Parashat Vayetze 5777

Rabbi Alexandra Wright, 9 December 2016


‘Aftewards she bore a daughter a named her Dinah’
(Genesis 30:21)

Jacob’s flight from Beersheba, his dream of the stairway and an encounter with his early God is often the focus of this week’s parashah.

But Vayetzé is also about his marriages and the birth of his children. Just as Jacob deceived his father and brother, so in an ironic act of poetic justice, his future father-in-law tricks him into marrying his elder daughter, Leah, before he can marry his beloved Rachel.

Leah, the disfavoured wife is, nevertheless, fertile. Four sons are born to her before we are told that Rachel becomes envious and begs Jacob to give her children – ‘otherwise I am a dead woman’ (Genesis 29:1). The Torah here gives expression to the anxiety of a woman who is frightened that her infertility will mean she will be forgotten when she is dead. How can my story be told if I do not have children or grandchildren, she implies? Rachel’s distress symbolises the grief and loss of generations of women, desperate to conceive and give birth to a child.

Like Sarah before her, she offers her maidservant Bilhah to Jacob so that she, too, may have a son through her. It is Rachel who names the child, Dan, and then a second child, born to Bilhah, is named again by Rachel. He is Naphtali because, as she says, ‘A mighty rivalry (naftuley elohim) have I waged with my sister; moreover I have prevailed’ (30:8).

The verse foreshadows another struggle later on – Jacob’s wrestling with a mysterious man by the ford of Jabbok on the night before he is to meet up with his brother Esau. The verse is not only linked verbally with this episode in Jacob’s life, but implies that just as Jacob is to wrest a blessing from God, so too Rachel, desperate for the blessing of children, succeeds in being built up through the birth of Bilhah’s two sons.

The birth of a first daughter to Leah and Jacob is recorded briefly with no preface that Leah became pregnant and no explanation of her name as with each one of the sons: ‘Afterwards she bore a daughter and named her Dinah’ (30:21).

Does this birth have little consequence for Leah or Jacob? What is the significance of the brevity of this announcement and the meaning of Dinah’s name?

The record of her birth is unusual in the first place for daughters are seen as being of less consequence than sons in the Bible. But we know, too, that Dinah’s own adventure out to meet with the women of the locality, is going to end in humiliation and tragedy when she is raped by Shechem, a local prince.

The Talmud (bBerakhot 60a) introduces this verse into a discussion about the efficacy of prayer. ‘If a man’s wife is pregnant and he prays: ‘May it be Your will that my wife bear a son’, then that is a prayer uttered in vain.’ Prayer in such circumstances is to no avail. An objection is raised by Rav Joseph. But the Torah says, ‘Afterwards she bore a daughter and named her Dinah.’ What does ‘afterwards’ mean?

The Talmud explains that Leah, punning on the name of her daughter, ‘passed judgement (danah) on herself after Dinah was conceived and said: ‘Twelve tribes are destined to issue from Jacob – six have issued from me and four from the handmaids, that makes ten; if this child (which I am expecting) is a male child, my sister Rachel will not even be like one of the maidservants.’ Immediately, the child in the womb was changed to a daughter, as it is said, ‘And she called her name Dinah (judgement).’

This is an extraordinary act on the part of Leah. If this child that I have conceived, she says, is a boy, then I will know it is impossible for Rachel to bear her two sons to make up the number of the tribes to twelve, so let this child be a daughter. And so it happens; the foetus is changed and becomes female.

The Talmud raises so many different themes: prayer and its effectiveness, the altruism of one sister towards the other and then this extraordinary tale of a foetus that changes sex.

Dinah conceived as a male child becomes female so that Rachel can conceive Joseph and then Benjamin. Violated by Shechem, Dinah is betrayed by each one of her male relatives: by her brothers who take revenge on Shechem and the men of his city, and by her father, Jacob, who keeps quiet at first and then rebukes his sons, not for their bloodguilt, but because they have endangered his life and he fears a reprisal. We are left at the close of the chapter with the image of Dinah as whore – ‘Should he then have been allowed to treat our sister like a whore?’ (34:31). The midrash sees Dinah, silent throughout this text, buried in the land of Canaan – a final act of shame and disappearance.

Dinah’s story is a story for our own time. For the voices of those who have been raped, violated and abused, are finally being heard by some of the institutions that sought to suppress them. And in another, different way, the voices of those who seek transformation from one gender assigned at birth to another are also being acknowledge and in some cases, helped.

Like Dinah, we are all ‘many identities and loves, many genders and none…We are neither day nor night. We are both, neither and all.’ We pray, in the words of this prayer:

“May the sacred in-between of this evening suspend our certainties,
soften our judgments, and widen our vision.” (Twilight People Prayer, Rabbi Reuben Zellman)

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