Like Jacob, most struggle with evil, strive to be good

Genesis 32:4-36:43

Hosea 12:13-14:10; 14:7

by Rabbi Stephen Pearce

Vayishlah, this week's Torah portion, records Jacob's life, one marked by constant struggle. Why some people experience only conflict and discord while others live tranquil lives is a timeworn problem. A modern attempt to answer the question of why the righteous suffer and the evil prosper is the theme of Rabbi Harold Kushner's popular volume "When Bad Things Happen To Good People." Unfortunately, no attempt to explain this enigma, ancient or contemporary, is fully satisfying.

When, after many years of separation, Jacob was about to meet with his estranged brother, Esau, he slept in a dream-like state of wakefulness on the shore of the Jabbok River where a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.

"Then he said, 'Let me go for the dawn is breaking.' But he [Jacob] answered, "I will not let you go, unless you bless me." Said the other, 'What is your name?' He replied, 'Jacob.' Said he, 'Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.' Jacob asked, 'Pray tell me your name.' But he said, 'You must not ask my name!' And he took leave of him there" (Genesis 32:27-30, emphasis added).

This powerful incident is characteristic of Jacob's life of deceit and struggle with his father, brother and sons. But the most painful experience that Jacob had to endure was the rape of his daughter, Dina.

This androcentric chronicle, a story in which only males are prime movers, is troubling on a number of other accounts. It is a love story gone awry, thought by some scholars to be an Israelite "Romeo and Juliet," in which the reader never hears from Dina. Her brothers, Simon and Levi, bring dishonor to the clan by the way they deal with the rapist and his tribe. Torah commentator, Rabbi Gunther Plaut, suggests that this account "fits into the overall pattern of the Jacob tragedy, with deception once again playing a central role."

The text records that Dina "went out to visit the daughters of the land" (Gen. 34:1). Although the meaning of the text is unclear, later commentators suggest that Dina invited the crime of which she became the victim. Certainly today, comments that blame the victim for the crime are unacceptable. In this love story, Shechem, the son of Hamor, the chief of the country, saw Dina and forcibly raped her. However, in a peculiar turn of events, Shechem fell in love with Dina and hoped to marry her. Shechem's father visited Jacob and asked for Dina's hand in marriage to his son, saying:

"Do me this favor, and I will pay whatever you tell me. Ask of me a bride price ever so high, as well as gifts, and I will pay what you tell me; only give me the maiden for a wife" (Gen. 34:11-12).

Nothing was said about the crime or the fact that his family was still holding Dina. This approach must well have been in agreement with the custom of the land, because later, in the Book of Exodus (22:15-16), the text requires that the ravisher must marry the unbetrothed victim unless her father objects.

Jacob's sons, Simon and Levi, Dina's full brothers, gave their consent but required that all the men of Shechem's tribe become circumcised. They agreed to do so and while they were healing, Dina's brothers killed them, seizing their possessions and taking the remaining population captive in retribution for Dina's rape.

Although Dina's name means "justice," she received none. After this incident, Dina simply disappeared from the text. While Jacob never protested his sons' strategy, he later castigated them, worrying that his reputation might suffer (Gen. 34:30-31). On his deathbed he rebuked them:

"…when angry (Simon and Levi) slay men…/ Cursed be their anger so fierce,/ And their wrath so relentless./ I will divide them in Jacob,/ Scatter them in Israel (Genesis 49:5-7).

The question of why some people have lives of ease and others struggle with pain is unanswerable. While some of what happens to us is simply the result of luck — being in the right place at the right time or conversely, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, sometimes we do have a measure of control over some outcomes.

Jacob's struggles are very human because they are everyone's struggles. Battling ghosts and night creatures is a universal experience. Like Ya'akov, as he is known in Hebrew, most people struggle with akov halev — a deceitful heart. When considering Jacob's life, may each student of Torah strive to reach for the good that is within his grasp.