Sunday, November 18, 2007

Parshat Vayishlach 2

This week’s Torah portion contains within it the story of the rape of Ya’akov’s daughter Dina, and the revenge of her brothers on the perpetrators of that deed. “Leah’s daughter Dina, whom she had borne to Ya’akov, went out to visit some of the local girls. She was seen by Shechem, son of the chief of the region, Chamor the Hivite. He seduced her, raped her, and afflicted her. He became attached to Dina, and fell in love with her...” (Bereishis 34; 1-3). Though his crime was unspeakably horrendous, it does not seem from the text that Shechem was a sociopath, or serial rapist. Were that the case he would not have come to Dina’s father to ask for her hand in marriage, and certainly would not have agreed to circumcision, which was the demand made of him and his village by Shimon and Levi, Dina’s brothers. Through a closer examination of this incident we can gain an insight into Shechem and behaviour (though it is without justification).

Not only was Shechem the name of the son of the Chief of the town, it was also the name of the town itself. It seems that Chamor named the town in honour of his son, to show the world his love for his son. The word Shechem actually means ‘treasure’ or ‘special portion’ (see ibid. 49; 22), so Chamor’s name for his son denotes the special place he had in his father’s heart.

The name Chamor is related to the word Chomer, meaning ‘substance’ or ‘material’. We have a tradition that a person’s name gives us an insight into who they really are, so the Torah seems to be telling us that Chamor was someone who was very connected to the physical world. He showed his affection to his son through materialism, by naming the town after him, and presumably by giving him any worldly possession that he wanted.

We see from Shechem’s request of his father, “Get me this young girl [Dina] as a wife” (ibid. 34; 4) that he was used to asking for and receiving anything he wanted. Similarly, when negotiating with Ya’akov and his sons, Shechem shows that he is used to getting anything that he wants: “I will give you whatever you ask. Set the bridal payments and gifts as high as you like - I will give you whatever you demand of me. Just let me have the girl as my wife.” (verse 12). His assumption is that everything has its price, and his father can afford to purchase anything for him.

Since Shechem considered that his father would give him everything that he wanted, perhaps he assumed that it was already his for the taking. If he saw a woman that took his fancy, he would first take her and rape her, confident that since he desired her his father would ensure that he could marry her. In his mind the whole world was his to do with as he wished, since he was the son of the Chief.
Shechem and Chamor were living in a totally money oriented society. Ya’akov realised this from his first encounter with the place. The Torah tells us that Ya’akov’s first action upon arriving in Shechem was to purchase the land for his tents. We are even told the purchase price of that real-estate, 100 kesitas (33; 19). The focus on money in Shechem is in sharp distinction to the place where Ya’akov had just left. After his encounter with Esav, Ya’akov went to a place named Succot, where he built a house for himself and temporary shelters (succot) for his livestock. By naming the place Succot he demonstrated that he was only going to be there temporarily, and that he was not interested in the permanence of lavish housing or accumulating wealth. When he left that place, he arrived in Shechem Shalem, ‘complete’. Rashi quotes the Midrash which explains that he was complete in his finances and complete in his health. In other words he lacked nothing, and therefore was not interested in money, possessions or acquisitions. He had freed himself from the rat race of chasing after material well being, and was thus free to complete himself spiritually. This is what he had intimated to his brother as explanation for the gifts that he had sent to Esav, “I have all [I need]” (verse 11).

Thus Ya’akov elevated himself above concerns with materialism and possessions. He was unable to understand the world-view of Shechem and Chamor, who treated not only objects, but even people as belonging to them, and having primarily a financial worth. Though Chamor did mention love in his negotiations with Ya’akov for his daughter, his main concern was that this arrangement would bring financial gain to both parties, “The land will be open before you. Settle down, do business here, and the land will become your property.” Ya’akov does not even speak in the negotiations that follow, since he cannot even understand the concept of negotiating for a person as if they were only chattel.

Shimon and Levi did negotiate with Shechem and Chamor, but instead of asking for money they demanded that they must circumcise themselves in order that Shechem be able to marry Dina. Though this may have been only a ploy to weaken the defences of the town so that they could attack, we could also perhaps understand their terms and conditions as trying to explain that their sister was not a physical object for sale. The Rambam explains (Moreh Nevuchim section 3) that through circumcision a Jewish male shows that he does not view sexual relations solely in terms of physical pleasure, but as a spiritual means to fulfil G-d’s will. It seems that Ya’akov’s sons wanted to teach Shechem that women are not merely objects, and that marriage is primarily a spiritual commitment.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

it is true that circumcision is a spiritual commitment but only if the person truly wants to be a jew.