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Sermon: Parshat Vayishlach, 12/4/20

12/09/2020 10:12:18 AM


Rabbi Charlie

To hear Rabbi Charlie deliver this sermon, click HERE. The sermon as delivered does deviate from the written text.


Parshat Vayishlach has one of the more challenging accounts of “justice,” and I put that word in quotes. We begin with the Jacob’s concern about Esau, wrestling with an angel, and ultimately the beautiful scene of reconciliation between the two brothers. That is followed up by Dina, the daughter of Jacob and Leah, who most commentators agree is sexually assaulted by Shechem, a prince of the town.

Many rabbinic commentators blame Dina for going out without an escort or attracting attention to herself. Others blame Jacob, stating that Dina’s rape is Jacob’s punishment – leaving Dina without a voice in her own story. Scholars point out that the text may be ambiguous regarding whether or not Dina gives consent. Some feel that in its historical context the story was meant to warn against insults to the clan’s honor or the loss of social status.

We’ll come back to this in a moment. The response in the Torah is that after getting all the men in town to circumcise themselves, Dina’s brothers, Shimon and Levi massacre the men in town and the rest of the brothers plundered the spoils. Jacob is silent about the entire matter until he criticizes his sons for causing him trouble. While some commentators try to justify the murderous actions of Shimon and Levi, it’s just a mess. It doesn’t feel like justice for Dina; it feels terrible.

What does justice for Dina look like and what does justice look like for anyone who has been a victim of rape or domestic abuse? Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka (Fumzile M’lambo-N’guka), the executive director of the UN Women agency reported that last year 243 million women and girls experienced sexual or physical violence and this year, during the pandemic, it has been much worse.

Kathryn Jacob, president and CEO of SafeHaven, explained that “(The pandemic) creates the perfect environment for abuse to thrive, abuse is already something that happens in the shadows, and now everything we do is in the shadows.” In Tarrant county alone, seventeen people have died because of domestic abuse since March, more than doubling last year’s total and marking the worst year on record according to Tarrant County’s district attorney’s office.

Violence against women and girls and domestic violence exists in every community, at every socioeconomic level, in every religious group, it’s everywhere. Physical and emotional abuse, isolation, coercion, manipulation – anything to control another person – it happens in families, it happens with acquaintances, it happens with strangers – it’s far too common and it’s never ok.

I remember an exercise that I did in RA training in college. One person was in the middle, a victim of abuse and a community of people stood around in a circle, attached to the person in the center by a string. One by one, she asked for help, and one by one a community that was supposed to be supportive made excuses and dropped the string. The victim was surrounded by people, but left all alone.

Reaching out and getting people connected with organizations such as Safe Haven or helping people connect with a domestic violence hotline – is an important first step. We have to be able to listen. Dina had no say in what happened and people who experience such abuse often feel like they have no voice. Such violence thrives in silence. It’s hard to know how to help, but we can’t drop the string. If you don’t know what to do, call the domestic violence line yourself and ask for advice.

Such support is necessary – it’s vital, but it’s not justice. What does justice look like? It looks like a society where violence against women and girls and domestic violence and abuse of any kind doesn’t exist. Where there’s enough education throughout the society and throughout the world to understand that such abuse is contrary to the basic sense of dignity that all people deserve. That’s the only sense of true justice.

We are so far away from that reality. We have such a long way to go, which means we have to take as many steps as we can. We can unequivocally make sure that in our own lives that we pay attention to our friends, neighbors, and community and do what we can not drop the string if someone needs help. We can also discourage and condemn any joke or tacit expression of understanding for abuse. We can ask the leaders in our lives to hold themselves to a high standard and speak out against anyone that tolerates such abuse.

It’s a hard issue. It’s a hard Torah portion. And there aren’t any easy answers. But this is a part of the Torah that we can’t just gloss over. It deserves our thought and attention and our efforts in whatever ways big or small that we can work towards a reality where abuse of any kind is not tolerated.

Shabbat Shalom

Thu, January 21 2021 8 Sh'vat 5781