The Treasures of Vayishlach by Ivy Helman

The Torah portion to be read this Shabbat is Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43).  It contains the reunion between Jacob and Esau, the twice-renaming of Jacob to Israel, events relating to Dinah, the mass murder of all of the male inhabitants of Shechem, the birth of Benjamin, the death of Rachel in childbirth, the death from old-age of Isaac, and a long list of the descendants of Esau.  Like every blog, there is too much material on which to comment.  Therefore, I will focus on three examples.  Each of these examples in their own way turns expectations or aspects of the Torah on their heads.   

First, we have the way in which Jacob wholeheartedly avoids war.  This is despite the fact that, in the Torah, war is demanded, normalized, or doled out as a form of punishment.  Rarely does fear factored into the Torah’s discussions of war, yet this parshah starts with Jacob’s fears about war: his brother Esau is going to start a war with him.  To avert this war, Jacob sends, in advance of their meeting, large quantities of gifts, mainly in the form of animals.  In addition, as he approaches his brother, he prostrates himself on the ground seven times.  

While it is not clear from the parshah if Esau actually means war, the actions of Jacob suggest that at least Jacob is convinced that it is a definite possibility.  Likewise, it is not clear if the gifts and prostrations have worked, or if peace has always been Esau’s intention.  Nonetheless, there is no war between the brothers.  Rather, they embrace.  Shortly thereafter, Esau expresses considerable interest in getting to know more about Jacob’s rather large family.  When Esau suggests they travel together, Jacob also opts for peace.  He responds that they cannot travel together because he is concerned about the welfare of his animals and family. If they travel too fast, it would affect the young in his flocks and his family.

Author’s photograph.

Next, we encounter Dinah’s tale.  This is another example of Jacob’s yearning for peace.  In chapter 34, Dinah goes out to spend time with other women in the land.  When doing so, she encounters a man who, according to the tale, loves her and yet “violates” her.  It is unclear in the text if the sex between them is consenual or not.  Is the word violate used because they were not married or is she raped?  If she is raped, it is highly problematic that she is then forced to marry her raper.  However, if violate is used due to her unmarried status and the sex was consenual, then marriage does not seem as problematic.  We just do not know from the information given in the text, and the scope of this blog post does not allow for more speculation. 

What we do know is that Dinah having sex outside of marriage is highly shameful for her brothers.  At first, the brothers “bless” the marriage and “welcome” intermarriages between the two communities.  This arrangement would have brought peace to Jacob’s family and the inhabitants of Shechem.  Its only prerequisite is that all the men of Shechem are circumcised.  

However, this prerequisite is a con by the brothers.  While the men of the village are recovering from their circumcisions, the brothers slaughter them all. They also kidnap Dinah, take their livestock, loot their wealth, and capture their women and children.  After news of this what transpires reaches Jacob, he is furious.  He believes their actions will bring war, a war that will destroy their entire family. The brothers should have chose differently.   

Author’s photograph.

The final aspect of the parshah that turns traditional Torah passages on their head is the extensive genealogical listings of Isaac’s descendants starting near the end of chapter 35 and continuing into chapter 36.  What the listings share, that other genealogical lists in the Torah often do not have, is a perdonerance of women in them. In fact, most genealogical lists only mention males who have “begotten” other males (as if that was actually possible).  These women are not just wives and mothers, which is slightly more common, but they are also sisters and thus daughters.  One example is in verse 22.  The sons of Lotan are named, as is Lotan’s sister, Timna. Could this be a nod that honors Dinah, a sister and daughter?  That is one possibility.

In addition to the attention given to sisters, we also learn the names of the mothers of many of the important wives.  For example in verse 36:14, Oholibamah is the daughter of Anah, who is the daughter of Zibeon.  She is also one of the wives of Esau and the mother of great chieftains (verse 18).  In verse 39, Hadar’s wife is named Mehetabel, who is the daughter of Matred.  Matred is the daughter of Me Zahab. 

In the Torah, there are, of course, many examples of norms being rebuked or subverted.  From a feminist perspective, these are useful because they show another understanding, another interpretation is possible.  In Vayishlach, Jacob subverts the usual warring atmosphere by yearning for peace and bending over backwards for it.  Likewise, there are instances in the Torah where women do not even figure, yet alone count as mothers or wives. Yet, in Vayishlach, women are prominent as wives, mothers, sisters. and daughters!  Both Dinah and the genealogical lists are proof of this.   

To me, this means that many aspects of the Torah are redeemable, if we are willing to pay attention.  The Torah isn’t just about war; Vayishlach gives us an example in which peace is highly valued and painstakingly worked towards. In addition, women in this parshah are named and remembered as wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters. Examples such as these which buck the system may not happen often, but for me, these moments are treasures.  What a treasure the world would be were everyone to strive toward, cultivate, and cherish peace like Jacob does in this parshah. And, what a Judaism it would if women truly counted.

Ivy Helman, Ph.D.: A feminist scholar and faculty member at Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic where she teaches a variety of Jewish Studies, Feminist and Ecofeminist courses.  

Categories: Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Jewish Feminism, Torah, War and Peace

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

2 replies

  1. Yes, I think the brothers should have chosen differently. Slaughtering a whole tribe of men is obviously not a choice they should have made. But their god is a jealous and angry god, so how much freedom did they have??

    Thanks as always for your interpretations of chapters and verses of the Torah and for telling us more about the history of the people. Bright blessings!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you, as always, for this enlightening post! I didn’t know about these stories and I feel as if I have a much better understanding of the Torah from this and your other posts. These stories remind me a little of some reading I’ve been doing about ancient Celtic culture. A lot of the Celtic myths and stories are about wars and cattle raids and other armed conflict, but, in fact, peace was also valued. The Druids, who were both women and men, would go between the lines before a battle and try to negotiate peace, for example. A love of peace was also valued in bards, according to some old sayings about what made a true bard.

    Liked by 1 person

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