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Sunday
Nov172013

A Box and Its Costs: Dinah and Esau and What Might Have Been

Those familiar with midrash quoted by Rashi from this past week's Torah portion (וישלח / VaYishlach) likely had heard the story about Yaakov having put Dinah into a box to save her from the gaze of his wicked brother, Esau. For years I'd understood Rashi's comment in the following way: For the rabbis, Esau represents Rome, pretty much the ultimate in evil and cruelty. Tzni'ut / modesty is an important rabbinic value when it comes to women so Ya'akov, our pious forefather, went to great lengths (too great for my taste although when I think about children being hidden in a box, I don't jump to the conclusion that it was some cruel torture but rather I think about Jewish parents similarly protecting their children during the Shoah) to protect his only daughter, Dinah.
The impetus for rabbninc commentary on this passage seems quite modern, even feminist.  Jacob has sent tribute ahead to Esau in the hopes that Esau will forgive him for stealing his blessing so many years ago. Jacob spends the night in his camp and the Torah states that Jacob "got up that night and took his two wives, and his two handmaids, and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok" (Genesis 32:23). Rather than assume that the Torah leaves women out of the story as a matter of course, Rashi asks, "And where was Dinah?" and he seeks to answer it by way of the box story.
What I hadn't read - or paid attention to - before is how Rashi's comment continues: "This is why Jacob was punished, because he [Jacob] withheld her [Dinah] from his brother [Esau]; she might have brought him to good, but she fell into the hand of Shechem." What is fascinating about how Rashi's comment continues is that it seems to expect Jacob - through Dinah - not only to make amends with Esau, but also try to help him do teshuva! As if that weren't enough, when Jacob doesn't deploy Dinah to help reform his wicked brother, Jacob is punished - through what happens to Dinah at Shechem - for his lack of trust that Esau can change and that Dinah could help him to do so.
Admittedly, Dinah is being seen in these sources not as an independent person - as our modern instincts might hope or even expect of Jewish tradition, however anachronistic that hope might be. Rather, Dinah is, in these sources, an extension of her father, Jacob. For Rashi, and the midrash he is quoting, "Jacob is punished" when Dinah is raped by Shechem (see Genesis 34:2). But whenever I've heard this source quoted, I've always heard it formulated as a polemic: "Jacob (the pious) had to protect Dinah (his pure daughter) from Esau (the wicked/lecherous)." The second part of Rashi's comment changes the message entirely.
When Jacob puts Dinah in a box, he committed a sin. For the rabbis, Jacob sinned because he despaired. He lacked faith that Esau, who both represented Rome in the rabbinic imagination but was undeniably a child of Isaac and Rebecca in the Torah text, could "return to good." Jacob not only didn't believe enough in his brother; he also lacked faith that his daughter, Dinah, could be more than just an extension of himself. What might Dinah have been able to accomplish if Jacob hadn't been so afraid for her? Rather than reading Dinah's eventual rape as a consequence of her own licentiousness (cruelly blaming the victim for a crime committed against her) or simply blaming Shechem for his crime (and he surely was responsible), Rashi and the rabbis seem to imply that Jacob's overprotective parenting creates an overly adventurous daughter. They paint a portrait that reminds us of the problems we create by holding on too tightly to those we love.  Further still, in this comment of Rashi, we encounter a tragic vision of what might have been had Jacob allowed Dinah out of her box: What goodness might she have helped Esau to shine into the world? What we are left with is a double tragedy created by Jacob's oppression of his own daughter, for we will never know who Esau, and Dinah, might have become if Jacob had never put her into a box.

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