Beauty in Boxes

Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. Sender Rozesz is Jewrotica’s resident Double Mitzvah columnist. The views reflected in his writing represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated.

Rated PG-13

Dinah, Jacob’s daughter born in last week’s Parshah, appears as a key player in this week’s Parshah of Vayishlach. Last year, we discussed the rape of Dinah by Shechem related towards the end of the Parshah. Interestingly, however, her first debut is noted by her absence from the biblical text.

In the beginning of the Parshah, as Jacob sets out to return home to his father in Canaan after a 20-year absence, he is warned by his scouts that his brother Esau is approaching accompanied by an army of 400 warriors. Justifiably concerned at what Esau may intend, Jacob immediately employs a three-part strategy: he prepares an extravagant gift to be presented to Esau in advance of their meeting, he prays to G-d for salvation, and he divides his household into two camps – one to be ready to battle with Esau, and one to escape.

In the middle of the night before his fateful meeting, Jacob “took his two wives and his two maidservants and his eleven children, and he crossed the ford of the Jabbok.” Genesis, 32:23.

His eleven children? Did he not have twelve children at this point – eleven sons and his daughter Dinah? Quoting the Midrash, Rashi first assumes that the “eleven children” referred to his eleven sons, leaving Dinah as the odd (wo)man out. Then he explains as follows: “But where was Dinah? He put her into a chest and locked her in, so that Esau should not set eyes on her. Therefore, Jacob was punished for withholding her from his brother- for had he married her, perhaps she would cause him to improve his ways – and she fell into the hands of Shechem.”

Jacob did not want to expose his daughter – a beautiful girl of seven – to his wild, base and coarse brother, fearing that he would demand her hand in marriage. So Jacob hid her in a box throughout the ordeal to protect her.

And he is punished. He is punished for suppressing Dinah’s power, for denying the influence that she might have brought to bear upon Esau. And his punishment is severe; a consequence that no parent or child should ever have to suffer, and one that fundamentally changed Dinah’s life.

But let’s consider:

Several verses later, Jacob finally encounters Esau and presents his family, “and Leah and her children drew near and prostrated themselves, and after them, Joseph and Rachel drew near and prostrated themselves.” Genesis, 33:7. Rashi immediately notes that whereas Leah preceded her sons, Joseph preceded his mother, and explains that Joseph said “My mother has a pretty figure. Perhaps that scoundrel will set his eyes on her. I will stand in front of her and prevent him from gazing upon her.” Because of this deed, Rashi concludes, Joseph merited the blessing “over the eye” (Genesis, 49:22).

So Joseph is rewarded for protecting his mother, where Jacob is punished for protecting his daughter from the same man?

According to Midrash, Abram too used a box during his first foray into Egypt, when he was concerned about the Egyptians’ reaction to Sarai’s beauty. First, he made Sarai promise to claim to be his sister, Then “it came to pass when Abram came to Egypt, that the Egyptians saw the woman, that she was very pretty.” Genesis, 12:14. Again, quoting the Midrash, Rashi explains why it says that “Abram came to Egypt” – where was Sarai? Rashi explains that “it teaches us that he hid her in a trunk, and when they demanded the customs duty, they opened it and saw her.”

So Abram’s box didn’t really work out in the end, but he certainly was not faulted for doing his best to protect his wife from the dregs of society.

Now, granted, Sarai and Rachel were different from Dinah, in that they were already married women, and were therefore not available to be married to others. And let us assume further, that the Torah does not regard the influence that a married woman may have over a man other than her husband as an influence and impact worthy of cultivation – once she’s married, she’s off the table.

But what is the message to be taken from the fact that Jacob was punished for daring to protect Dinah from Esau? In fact, when we were first introduced to Leah in last week’s Parshah, we were told that she had “weak eyes,” which the Talmud explains is because Leah expected, as the older daughter, to fall into Esau’s lot, and so she wept unendingly, leaving her eyes permanently weakened. Can we blame Jacob for trying to spare Dinah the same fate that Leah had so dreaded?

In recent years, much has been made of the evils of “slut-shaming” and “victim-blaming” – the reasonable premise being that women should not be required to conform to men’s traditional expectations regarding their behavior or dress in order to be kept safe and respected. On the flip-side, it is also true that male testosterone, when exposed to certain feminine behaviors and visuals, is capable of altering a male’s chemical balance, turning certain men into two-legged wild animals. While men unquestionably remain responsible for their own conduct, it would be foolish to ignore the dangers posed by men who are not in control of their sexual impulses (and kudos to the purveyors of eyeglasses with opaque lenses – although the far better solution would be self-improvement and developing a healthy self-control). We are absolutely aghast that Lot would offer his two virgin daughters to a mob seething with testosterone and aggression, knowing the kind of danger they would be in. Fathers are expected to protect their daughters, and husbands are expected to protect their wives, whether the dangers are “fair” or not.

But there is danger in over-protection. When we protect, we tend to smother. We instinctively become a shield, facing outwards, ready to face down any external elements that might threaten our own. However, that same instinct can prevent us from seeing her as anything other than a delicate thing to be protected. A suffocating embrace can stifle her creativity and initiative, can keep her from flexing her innate power, and can prevent her from developing her own immune system and protections.

As we discussed here. Dinah was a girl virtually bursting with power and energy. And Esau was coarse and wild, yes, but he didn’t have a reputation for spousal abuse. He was Dinah’s uncle (a legitimate match in those days), and his first meeting with Dinah would have been in full view of her entire family. So Dinah wasn’t in danger of being raped by Esau; the danger was that Esau might want to marry her – and Esau was a bad guy, and unquestionably a bad influence.

But in seeking to protect her, Jacob underestimated his daughter’s abilities, and deprived her of the opportunity to spread her wings. Tragically, as the end of the Parshah bears out, Jacob soon learned that there were worse dangers than an uncouth uncle; and, too late, he learned of Dinah’s power and influence.

As we ask G-d in the morning prayers, “do not bring us to a challenging test.” At the same time, however, it is important that we recognize our own abilities and power – as well as those the ones were are sworn to protect – so that when the opportunity presents itself we may emerge from our cocoon, spread our wings, and fly.