This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Elliot Dine
“And Yaakov arrived safely in Shekhem…” (Genesis 33:18). As Seforno points out, in this verse God fulfills his end of Yaakov’s vow – “if I return safely to my father’s house” (28:21); and yet this verse also sets up the story of Dinah with a tragic irony. Yaakov arrives in Shechem knowing God has been with him and protected him, knowing that he has struggled with man and God and overcome and will be blessed for it. He has suffered for taking the blessing from Esav, and yet he has done penitence for it, literally returning a blessing to Esav in 33:11. Indeed, Yaakov at that moments feels confident and secure enough to consider himself as worthy of his new name and worthy of a place among the patriarchs. Thus, he sets up an altar and names it “E-l, E-lohei Yisrael” (33:20). He uses the same phrase as God describes himself to Yaakov in his dream – “E-lohei Avraham Avikah V’e-lohei Yitzchak” (28:13) – and calls himself by a new name that, as the Ha’amek Davar points out, God has not yet bestowed onto him. Yaakov thinks he has fulfilled his religious mission, making up with his brother and returning to the land with a full family, and therefore can take his place in history among his own forefathers.
And yet Yaakov is gravely mistaken in his assessment, as the story of Dinah and Shekhem makes abundantly clear. A key part of Avraham and Yitzchak’s lives centered around ensuring that their children would not marry Canaanites. And yet in the story of Dinah, Yaakov does not fulfill this mission, inviting and saying nothing in response to Shechem and Hamor’s offer to marry into Yaakov’s family and vice versa. Moreover, Yaakov’s children deceive Shekhem and Chamor in a manner like how Yaakov deceived Esav and Yitzchak, leaving a trail of dead bodies and forcing Yaakov once again to flee from a violent situation. The two reasons Yaakov had to leave his parents’ house, to flee violence after trickery and to marry non-Canaanite women, recur in the story of Shekhem, indicating that Yaakov has not yet fully escaped or repented for his past.
So, what, if anything, must Yaakov do or experience to move on from his tragic mistake? Clearly, he has suffered and made up for his wronging of Esav, yet Yaakov neglects how he and Rivkah not only wronged Esav, but also deceived Yitzchak. And for that he has not yet been punished nor done Teshuvah. We see how Yaakov and Rivkah are punished for this deception a few verses later when we read, “And Devorah, Rivkah’s nurse, died, and she was buried under the oak under Bethel, and it was called the oak of weeping” (34:8). As the Midrash points out (and as quoted by Rashi and Ramban), the weeping and death of Devorah is hinting to the notification to Yaakov that Rivkah has died. And in the language of Ramban, Rivkah does not merit seeing her son return, she and her son are punished for their deception of Yitzchak in quite a powerful and sad way. And it is following this punishment and this tragedy that Yaakov fully merits receiving his new name of Yisrael. For in the next verse God blesses Yaakov with the blessing that his forefathers received, namely how his children will inherit the land, and bestows him with the name Yisrael. Only after Yaakov receive his punishment for deceiving Yitzchak can he become Yisrael and take his place in religious history as one of the three patriarchs.
While I have interpreted this story as one of punishment cleansing Yaakov and allowing him to receive his true blessing, it is also important to note that Ramban, while building off the Midrash, puts a slightly different twist on it, and views the blessing as a blessing of comfort following tragedy. God comforts mourners through covenants and blessings. Yaakov and Rivkah do not receive this punishment to do the full measure of penitence, but rather in God’s kindness he blesses Yaakov to comfort him. As a fellow SBM alum, Rabbi Jason Strauss, points out, for our time and place that is a much more powerful read, for we cannot nor should we contend that bad things happen to punish people for their mistakes, rather just as God does here, we must confront tragedies with words of comfort and blessing.
Elliot Dine (SBM 2010, ’15) is currently pursuing a PhD in molecular biology at Princeton University.