Vayishlach: Jacob, Dinah and Vulnerability

Like father, like daughter. In last week’s Torah portion, Jacob “goes out.” He goes out from all that is familiar to him, to the larger world, to his family’s native land, to his mother’s household.

When he leaves home, he feels vulnerable. He has nothing but the shirt on his back. When he camps for the night, he uses rocks on the ground as his bed and pillow. Perhaps for the first time in his life, he feels truly vulnerable. Anything could happen to him out in the larger world beyond the familiar comfort of the tents of home. Out in the world is where Esav, his opposite-in-all-respects twin, felt at home, out on the hunt, out on the trail, with the smell of the field on his clothes. But not Jacob.

But still, Jacob is a man. Jacob may have felt vulnerable, and he was to an extent, but when a man leaves his home on his own and goes out in to the larger world, there is no overarching sense of anxiety, no feeling of foreboding, of looming danger. We often portray this kind of man as being on an adventure, as a pioneer, as brave and true.

Alas, this is not the case for a young woman who does the same. After Jacob returns back to the land, after a twenty-one years absence, his one and only daughter does just what her father did. She “goes out.”

Dinah, daughter of Leah and Jacob, goes out from all that is familiar, from her tents, from her father and mother’s presence, from her brothers, from home. We know that Jacob was going out from a murderous and angry brother and going towards the possibility of finding a wife and starting a family. What is Dinah going out towards and what is she going out from?

Perhaps she is going out from a home life dominated by men, by boys, where women play an important but minor role by sheer force of numbers. Perhaps she is looking for a peer, a friend who understands the life of a teenage girl. Perhaps she is going out just for the sake of going out, to find something new, something different, something that she has never seen before, a city with all the trappings that come with urban life. She has lived her entire life in the tent or in the fields with sheep. This might be her first time in the “Big City.”

Whether she knows it or not, when she goes out into the world, even for all the right reasons, she is vulnerable. But she does not feel vulnerable. Unlike her father, this does feel like an adventure, like a woman blazing a new trail for herself. But, society sees her a vulnerable. In an ironic inversion of Jacob’s going out, where he felt vulnerable, but was not as much as he thought, she is far more vulnerable than she realizes.

To be a young women unaccompanied by either her father, a brother or a trusted servant (think back to Rebecca and Abraham’s servant) is to risk being taken advantage of by men, who may or may not have her best intentions at heart.

What meaning can this story have for us? When do we leave the comfortable, the familiar, and go out into the unknown? What are the factors in our decision to either stay at home or to venture out into the larger world? When is it worth being vulnerable? What makes us vulnerable? Is it an internal vulnerability, like with Jacob, or an external vulnerability, like Dinah?

May this Shabbat be one where we reflect on the times when we made ourselves vulnerable, and one where we consider when in our past we might have been over-confident and where we could be been more confident. May our going out of the week, out from the familiar and into Shabbat, be one of blessing.

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