present but unspoken, alluded to but not hashed out. Words are said that can be understood innocently or with less generous intent. The question of power is meaningful in the moment, but vanishes afterward when the brothers are no longer together.
For Yaakov, the meeting validates what the mysterious "man" had told him in conferring the new name Yisrael. For you struggle (sarita) with God and with people, and you have emerged [or "completed" or "been proven capable"...]. Yaakov's life has been a series of "close encounters." Wrestling in the womb, coming close enough for his blind father to touch, spending his wedding night with the wrong woman, facing down Lavan, wrestling with the "man", embracing his brother.
Each of these are the same. Each time Yaakov is facing his own identity, another person, a set of choices, and (therefore) God. Touching his brother, then separating from him, Yaakov returns to the "touch point" that has been there literally since his life began. It turns out that's where he has been ever since. And we too, always, for we are the children of Yisrael.