Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Moral lessons from parshat Vayishlach

Summary: Once again, focusing on the moral lessons one can derive from the parsha, selected from Ralbag's commentary. Because too much attention to dikduk, peshat and derash can leave us without inspiration. A very small selection from his lessons learned from Yaakov's confrontation with Esav, and then a "fun" one from the tale of Dinah.

Post: Regarding the meeting with Esav:

[1] The first purpose is in traits, and that is that it is fitting for one who has an enemy and wishes to remove the enmity from him, that he bring him close to him with all strength, and relate to him his interests. For this causes hearts to draw together, that he did not hold this back. For a person only informs of the details of his interests to his friend, and withholds this from an enemy. And this thus imprints in his heart that he is his friend, and so his heart will break and his enmity will go away from him. And therefore you find that Yaakov sent malachim to Esav to inform him of his interests, in order to place into his heart that he was his friend.
 [2] The second purpose is in traits, and that is that it is fitting for a person to be ever fearful and to judge matters as they can be in the worst case possible, in order to understand, to take counsel on how to escape it. Do you not see that Yaakov, when he heard that Esav his brother was traveling towards him, with 400 men with him, was afraid that they were coming to harm him. And this was even though this was preceded by Hashem's informing him that He would protect him, and be with him. And that is was possible, as well, to judge that he {=Esav} was coming to honor and guard him. And therefore he made himself wise to take counsel on this according to what was possible.  
And regarding the incident with Dinah:

[4] The fourth purpose is in traits, and that is that it is not fitting for a woman to go out of her house. Do you not see what happened of degradation to Dinah when she went out to see the daughters of the land, together with the fact that this was almost the cause for the destruction of the entirety of her father's house, if Hashem had not been there for them?

While these lessons can indeed be drawn from the parsha, I am hesitant to endorse them in all instances. Yes, [1] worked for Yaakov. Although some meforshim criticize Yaakov for even awakening Esav in the first place. But not every enemy should be informed of one's interests. While confiding in others, those distant to oneself, can help bring them closer, for some people this in absolutely the worst thing to do. It can give them enough information to bring about one's downfall. It absolutely depends on the person and the situation. And the danger of gleaning psychological insights from the parsha is that one might come to view it as absolute and apply it without discrimination.

Point [2] may seem like advice to be a pessimist, always planning for the worst. But this is not really expecting the worst, but rather trying to figure out all scenarios, including worst-case scenarios. And this can be good advice.

In terms of point [4], regarding Dinah, I would expect that some modern readers would take offense. And I think it is indeed a troubling lesson, and one that blames the victim. And despite midrashim on vateitzei Dinah, I am not convinced that the intent of the Torah was to criticize her. And note how Ralbag is talking about even leaving the house! On the other hand, he is coming from a very different culture. But back to the first hand, if these lessons can be so subjective, how can we really tell in the general case that these are coming from the text, or that these are really lessons that we are intended to learn from the Biblical narrative?


Hillel said...

Rabbi Waxman,
I find the general approach to ma'aseh Dinah as assuming she was raped (on a p'shat level) to be very troubling. The only indication she was raped is the word "vay'aneha", and interpreting that to mean rape is very difficult in light of Deut. 22:23–29. To my knowledge, Rashi, Rashbam, Seforno, Rasag all do not say she was raped, and Ibn Ezra and Radak assume the root "e-n-h" (in the sexual context) means to deflower a virgin and has no . (This approach works very well in several instances in Devarim). Only Ramban holds 'enah' means rape, and as a result in Devarim 22 has a very difficult take on na'arah me'orasah ba'ir, essentially saying (as I understand it) it's quasi-rape because the woman didn't consent but also didn't protest so we treat it as a consensual act of zenut.

What is your take on the matter?


joshwaxman said...


it is an interesting question, which can be divided into two parts -- whether the Torah intends rape or seduction, and whether the aforementioned meforshim maintain it means rape or seduction.

i actually have a post planned for tomorrow about a closely related issue, the duplication of "law with her" and "violated her", where this comes up. but perhaps i'll make a separate post about this.

al regel achas:
my strong inclination is that most of the aforementioned meforshim are assuming rape rather than seduction. Baal HaTurim cites a position that it was seduction, but it rather seems that it is distinct from the position of Rashi and Ramban. where they *say* that it was rape is another issue.

one big element is the background. rashi bases himself on midrash rabba and tanchuma, and tanchuma says: שהרי דינה בת יעקב בשביל שהייתה רגילה פדרנית גרמה תקלה לעצמה.

which implies that she indirectly caused this terrible end-result. and midrash rabba blames it on her revealing her arm, only to be seized by Shechem.

in terms of ibn ezra, he says וידבר על לב -
שדבר לה דברי רכים וניחומים. why speak consolations?

also, if they were differing with the midrash and the traditional understanding, one would *expect* them to spell it out explicitly. something like this is rather important.

and while Radak says something identical to Ibn Ezra (that it means deflower), he still says that speaking to her was because he was Inah her, so he spoke to her heart so that she would not be wroth with him. so the rape is the background assumption, rather that the reason for the poetic duplication of "vayishkav" followed by "vayaaneha".

bli neder, i'll try to spell it out more clearly in a longer post, if i get the time.

kol tuv,


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