This week’s reading, Mikeitz (Gen 41:1-44:17), comes to us from several different perspectives. In addition Rabbi Suzanne Singer notes the cliffhanger nature of this telling, describing it as a reminder to us that “…our choices are moment-to-moment decisions, the path never certain until the time comes to act. This cliffhanger ending is also a signal of hope, because teshuvah [return, repentance] is always open to us” (final paragraph here). These two narrative devices — use of different perspectives and the cliffhanger — have crucial relevance to events in DC this past weekend and to the threat ahead: The time to act is always before us, and taking into account the perspectives of those most affected is essential in decision-making.
Please visit December 2020 in DC for background on events this past weekend from a variety of perspectives.
In this week’s portion, we read about an incident involving Potiphar, Potiphar’s wife (never named in the Torah), Joseph, who is enslaved within Potiphar’s house, and other menservants of the household. Nechama Leibowitz points out how Potiphar’s wife uses different language when telling the servants her story and when telling her husband: this reflects an attempt to use servant/noble class consciousness to create common cause, however temporary, Leibowitz argues.
This week’s portion is Vayeishev, Genesis 37:1 – 40:23. More about Nechama Leibowitz (1905-1997) at Jewish Women’s Archive.
In this week’s Torah reading, we see that Dinah goes out “to see.” What does it mean for an individual of one culture or community “to see” someone from another? What can and can’t we see? This is episode 8 in Genesis. Vayishlach is Genesis 32:4-36:43.
What follows is Hebrew for verse 34:1, transliteration, and some translations, followed by commentary.
transliteration: Vatetse Dinah bat-Leah asher yaldah le-Ya’akov lir’ot bivnot ha’arets. (borrowed from Bible.ort.org, which also offers other formats; or see mechon-mamre.org)
And Dinah the daughter of Leah, whom she had borne unto Jacob, went out to see the daughters of the land. — JPS 1917 (via Mechon-Mamre.org)
Now Dinah, the daughter whom Leah had borne to Jacob, went out to visit the daughters of the land. — JPS 1985 (via Sefaria.org)
Dinah, Leah’s daughter, who was born to Jacob, went out to look at the women of the land. — Targum Onkelos (Geffen, 2006)
Now Dinah — the daughter of Leah, whom she had borne to Jacob — went out to look over the daughters of the land. — Scherman (Stone/Artscroll, 1993)
Dina, Lea’s daughter, whom she had borne to Yaakov, went out to see the women of the land. — Fox (Schocken, 1995)
And Dinah, Leah’s daughter, whom she had borne to Jacob, went out to go seeing among the daughters of the land. — Alter (Norton, 1996)
Targum Onkelos commentary:
Scripture mentions Dinah’s parents in this narrative with beautiful symmetry, but Rashi and Nachmanides do not focus on the poetic methodology and find special meanings here. Rashi contends that the words “daughter of Leah” instead of “of Jacob” is intended to remind us that Leah was also accustomed to going out, as the Bible states, “Leah went out to meet him” (30:16); thus, “like mother, like daughter” (Ezekiel 16:44). Nachmanides suggests that the reference to Leah foreshadows that other children of Leah will avenge Dinah’s defilement (in verses 25-31). Arnold B. Ehrlich (Mikra Ki-Pheschuto, 95) proposes that this episode is recorded in Scripture to emphasize how much the patriarchs did not want to intermarry with the Canaanites. He also notes that this episode could not have occurred when Jacob was returning from his stay with Laban because Dinah was only about four years old at that time (p.445 [additional note follows])
By its clear statement that Dinah left to look at the women, Scripture is informing us that she had no intention of becoming embroiled with Shechem (ibn Kaspi). However, Neophyti and Genesis Rabbah feel she acted improperly. The former writes that she went out with the intention of letting herself be seen with the other women by the men, and the latter claims that she provoked the incident by allowing Shechem to see her exposed arm.
The daughter of Leah. Because Dinah went out — in contradiction to the code of modesty befitting a daughter of Jacob — she is called the daughter of Leah because Leah, too, was excessively outgoing [see above, 30:16]**. With this in mind, they formuluated the proverb, “Like mother like daughter” (Rashi). Even though the Sages teach that Dinah was lured out of the house, this implied criticism is valid, for she would not have gone if it had not been natural for her to be too extroverted. She is also called the daughter of Jacob (vs 3,7), because his distinguished reputation [in addition to her great beauty (Radak)] influenced Shechem to covet her (Or HaChaim). [for more on Or HaChaim, see below]
When Jacob came from the field in the evening, Leah went out to meet him and said, “it is to me that you must come for I have clearly hired you with my son’s dudaim.” So he lay with her that night.
Commentary at 30:16
Leah went out. The Sages viewed this unfavorably, as an immodest act, and because of it, the Midrash describes Leah critically as a [y’tzanit], “one who is fond of going out.” See Rashi to 34:1.
to see: To visit.
to go seeing among the daughters of the land. The infinitive in the Hebrew is literally “to see,” followed not by a direct object, as one might expect, but by a partitive (the particle be), which suggests “among” or “some of.” Although the sense of the verb in the context may be something like “to make the acquaintance of” or “travel around among,” the decision of several modern translations to render it as “to visit” is misconceived. Not only does that term convey anachronistica notions of calling cards and teac, but it obliterates an important repetition of terms. This is one of those episodes in which the biblical practice of using the same word over and over with different subjects and objects and a high tension of semantic difference is especially crucial. Two such terms are introduced in the first senence of the story: “to see” and “daughter.” Dinah, Jacob’s daughter, goes out among the daughters of the land, an identity of terms that might suggest a symmetry of position, but the fact that she is an immigrant’s daughter, not a daughter of the land, makes her a ready target for rape. (In the Hebrew, moreover, “sons” and “daughters,” banim and banot, are differently inflected versions of the same words, so Dinah’s filial relation to Jacob is immediately played against Shechem’s filial relation to Hamor, and that in turn will be pointedly juxtaposed with the relation between Jacob and his sons). Shechem’s lustful “seeing” of Dinah is immediately superimposed on her “seeing” the daughters of the land.
OUR DAUGHTERS ASK: Why are we told so little about Dinah?…
DINAH ANSWERS: Because from the moment of my birth, I was fated to remain silent. In fact, in the entire Torah, I never speak a single word. When I was born, my name, unlike my brothers’, was announced withotu interpretation. When I was raped, my cries went unrecorded. When my brothers negotiated with Hamor for my hand, my wishes were not considered. And when my father, Jacob, bestowed his blessings upon his children, I received none. That was why I visited the Canaanite women. Utterly invisible at home, I craved attention and went out looking for it. Only too late did I learn that neglect is not the only injury a woman can suffer. — The Five Books of Miriam: A Woman’s Commentary on the Torah. Ellen Frankel, ed. (Harper Collins, 1996), p.65-66
Or HaChaim via Sefaria
Dinah, Leah’s daughter went out, etc. The reason that the Torah emphasises that Dinah was Leah’s daughter (something that we are well aware of) is in order to facilitate understanding of the causes underlying Dinah’s excursion into town. There were three reasons for this. 1) Dinah was Leah’s daughter. Had she been Rachel’s daughter she would never have made such an unchaperoned excursion. Her mother Leah had “gone out” to meet her husband (30,15), something that was uncharacteristic of Jewish women. Bereshit Rabbah 80,1 claims that at the time Leah adorned herself with all her jewelry. Her daughter copied her mother, giving the impression that she was a harlot. 2) A second cause for Dinah’s excursion was the fact that as an only daughter she had no female playmates; she went in search of suitable company. Inasmuch as she was a daughter of Jacob she had already acquired the reputation of being a distinguished person, something that provoked Shechem as we shall explain later. 3) לראות בבנות הארץ, “she went to take a look at the daughters of the land.” According to Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer chapter 38 Shechem had brought the girls of the neighbourhood to play music around the tent of Jacob. This then was a third reason for Dinah venturing outside. From all the above you may surmise that unless Shechem had already been aware of the existence of Dinah, a daughter of the famous Jacob, even before she left her house he would not have committed the rape.
Or HaChaim was composed c.1718-42 CE by Rabbi Hayyim ben Moshe ibn Attar (1696-1743). Rabbi Hayyim was a Moroccan Kabbalist and Talmudist.
A few thoughts on diversity of place names, names for the divine, and ways of calling on, clinging to, and claiming land in this week’s Torah reading. The portion is called Vayeitzei [And he left/went out], Gen 28:10-32:3
Naming land, Naming Ancestors: Genesis
Laban named it Yegar-sahadutha, but Jacob named it Gal-ed.
Dictionary notes on the two names:
Yegar-sahadutha[Aramaic] = “witness heap”
the mound of stones raised as witness between Jacob and Laban, called by Jacob in Hebrew ‘Galeed’
Galeed [Hebrew] = “witness heap”
the pile of stones heaped up between Jacob and Laban to certify their covenant; located on Mt Gilead
The close of Laban’s parting speech, Genesis 31:53:
…May the God of Abraham and the god of Nahor”—their ancestral deities—“judge between us.” And Jacob swore by the Fear of his father Isaac.
This is combined episode 4 and 5 of the book of Genesis, focusing on divisions in the narrative — divisions in family, of ideology and of belief systems, and land — as well as some points of (re-)union.
This commentary covers both the Torah portion Vayeira, 18:1-22:24, read last week, and this week’, Chayei Sarah, 23:1-25:17. It references these words from MaNishtana. See also, further commentary on Beer Lahai-Roi, where Ishmael and Isaac apparently settle together.
In this week’s episode we look at how Abraham “begins to wander in his mind.” What Abraham needs to set out on this unprecedented journey with so much uncertainty, according to Avivah Zornberg, is “radical ‘folly’ of those who abandon safe structures and fare forth on unmapped roads.” We will need something like this “radical folly” for the week ahead, as we head into the election and whatever will come beyond, and as we face the aftermath of police killings in Philly and DC. We need to let go of old ways of thinking — truly acknowledge and begin to dismantle our country’s racist foundations — and really roam into something new.
The phrase “hitchil l’shoteit b’dato [he began to roam in his mind],” is used in two midrashic discussions around the beginning of this week’s Torah portion: Lekh Lekha, Genesis 12:1-17:27.
Midrash can be understood as a kind of story about stories in the bible, used to fill in holes in the actual text. In this case, Abraham is called, with so little backstory, to leave everything and start a new covenant with God — why? who was he? what made God think he was a good choice?
There is a great deal of discussion on “why Abraham?” over the centuries and many stories about his youth as part of that. Zornberg cites two versions of stories about Abraham as a toddler: One from Maimonides (c. 1135-1204) and one from Midrash Hagadol (14th Century CE), both based on far older tales. She also cites Thomas Kuhn’s 1962 Structure of Scientific Revolutions.
Here is one particularly pertinent paragraph from Zornberg’s discussion:
…the evocative expression… — “the roaming of his mind” — is used to very different effect [iin thn Midrash Hagadol vs. Mishneh Torah]. Here, Abraham bears the whole world with him in his personal anguished search. Le-shotet — To roam, implies full exposure to the hazards of experience. The resonance of shoteh — “fool” — lingers on: the radical “folly” of those who abandon safe structures and fare forth on unmapped roads. In terms of the “normal science” of his world, his is a non-paradigm problem and is therefore viewed as a “distraction” — irrelevant, even crazed. He is armed with no alternative paradigm but only with a pressing sense of anomaly that may find no resolution at all. His question can never be solved within the puzzle-framework of “normal science”; the question he asks is a different, a larger one; and in seeking to “enter into” the castle [a famous midrash about Abraham’s search for meaning], he intuits an experience that is latent, not manifest in the material world.
Zornberg. Genesis: Beginning of Desire, p.85
One way to “begin to wander in mind,” in a way that speaks to our current situation, is offered in The Inner Work of Racial Justice: Healing Ourselves and Transforming Our Communities through Mindfulness by Rhonda V. Magee. (Penguin 2019).
Lekh Lekha — go for yourself, to yourself, your own way
Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg. Genesis: The Beginning of Desire (Jewish Publication Society, 1995). Get a copy, if you can — or read some of it on Google Preview.
Maimonides. Mishneh Torah (late 12th Century CE). English and Hebrew at Sefaria
This episode is based on a commentary by Carol Ochs, from the Women of Reform Judaism website. (See Contemporary Reflection on Parashat Noach.) In this commentary, Ochs sites “miscegenation: interbreeding between the sons of God and the daughters of humankind” as a, possibly the, reason God regrets creating people and is ready to destroy Creation. (“Sons of God” = bnei elohim and “daughters of mankind” = bnot ha-adam] — see Gen 6:1-4. No footnotes in Ochs’ commentary, and no additional reference about this claim.)
She goes on to discuss Noah’s silence for much of the narrative, until after the Flood when the first words he utters are to curse Canaan (Gen 9:24-25). She writes:
So Noah’s first words neither praise God, nor express gratitude, nor ask for help, nor proclaim justice. Instead, he uses language to curse and to set up the differentiated love that will plague all the offspring of Genesis – from Ishmael and Isaac to Esau and Jacob and to Joseph and his brothers. By “differentiated love” I mean love that is given to one person and withheld from another.
Carol Ochs, Contemporary Reflection on Parashat Noach
In her book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,Isabel Wilkerson speaks of both endogamy and a desire to preserve “purity” as pillars of caste. The idea that miscegenation is the sin that causes God to regret humanity seems related to Wilkerson’s discussion of caste. And this concept of “differentiated love” seems similarly related. See also “Covid and Caste,” which discusses caste as it relates to DC.
Rereading For Joint Liberation is back. And back at the beginning. The weekly reading cycle of the Jewish calendar begins anew this week, with Genesis 1:1 – 6:8, the portion known as “Breishit” [“In the beginning”].
This is an eventful portion: Creation, from “wild and waste” or “unformed and void” to “heaven and earth were finished,” followed by the first Sabbath (1:1 – 2:4); the Garden of Eden, the Tree and the Serpent, followed by expulsion and then births; the start of the lineage of Eve and Adam, followed by an odd period when divine beings took wives from among the daughters of earthlings and there were Nephilim [Giants?]. In between, we witness the first fratricide (4:3-16):
“Cain set upon his brother Abel and killed him” (4:8).
God asks Cain where his brother is, and Cain and God have the following exchange:
Cain: “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” (4:9).
God: “What have you done? Hark, your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground!”
— Genesis 4:8-9 (“New”  Jewish Publication Society translation)
The story itself and the image of blood crying out from the ground has been the source of much commentary, over the centuries. In addition, Jews often focus on an oddity of the Hebrew for “your brother’s blood [ק֚וֹל דְּמֵ֣י אָחִ֔יךָ]“: The word for blood here, “d’mei,” is plural [singular: dam]. So, as far back as the Mishnaic period (first two centuries CE), rabbis have made special meaning from that plural “bloods.”
Cain and Considering Capital Cases
The bloods are brought into the conversation as rabbis discuss the weightiness of trying a capital case. Specifically a witness is warned about offering false testimony:
In capital cases, he is responsible for the blood [of the accused] and for the blood of his descendants until the end of time. For this we find in the case of Cain, who killed his brother, that it is written: “The bloods of your brother cry out to me.” Not the blood of your brother, but the bloods of your brother, that is his blood and the blood of his potential descendants. (Alternatively: the bloods of your brother teaches that his blood was splattered on the trees and the stones.)
— B. Sanhedrin 37a
This passage continues with the powerful, and oft-cited, teaching that destroying a single soul is accounted as destroying an entire world, and anyone who saves a single life is accounted as though saving an entire world.
Further discussion in this same section details care that must be taken in capital cases. Witnesses and their reports must be carefully evaluated. Opportunities to acquit must be pursued. One procedure involves adjourning for the night before making any final decision: The panel of judges is to drink no wine, to eat in moderation, and to spend the night considering the case before re-assembling in the morning. (B. San 40a)
Capital Cases and Police Killings
In another section of the Talmud considering capital cases, we read:
A Sanhedrin that effects an execution once in seven years is characterized as ‘destructive.’ Rabbi Eliezer ben Azariah says: “Once in seventy years.”
— B. Makkot 7a
The word here rendered “destructive” (chovlanit [חוֹבְלָנִית]) — is also translated as “tyrannical,” or “one not sparing human life” (Jastrow dictionary); occasionally: “blood-thirsty.”
A government agency is called “destructive” for putting one person to death in seventy years… or even one death in seven years;
That agency is warned to carefully examine any witnesses and their reports and to consider acquittal;
The same agency is also bound to lengthy, careful, and sober deliberations before taking final steps toward any execution.
With this in mind:
What do we call an agency that has been involved in multiple killings in seven years?
What do we make of police insisting that their young target was known to them and yet they chose to follow a car in which he was riding, based on some social media postings, instead of seeking some kind of careful, sober meeting?
Is “destructive” the right word for an agency that allows the fatal shooting of a teenager just a few seconds after encountering him? Is there a word for community members who accept this kind of thing as the cost (to some communities) of policing?
…a few questions that cry out to me from this week’s Torah portion and from the case of Deon Kay, just barely 18, shot to death by MPD just seconds after the encountered him on September 2.
If you seek help preparing testimony, check out these workshops — bit.ly/mpdreform
For more DC-specific information about police-related issues, visit DC Justice Lab.
Black Lives Matter DC joins with Stop Police Terror Project DC in specific demands around the Deon Kay case (see link above), and both — along with DC Justice Lab and others — call for an end to “Stop and Frisk.”
When the Yisrael-ites send out a scouting party from the wilderness (Numbers 13:1), disaster results. After escaping Mitzrayim, the narrow place and over two years in the wilderness, the People are moving ahead and now send out a scouting party — AKA “spies” — to explore their destination. The scouting attempt leads to (Num 14:29):
fear of what’s ahead,
a desire to go back,
an attempt to advance without divine guidance, and
finally, realization that an entire generation will die in the wilderness.
One obvious lesson here is that there is a lot to learn about
how we look ahead;
how we look at what’s behind us;
how our individual perspectives shape what we see; and
how we organize that information into expectations.