This week’s parsha, Vayishlach, is extremely distressing to read given the many misfortunes and tragedies contained in it. The parsha begins with the incredibly tense story of the first meeting between Yaakov and Esav in 22 years–after Yaakov ran away from Esav who wanted to kill him. To really appreciate the gravity of this event, try to put yourself in Yaakov’s shoes. Imagine the fear you would experience if you heard that your life-long enemy, the one who has sworn to kill you, is coming to meet you with an army of 400 hundred men. Add to that the fact that the army at your disposal is comprised mostly of women and children (who happen to be your family) and a bunch of cattle. Feel the sharp blade of terror cutting into your stomach yet?
But there’s more. Even before Yaakov can “settle the score” with Esav, he is met by an angel who wants to “do him in”. Ironically, until now Yaakov’s experience meeting angels was a pleasant one–they would usually relay a message from Hashem that He would protect Yaakov, etc. But all of a sudden this “new angel on the block” comes along and Yaakov finds himself fighting for his life, which is already hanging by a thread, given the fact that he is on his way to meet Esav who also wants to kill him!
And the tragedy doesn’t end there. Right after this meeting with Esav, we read about a horrible incident-the assault on Yaakov’s daughter, Dina. Then we’re told (35:8) “Devorah, Rivka’s nurse, died and was buried below Beit El in a place called the Oak of Weeping”. As to why we are told of this unknown woman’s death, the Midrash (Oral Tradition) says that Devorah’s death hints to the fact that Rivka died! Consider the fact that Rivka never again saw her beloved Yaakov, after she tried to save his life 22 years earlier by suggesting that he run away from Esav. How sad!!
And the tragedy continues. The next story we read about is one of the most tragic events in Yaakov’s life. Rachel, his beloved wife, dies while giving birth to Benyamin–the last of his sons. And before we can fully digest that piece of news, we’re told seven verses later that Yaakov’s father, Yitzchak, dies. It just seems like Yaakov is experiencing tragedy after tragedy. Why is that? Certainly this cannot be explained as mere coincidence!
Perhaps to understand this, we should focus on one of these tragedies, namely the assault on Dina. While sibling rivalry, fighting with angels and death of loved ones are all disturbing, they pale in comparison to the appalling attack on an innocent, young girl. We are told (34:1-2) “Dina the daughter of Leah born to Yaakov, went out to see the girls of the land. And Shechem the son of Chamor the Hittite the prince of the land, took her and lay with her and afflicted her”. What’s really astonishing is that despite the fact that this is very much Dina’s story, the spotlight quickly shifts off of her and on to the deal her family is making with Shechem and his people to “cover up” this whole affair. Then Yaakov’s focus becomes centered on her brothers who he feels have taken “extreme revenge” on the people of Shechem by killing them all. What happened to Dina? Why aren’t we told more about where she is and what she is experiencing after such a horrible ordeal? In fact, when her brothers devise their plan as to how to deal with Shechem and his people, they seem to leave out one very important detail. Rescuing their sister! The Midrash tells us that during this whole episode, Dina was still being held captive by Shechem in his home! How are we to make sense of this? And if the Torah is hinting to us that Dina is in fact not the crucial figure in this story, dare we ask why she was assaulted in the first place?
Sure we dare, though our frustration might escalate when we turn to the commentaries for help. Rashi focuses on the word “Vataytzay–and she went out”. He says that Dina is faulted for having gone out–i.e. she displayed a lack of Tzniut (modesty) in going out because a young girl like her should not have been brazenly walking around the streets alone. And Rashi traces the source of her brazenness to her mother Leah who, in last week’s parsha, “goes out” to inform Yaakov that he is to sleep in her tent that night, according to the terms of a deal that she has made with Rachel. That’s why according to Rashi, the Torah specifically mentions that Dina was the daughter of Leah, because (and he is the first to coin this phrase) “Like mother like daughter”.
However, this explanation is a bit troublesome. First of all, it sounds too similar to the ridiculous defense used by some people regarding attacks on women that “She deserved it, because she was dressed so provocatively”, or “She was flirting so much, of course she wanted it to happen”. In addition, there is another reason why this answer may not satisfy our question. If we look at the story in last week’s parsha where Leah “goes out” to Yaakov, the commentaries there explain her action as having been with the purest of intentions. In fact, when it says (Parshat Vayetze, 30:17) “And Hashem listened to Leah and she conceived and bore a fifth son”, Rashi himself says that Leah was rewarded with a son because she prayed to Hashem to allow her to help increase the number of tribes. So if Leah’s “going out” is a positive action and Dina takes after Leah in her going out because “Like mother like daughter”, how can Rashi use this as a reason for why Dina was assaulted?
The Midrash tells us that all the tragic events that occurred to Yaakov in Parshat Vayishalach happened because Hashem was trying to get a message across to him. The message is actually something written about in Sefer Kohelet (Ecclesiasties). In Chapter five of Kohelet, Shlomo Hamelech (King Solomon) cautions us not to speak rashly about Hashem and His actions. Shlomo then warns us not to make vows because we may not fulfill them. Then, Shlomo says (5:5) “Don’t let your mouth make your flesh sin”. In trying to figure out what Shlomo meant by this, the Rabbis tell us something quite chilling . They say that the word “flesh” refers to family and children–i.e. those close to you. They base this on a Gemarra (Shavuot 39), where it uses the word “flesh” to mean close relatives. Thus the Rabbis say: “We know that for any sin in the Torah, Hashem exacts retribution from the individual who sins. The exception is when it comes to unfulfilled vows. For an unfulfilled vow, Hashem exacts retribution not only from the person but also the person’s family”!
Back in Parshat Vayetze, when Yaakov runs away from home and then has the dream in which Hashem promises to help him, Yaakov makes a vow. In his vow he says (28:20-22) “If Hashem will be with me and watch over me…I will give Hashem one-tenth of everything He gives me”. The problem is, Yaakov never fulfilled his vow. He did not give a tenth of everything he had back to Hashem. So in order to get the message across to Yaakov, Hashem brings Esav to meet him. As part of his strategy to appease Esav, Yaakov gives him hundreds of cattle, donkeys, camels, etc. Yaakov has to lose all of this as a reminder that he vowed to give Hashem a tenth of everything. Unfortunately, Yaakov does not get the hint. So Hashem sends an angel after him who tries to exact retribution from Yaakov himself. But Yaakov still doesn’t get the message. In fact, after his meeting with the angel and Esav it says (33:18) “And Yaakov came complete to the city of Shechem”. Rashi says “complete means with all his possessions–i.e. he still did not fulfill his vow to give a tenth of all he had back to Hashem. As a result, Hashem has to begin exacting retribution from his loved ones, namely Dina. This also explains why immediately after the incident with Dina, Hashem comes to Yaakov and says (35:1) “Get up and go to Beit El and make there an altar to the G-d that appeared to you when you ran away from Esav”. Hashem is clearly reminding Yaakov of the vow he made in Beit El, which remained unfulfilled and thus brought upon Yaakov the tragic incident with Dina and the other members of his family.
In Judaism, the concept of vows is taken very seriously. Why else on Yom Kippur–the day on which we try to obtain forgiveness from Hashem for ALL our sins–to we begin with the prayer “Kol Nidre”–the breaking of vows? Unfortunately, we don’t always realize that what we say can hurt not only ourselves, but those close to us as well. Perhaps that’s why the Torah teaches us this lesson the way that it does. After all, if we can get so upset at the thought of Dina’s assault, shouldn’t we get just as upset at the thought of harming those we love?