Parshat Vayishlach: Dina’s Tragic Story
Rabbanit Devorah Evron is the Director of the Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute of Halakhic Leadership (WIHL)
A young woman comes to a new land, and ventures out to see who her neighbors our, and who she can connect with. She’s new on the block. This is what we read in the text: “And Dina went out… to visit the daughters of the land”. I picture her as a curious young woman, who is open to meeting new people and looking forward to some “girl talk”.
While she was walking about, someone else took notice of her, a glance that would end in tragedy: “And Shechem, the son of Hamor, saw her… and he took her, and lay with her by force.” Shechem, the son of Hamor, was the son of a prince of the land, and he took Dina and violated her. The word vaye’aneha, “and he took her with force”, appears twice in Jewish scripture: once in our Parasha, and once again in Samuel II, in the story about Amnon, the son of King David, who raped his sister, Tamar.
The stories of female protagonists are quite rare in the Torah. From the very first verse of the chapter, we expect Dina to be the protagonist in this story, but once she is abducted by Shechem, we realize that she only serves as a trigger for a tragic story between men. The story is solely about the dynamics between men, namely Shechem, his father, Hamor, Jacob, and Jacob’s sons.
The male aspect of the environment is accentuated even further when we learn of the conditions for Shechem’s marriage to Dina – the performance of circumcision, whereby all of the men of Shechem would need to be circumcised: “Only on this condition will we agree with you; that you will become like us in that every male among you is circumcised.”
In the verse that describes Shechem’s actions, Dina is described as a maiden. Yet when Shechem asks his father to make sure he’d be able to marry her, he calls her a girl: “So Shechem said to his father Hamor, ‘Get me this girl as a wife.'” Midrash Sechel Tov explains that Dina was called a girl because she had reached adulthood, so as far as her age was concerned, she was still a child. The Malbim concurs, writing the following: “And then he said to his father: ‘Get me this girl as a wife’, and he called her a girl, because she answered him that she was not yet a woman who had come of age, so that she could speak on her own behalf, but rather that she was still a girl, in the possession of her father.” Dina seems to be depicted here as an object, in Shechem’s eyes. When he desires her, he sees her as a young woman, thus justifying his conduct. However, when he decides to marry her, she is merely a child, still in the possession of her father, so he needed to secure Jacob’s consent.
We note that in the simple interpretation of these verses, no real effort is made to get Dina’s approval.We can also understand from the words that the Malbim associates with Dina that she wanted Shechem to contact her father, hoping that her father might rescue her from her predicament.
Another pervasive theme in this narrative is the fact that anywhere Dina is mentioned by name, she is always associated with someone else: Dina, the daughter of Leah, Dina, the daughter of Jacob, Dina, their (Jacob’s sons’) sister… The only place in which Dina’s name is mentioned alone, without any reference to anyone else, is at the end of the story: “They put Hamor and his son Shechem to the sword, took Dina out of Shechem’s house, and went away.” Yalkut Shimoni notes that Dina’s brothers were forced to take her away, and that she hadn’t left Shechem’s household by her own volition.
The Midrash states that Dina found it hard to return to her house, saying: “where will I carry my shame?” Dina feared – perhaps justifiably so – the life that awaited her. She understood that even though she was the victim of a terrible, violent act, society would still judge her and brand her as shameful. She understood that she was alone. This may be the reason why, in this verse, she is called Dina, just Dina, without any association with anyone else.
We don’t know how Dina’s story ends. The Torah doesn’t tell us anything about that. The Midrash tells us that just like Absalom, who took Tamar back to her household, Simeon took care of Dina. Yet in both cases, the women do not build their own homes. At the beginning of the story, Dina leaves willfully. She is an active character. At the end of the story, though, she is passive and victimized, and her brothers are the ones who extricate her.
The story of Dina is tragic, from beginning to end. Unfortunately, similar tragic tales are still occurring today. We must learn, from Dina’s story, about how we can make sure that such things never happen; that we must let those who were made victims voice themselves, and realize that there is nothing shameful or disgraceful about them.