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.  

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The Dying Time by Esther Nelson

At the end of Anita Diamant’s novel, THE RED TENT, Dinah—the same young woman who is only briefly mentioned in the biblical account (Genesis 34)—dies after a long and full life.  The biblical text tells us that Dinah “went out to visit the women of the region” and that “Schechem son of Hamor the Hivite, prince of the region, saw her…seized her and lay with her by force” (vss. 1-2).  The passage is often titled “The Rape of Dinah.”

In Diamant’s version of the story, Dinah and King Hamor’s son engage in consensual sex.  In keeping with the biblical account, the king then attempts to negotiate a bride price with Jacob (Dinah’s father), but Jacob and his sons are reluctant to agree to the marriage.  They demand soon thereafter that all the men in Hamor’s kingdom undergo circumcision as a bride price.  On the third day after surgery, the sons steal into the city and kill the men.

After just a mere mention of Dinah’s “rape” in Genesis 34, she disappears from the story.  In THE RED TENT, Diamant not only gives Dinah a powerful voice, she also weaves a wonderful tale of mothers, daughters, heartache, betrayal, loss, love, and joy.  Dinah gives birth to her lover’s son in Egypt, develops a strong bond and working relationship with the midwife, Meryt, and eventually falls in love with Benia, a master carpenter.

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“First Blood” Celebration by Esther Nelson

This semester I’m teaching a course titled “The Abrahamic Traditions: Women and Society.”  Because I believe story is one of the best ways to understand a point of view, I use a novel or memoir to accompany each tradition. The novel I use in the Judaism unit is Anita Diamant’s, The Red Tent.

The Red Tent focuses on Dinah, Leah and Jacob’s daughter.  Early in the novel, the narrator says, “My name [Dinah] means nothing to you.  My memory is dust….The chain connecting mother to daughter was broken and the word passed to the keeping of men who had no way of knowing.”

The biblical account (Genesis 34) tells us that Shechem, King Hamor’s son, “seized her [Dinah] and lay with her by force.”  It also says that Shechem’s “soul was drawn to Dinah” and “he loved the girl,” and insisted that his father arrange things so Dinah could be his wife.  Nowhere in the biblical account do we hear Dinah’s voice. She’s portrayed as a victim and used as a bartering tool by Jacob and his sons in their attempt to gain power in the region.  Jacob and his sons required that Hamor and all the men within his kingdom be circumcised as a condition for the marriage between Dinah and Shechem.  King Hamor agreed, but on the third day after the men were circumcised and in pain, Simeon and Levi, two of Jacob’s sons, entered the city “and killed all the males,” for “defiling” their sister.  “Should our sister be treated like a whore?” Dinah then disappears from the narrative.

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