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“Think For Yourself” – A Sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5777

October 5, 2016 Leave a comment

“Think for yourself.”

It’s what every teacher and every professor ever said to us.

“Think for yourself.”

It’s what we hope for our children as they go out into the world.

“Think for yourself.”

Socrates said that, “to find yourself, you must think for yourself” And, Christopher Hitchens wrote that, “[If you} take the risk of thinking for yourself, much more happiness, truth, beauty, and wisdom will come to you…”

There may be no greater virtue in our individualist, post-enlightenment world, than the ability to think for yourself.

But I wonder if we really do.

 

I want to show you a cartoon that I’ve always loved. It’s from Gary Larson’s “The Far Side.” And it’s about what you might call an “individualist penguin”:

 

penguin

If you’ll notice, all of these penguins look just alike, but the one in the middle – who looks like all the others – is singing out: “I gotta be me. Oh, I just gotta be me.”

 

I think in some way, we are all that penguin. We strive to be ourselves – to live authentic lives based on our own choices and our own values. But at the same time, we are social creatures. The ways that we think and the ways behave are influenced by the thinking and the behaviour of those around us.

 

It turns out thinking for yourself isn’t so simple after all.

 

Maybe the starkest example of this comes from the darkest period of our history.

 

In his book, Hitler’s Willing Executionists¸ the historian Daniel Jonah Goldhagen writes about the cultural influences in early 20th century Germany that led to the Holocaust.

 

He writes that for a whole variety of social, historical, economic, and other reasons “the German people [of that period] were more dangerously oriented toward Jews than they had been during any other time ….”[1]

 

In other words, even the Holocaust was, in some sense, a cultural phenomenon. People’s thinking, people’s willingness to act, was influenced by social and cultural factors around them. And to drive home the point, we need only look across Germany’s northern border to Denmark, a country which – wholesale – refused to deport its Jews. In fact, on Erev Rosh Hashanah of 1943 – exactly 73 years ago yesterday – the Danish people smuggled nearly the entire Jewish population of their country across the sea to safety in Sweden.

 

Two countries, two sides of a border, and their collective responses were like night and day. Of course, there were exceptions. There were Danes who turned in Jews. And there were Germans – many thousands of them – who risked their own lives to save Jews. But on the whole, the social and cultural climates of the two countries moved their citizens to think and behave in wildly different ways

 

SO what happened? Was one country made of good people and one made of bad people? Or was this an example of how our collective values and circumstances work together to construct a culture, and how that culture in turn shapes each of us.

 

In 2016, we are fortunate not to be living through such terrible times. But our world is also not simple. And many of the issues that we deal with also relate to group identity and affiliation: On a personal level, how do we build community? How do we establish a safe and supportive environment for ourselves and our families? And on a much larger level, how do we welcome refugees from other countries? How do we build bridges of understanding between communities that look and talk and pray differently?

 

Do our own religious and national and cultural affiliations impact on the assumptions we make about other people?

 

Of course they do. That’s part of being human.

 

Aristotle already said 23 centuries ago that “Man is by nature a social animal.” And much more recently, Atul Gawande, a physician and writer, added more recently that “simply to exist as a normal human being requires interaction with other people.”

 

We are wired to seek out being part of a group. And we are wired to take on certain assumptions and tendencies of the group. That’s what Hillel means in Pirke Avot when he says “Al tifrosh min hatzibbur – You can’t separate yourself from the community.” Our sense of self is, in some way, tied up with the communities and groups that we are part of. And that means that when we think we are thinking for ourselves, what we’re often actually doing is applying the norms and assumptions taught to us by those groups.

 

By the way, that’s not necessarily a bad thing or a good thing. It’s just a thing – it is a feature of the human experience. And this shaping of our psyche starts very, very early.

 

Research out of Stanford University[2] has shown that a person’s native language – the language we start learning at birth – can be a powerful shaper of worldview. For example, speakers of Russian are often better able to differentiate different shades of blue, because their language has more words for different shades of blue. And speakers of Japanese and Spanish are less likely on the whole to be concerned with fault or blame, because their languages describe things reflexively: “The vase broke itself/was broken” rather than “Such and such broke the vase.”

 

And interestingly enough, people who are bilingual have been found to think or feel or react differently depending on which language they are speaking at the time. (So the next time my kids ask me why I’m driving so aggressively in Israel, I’ll just blame the Hebrew language.)

 

Our cultural influences are constantly shaping our thinking and our worldview. As much as we are individuals with free will, we are also products of the societies we grow up in, the families we come from, and the groups we choose to affiliate with.

 

It has to be that way. Otherwise, there would be no such thing as what we call “Jewish values” or what we call “Canadian values.”

These things are real, even if we can’t always agree on what they are. Because we are Jewish, we tend value education, and community, and social action. Because we are Canadian we tend to value diversity, and consensus, and winter sports. It’s not that 100% of us share these things. And it’s not that they necessarily make us different from anybody else – non-Jews also like books; non-Canadians also like hockey. But our values are formed in part because of the groups we are part of.

 

And when we look at the world around us right now – the weary, fearful world around us – we see a great deal of concern about what happens when our values come into contact or come into conflict with someone else’s. Whether we’re talking about exiting the European Union, or working to curb interfaith marriage, or screening immigrants, or building a great wall, these things are born out of a fear – a very real and palpable fear – that someone else’s values might be dangerous to ours.

 

Judaism places values at the centre of our lives. And it places community affiliation at the centre of our lives as well. And it teaches us that we don’t need to live in fear, because we have the ability – we have the power – to be carriers of values. We get to build culture. We get to lead those around us.

 

In the book of Isaiah, the prophet speaks to the Jewish people about our mission on earth. He says:

 

נָקֵל מִֽהְיֽוֹתְךָ לִי עֶבֶד…. וּנְתַתִּיךָ לְאוֹר גּוֹיִם

 

“It is not enough that you should serve Me (says God). I will also make you Or Lagoyim – a light to the nations.”[3]

 

In other words, God gives us a mission to transmit certain values and ideas beyond ourselves to the world around us.

 

This has sometimes been interpreted as being about proselytization– that we should actively work to teach our values and our religion to the rest of the world. I don’t think that’s what the prophet is saying at all. I believe that this passage represents a call to each of us to share our values with those around us by living them authentically.

 

“Think for yourself,” says the prophet. It’s true that you are part of a group. And it’s true that you are the product of a culture. But you also get to create culture through the way you live your life.

 

The Bible tells that the in ancient times, there was one leader who truly captured the hearts and allegiance of the Jewish people: and that’s King David. David wasn’t the first King of Israel, and he wasn’t the most powerful. He wasn’t the founder of Judaism or the father of the Jewish people. And yet, he was beloved perhaps more than any other leader in Israelite history.

 

What was it about David? He marched at the vanguard of the troops. He danced with incredible public joy in front of God’s ark. He worshipped with sincerity, and he owned up to his failings. David publicly embodied the values he wished to convey. And he was beloved for it, and he was emulated for it.

 

Anyone who has ever been a parent or a boss or really a person knows that modeling is the most powerful way to convey values. We see this in our own lives all the time, both in little ways and in very big ways.

 

For example…

 

  • If I, as a parent, model for my kids (the little cellphone addicts) what it looks like to put down the device during meals, then we get to open a conversation about the values inherent in that action.
  • If we, as a congregation, model what it looks like to truly welcome the stranger and build a culture of warmth and openness, then we get to participate in a conversation about why that matters.
  • And if we as a nation model what it is to be a society built on tolerance and diversity, then we get to lead that conversation amongst the nations of the world.

 

To be a carrier of values means most of all to live authentically. It means to focus not on what frightens us about others or the world around us, but rather to focus on what we want to be in the world.

 

And that’s why we’re here on the High Holy Days. This is the time of year when we think about what we want to be in the world. We do so as a group, and we do so most of all as individuals.

 

Interestingly, the High Holy Day prayerbook actually acknowledges just how central our group affiliations are – how our communities help shape our selves. It does so by making teshuvah – repentance – in part a communal activity. When we say “Ashamnu bagadnu gazalnu – WE are guilty, We have sinned, We have done wrong,” we confess each other’s sins. Because in some sense, the collective “we,” the culture we build, the assumptions we promulgate, contribute to the actions we perform.

 

But Judaism doesn’t let us off the hook. On these Days of Awe, each of us stands alone before God. Each of us stands alone in judgment before ourselves.

 

The Hasidim tell that the great Rebbe Zusya once came before his followers with tears in his eyes. They asked him: “Rebbe, what’s the matter?
And he told them that he had had a vision. He said, “I have learned the question – the terrible question – that the angels will ask me when I enter Olam Haba – when I enter the next world.”
The Rabbi’s followers were puzzled. “But Rebbe Zusya, you are pious and wise and humble. What question about your life could possibly be so terrifying?”
Zusya sighed. He said, “When I enter the next world, the angels will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you Moses?’ And they will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you Joshua?’ They will not ask, ‘Why weren’t you Maimonides or Rashi or Rabbi Akiba. Rather, they will say to me: ‘Zusya, why weren’t you Zusya?'”

 

The project of the Days of Awe – the task that is before us during these next 10 days – is to ask ourselves what we we wish to be, and to challenge ourselves to live it even more authentically than we did last year.

 

And our tradition believes that when we do so, we have the power to to reshape worlds, to shift cultures, to start the right conversations, to be Or Lagoyim – to be a source of light to those around us.

 

Mahatma Ghandi is said to have once said, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” Actually, he never said that. It’s just a bumper sticker. But what Ghandi really said is far more powerful:

 

“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change… We need not wait to see what others do.”

 

This is the power we have – no less than the power to change the entire world by beginning with ourselves.

 

If we want to be part of families who prioritize and make time for each other, then we can start by making the time ourselves.

 

If we want to live in neighourhoods where people smile at each other and know one another, then we can start by learning the names of the people who live on either side of us.

 

If we want to be part of a congregation that truly takes care of one another and truly makes everyone feel welcome, then we can start by greeting the next unfamiliar face who walks through the door, or by attending the shiva service of someone we didn’t know, just to support their family.

 

If we want to live in a country that feeds the hungry and cares for the poor, then we can start by making sure that we are really giving what we can afford to give.

 

And if we want to live in a world that treats everyone with respect and dignity, where people no longer fear each other based on race or religion or accent, then we have to start by examining our own preconceptions, our own biases, our own prejudice.

 

A Jew once came to his rabbi in tears. He said, “Rabbi, I feel so paralyzed. I’ve tried so hard to repair the world and the world is still as broken as ever.” The rabbi embraced the man and told him to have hope. He said, “Before you can change the world, you have to start with yourself. And when you change yourself, you change your community. And when you change your community you change your nation. And that is how you begin the task of repairing the world.”

 

When we strive to live as our most authentic selves, our influence extends far beyond ourselves.

 

May these next ten days be for us a time of honest reflection, in which we work to accept our own faults, and challenge ourselves to be our best.

 

May we learn to view ourselves as carriers of values, as architects of culture.

 

And may we know that within us lies the power to bring healing and light and goodness not only to ourselves, but to others around us, to our communities, and to our world.

 

Amen.

 

——-

[1] Goldhagen, Daniel J. Hitler’s Willing Executionists. Knopf; New York: 1996. P. 79.

[2] http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748703467304575383131592767868

[3] Isaiah 49:6.

Moses and “Moses” – Celebrating Harriet Tubman

April 21, 2016 Leave a comment

They say that “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” I’m not so sure about that.

This weekend, Jewish families all over the world will sit down at their tables for the Passover Seder. This season celebrates freedom; it acknowledges that somewhere in the depths of our history/mythology we were slaves. And that through forces human and divine, we were made free.

https://745515a37222097b0902-74ef300a2b2b2d9e236c9459912aaf20.ssl.cf2.rackcdn.com/77377beeeb64db9152e1b3ffc12109ae.jpegThe main character of this drama is, of course, Moses. Moses the miracle baby. Moses the Egyptian prince. Moses the freedom fighter. Moses the reticent leader. Moses the prophet.  Moses the philosopher. Moses the rabbi. He plays more roles in Jewish tradition than any other figure. He is the archetype for EVERYTHING.

Which makes it exceedingly curious that as you make your way through the traditional Haggadah – the prayerbook for the Passover Seder – the name of Moses appears not a single time.

Why is Moses absent from the seder? Maybe the framers of the Haggadah wanted to attribute the miracles to God. Maybe they didn’t want to encourage Moses-worship. Maybe they wished to universalize the story, allowing it to speak to oppressed peoples in every time and place. Whatever the reason, there is a sense that Moses’ actions are so extraordinary that they speak for themselves. We don’t even need to mention his name.

Moses is lucky – we know he’s there even when he’s not mentioned. But that’s not usually the meaning of absence. And that is what the US Treasury Department acknowledged this week when it announced that for the first time, a woman will be featured on an American bill. Finally, a woman’s presence on US currency! Finally, an end to this glaring absence of female voices and faces in an important federal institution.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/5d/Harriet-Tubman-248x300.jpgAnd appropriately for Passover, the US Treasury department chose none other than Moses. The abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who escaped slavery and then committed her life to shepherding other slaves to freedom, was known in the abolitionist movement as “Moses,” because of her commitment to freeing her people. A human rights activist, a suffragist, and a symbol for freedom, her actions – like those of the original Moses – have long outlived her own lifetime.

By placing Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill, we acknowledge the central Jewish value that individuals have the power to repair the world. That where there is slavery or oppression or hatred, brave women and men can to change it. It reminds us that that our presence is felt through our actions.

May the name of “Moses” – and her picture on our currency – inspire us to be our best, and to bring freedom and peace to our world.

Chag Pesach Sameach – Happy Passover to all!

Who wrote the Torah? A very good question

November 10, 2015 1 comment

NOTE: this entry was cross-posted at Jewish Values Online
The great Rabbi Akiba used to tell this story:

A fox once spotted a fish darting to and fro in the water. He asked the fish, “From whom are you fleeing?”

And the fish answered, “From the fisherman’s net.”

So the crafty fox offered, “Would you like to come up to safety on dry land?”

To which the fish responded, “Aren’t you a clever one! If I am in danger here in the water, how much more so if I remove myself from it.” (Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 61b)

 In Judaism, water is a symbol for Torah. The lesson of the story is that we are strongest when we surround ourselves with the Torah and its learning. Reform Jewish life is based on this idea: We read from the Torah weekly; we study it regularly; we seek ways to incorporate its teachings into our lives.

So who wrote the Torah?

For most Reform Jews, Torah is not the literal “word of God.” That is to say, we mostly don’t believe that it was penned by God and handed down in its complete form to Moses at Sinai. In fact, critical scholars have taught us that the Torah contains many different voices and views. The first two chapters of Genesis tell two very different – and in some ways opposite – stories of the world’s creation. Genesis 6-9 seems to be a blending of two different stories of Noah and flood. And the many different names for God apparently represent different expressions of Jewish spirituality in ancient Israel…and they don’t always agree with each other!

So where is God in all of this? If the Torah was written by human beings, what makes it so special?

Rabbi Gunther Plaut writes in the introduction to his classic Torah commentary:

God is not the author of the text, the people are; but God’s voice may be heard through theirs if we listen with open minds. (Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Edition. Xxxviii.)

 

Judaism has always taught that God is to be found through the actions and ideas of human beings. In Avot 3:3, it teaches that “When two people exchange words of Torah, the divine presence rests between them.” In other words, “Torah” is not only a book, but an action – an act of study and learning, an act of seeking the divine amidst the mundane, an act of trying to bring the holy into an ordinary world.

 And the book we call “The Torah” is no different. It is a divine book, but was written by human beings. It is the human side of an ongoing conversation between our people and God. To quote Rabbi Plaut again, it is “a book about humanity’s understanding of and experience with God.”

 This makes the Torah different from Aesop’s fables or the writings of Shakespeare, because it is an attempt to express not only universal truths, but divine truths.

 This also means that as liberal Jews, we have to read the Torah on two levels – as a literature that comes out of a certain time and place, AND as a timeless literature that speaks to our lives as well. To ignore either of those levels would be to sell the Torah short, to deny part of its essence.

Most of all, it means that we are called upon to surround ourselves with words of Torah like fish in water. Talmud Torah – Study of Torah – is our opportunity to engage with the ways that our ancient ancestors found God in the world, and it is our opportunity to add our own voices to that eternal dialogue.

Categories: Judaism Tags: ,

Combating Extremism: A Sermon for Pinchas 5775

July 12, 2015 Leave a comment

Here is a video podcast of the sermon I delivered this past Shabbat on religious extremism.

Opportunities and Challenges – A Sermon for Sh’lach Lecha 5775

June 18, 2015 Leave a comment

This is the “messing up big-time” portion of the Torah. Over the next couple of weeks, we will read about two major incidents where the Israelites just simply screw up in God’s eyes. Next week, it will be the rebellion of Korach, who tries to usurp Moses and speak for God. And to whom bad things happen.But what we read about this week is maybe more fundamental, because it involves the entire Jewish people, and it involves the Promised Land. In parashat Sh’lach Lecha, we read that Moses sends a group of scouts – or meraglim – to bring back a report about the land of Israel. 

Our people have been wandering for a short time – really only about a matter of months. They’ve already reached the border of the Land. And God says to Moses:

שלח לך אנשים – “Send men to scout the land of Canaan – one from each of their ancestral tribes.” (Numbers 13:2 )

So Moses sends a group of 12 scouts into the land of Israel to see what the land is all about out. Here’s what happens:

Numbers 13:21-24: They went up and scouted the land, from the wilderness of Zin to Rehob, at Lebo-hamath. They went up into the Negeb and came to Hebron, where lived Ahiman, Sheshai, and Talmai, the Anakites. They reached the wadi Eshcol, and there they cut down a branch with a single cluster of grapes — it had to be borne on a carrying frame by two of them — and some pomegranates and figs. 

From this description we learn a couple of things:

– We learn that the land is exceedingly fertile. We know this from the beautiful fruit. In fact. If you’ve ever been to Israel, you might have seen the logo of the Israeli Ministry of Tourism, which is based on this story.   

 – We also learn that the land is inhabited by other tribes.  

But what this account does not give us is an assessment, a judgment of the land. For that, we need to listen to the scouts. When they return home, they give the following report:

Numbers 13:27-29 : “We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. However, the people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large; moreover, we saw the Anakites there. Amalekites dwell in the Negeb region; Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites inhabit the hill country; and Canaanites dwell by the Sea and along the Jordan.”

And the people, understandably, start to rebel when they hear this. This is a scary moment. We’ve been traveling across the wilderness in the hopes of resettling in a new place. And we arrive here only to learn that the land we’re hoping to settle is already taken by bigger, tougher tribes. How could we help but want to go back to Egypt.

But if we keep reading, we find that Caleb and Joshua – who are two of the scouts – have a very different assessment of our chances.

עָלֹה נַֽעֲלֶה וְיָרַשְׁנוּ אֹתָהּ כִּֽי־יָכוֹל נוּכַל לָֽהּ

 “Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it.” (Numbers 13:30)

So here we have two contradictory versions of the same situation: One positive, one negative. One hopeful, one hopeless. How do you explain that?

And here’s the really interesting thing. If you look closely, Caleb and Joshua don’t actually contradict the words of the original report. They were there. They saw it too. They agree that the land of Israel is filled with big, scary tribes. They agree that “we looked like grasshoppers to them.” And yet they still say “Yachol nuchal lah – We can do it.”

Winston Churchill once said, “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”

The Israelites are in a challenging situation here, and there’s not much they can do about it. They can’t change the fact that they’ve just come from slavery. They can’t change the fact that the Promised Land is inhabited by larger tribes. All they can change is what they choose to focus on.

Ten of the scouts come back from their tour dejected and pessimistic. They just can’t get past their fear of failure, and that paralyzes them. That’s why they needed to wander in the wilderness for the next 38 years – because if they had entered the Promised Land with that attitude, they would have failed.

Joshua and Caleb are the only ones who choose to focus on the opportunity rather than the barrier. They are the only ones who choose to see that although the situation is challenging and is scary, it’s also an chance to grow and accomplish. And that’s why, 40 years later, Joshua and Caleb are the only original Israelites to enter the Land.

Our lives are filled with challenging moments – at work, with our families, in our personal and spiritual lives. There are times when we feel overwhelmed with responsibility. There are times when we feel dejected and hopeless. There are times when it seems like we’ve been dealt us a raw hand. We’ve all been in all of those places. I think that in those moments, the lesson of the Torah is: Yachol Nuchal Lah – We can make it through.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy and it doesn’t mean it’s simple. We need a lot of resources to weather some of those challenges. We need loving family and friends; we need a supportive community; we need to find ways to believe in our own ability to overcome and to grow. If you think about it, there was nothing easy about 40 years in the Wilderness, but even that punishment had silver linings. It was our chance to grow into the people we needed to be; it was our chance to create the society that we wanted to have. That opportunity was on the other side of the coin from the challenge, if we could only find how to look for it.

It’s not always easy to be optimistic, but I suspect that our own challenges also have such flip sides. And I suspect that if we focus in a certain way, we can see how our difficulties and our pain help us to grow, to be better people, to come through the other side stronger and more capable and more compassionate. And I also suspect that, with practice, we can learn how to see those opportunities in the midst of our challenges.

On this Shabbat and every day:

May we surround ourselves with the support we need, and strive to be that for others.

May we seek out chances to become the best versions of ourselves.

And may we always know that Yachol Nuchal Lah – that we are capable of accomplishing great things.

Amen.

G-dcasting the Torah

March 12, 2010 1 comment

Check out this very cool visual D’var Torah from http://www.G-dCast.com. Each week they post a similar commentary on the parasha, written and narrated by leading thinkers from across the Jewish spectrum. Shabbat Shalom!

Parshat Vayakhel from G-dcast.com

More Torah cartoons at www.g-dcast.com

Don’t Blame Dinah! A Jewish Response to Domestic Abuse

December 6, 2009 2 comments

(Below is my sermon delivered last Shabbat – Parashat Vayishlach 5770 – December 4, 2009)

Vayishlach might be my favorite Torah portion… because of the wealth of important stories that are found here. Right here in one portion you have Jacob wrestling with the angel. It tells about the Patriarch’s name being changed to Yisrael – the one who wrestles with God. It tells of the reconciliation of Jacob and Esau, of Jacob’s return to the land of Israel, God’s reestablishment of the covenant with him and his 12 sons. Some of the most important, powerful stories in our tradition are right here.

But tucked away between them is an incident that’s not very pleasant at all:

Genesis 34:  Dinah, the daughter whom Leah had borne to Jacob, went out to visit the daughters of the land. Shechem son of Hamor, chief of the country, saw her, and took her and lay with her by force.

In other words, he raped her. And the rest of the chapter details the aftermath of the rape. Shechem decides that he is in love with Dinah and wants to marry her. Then two of Dinah’s brothers – Simon and Levi – get revenge by killing Shechem and his entire clan.

This is not the kind of Bible story we want to teach in Sunday school, or that we really want to talk about. But we need to talk about it, because if you look closely, something very important and very disturbing is going on here. In verse 2, it says that Shechem saw Dinah and took her by force and raped her. In verse 3 – the very next verse – he was in love with her, and spoke to her tenderly. Declared that he wanted to marry her.

So this isn’t just a rape. Dinah was violated in the context of what seems to be an intimate relationship with the man she intends to marry. We have a word for that: it’s called Domestic Abuse. And it’s not only in the Torah – it’s right here with us.

Every nine seconds, a woman in this country is battered by her partner.[1] Most victims of Domestic Violence are women, but certainly not all. However, Domestic Violence is the single greatest cause of injury to women, more than muggings and car accidents combined. [2]

Unfortunately, it seems from this Torah portion that this is nothing new.  And even more unfortunately, this Torah portion is dead wrong in the way the way it deals with this incident. In fact, Vayishlach is basically a study in what not to do in cases of Domestic Abuse.

An example: the midrash asks the question, What was Dinah doing that caused her to come into contact with Shechem, her rapist? And it seizes on the opening words of the portion: “Vatezte Dinah – Dinah went out” into the town. It was highly unusual for women to be wandering outside the camp, and the commentators understand this to mean that she was out behaving in provocative ways. In other words, that she brought the rape upon herself. And while that attitude may seem far-fetched when we’re reading the story, it is not uncommon in real life.

Rabbi David Rose of Jewish Women International writes:

Very often, society blames the victim. And sadly, the victims of abuse often blame themselves…. We need to say clearly this perspective is wrong, dangerous, and hurtful. An abused woman is hurt not because of anything that she did. Abuse is about power and control.[3]

The midrash is wrong to imply that Dinah brought her rape and her pain upon herself.

Reading further, we encounter the reaction of Dinah’s father Jacob. Verse 5: Jacob heard that his daughter had been defiled, but… Jacob kept silent.

Why did Jacob keep silent? Was he not sure what to do? Was he hoping that his sons would respond for him? Or did he simply not want to acknowledge what had happened?

We in the Jewish community also have a tendency to believe that Domestic Violence is a problem in other segments of the population, but not ours. But it occurs at all socioeconomic levels and in all religious communities. In fact, according to a National Crime Statistics Report, Domestic Violence may occur in up to 60% of marriages,[4] even though only a fraction of those cases are ever reported.

There are Dinahs all around us – in our workplaces, in our clubs and gyms, right here in this sanctuary: women, children, and men who are being abused physically or emotionally in their own homes by their own loved ones.

Again, Rabbi David Rose:

Domestic violence happens precisely because people are silent. Only when we break through the silence, can we end the abuse and violence that continues to occur in our community.[5]

Jacob is wrong to assume that doing nothing can’t make things any worse.

At the other end of that spectrum are Dinah’s brothers, Simon and Levi, whose murderous reaction to the rape is so out of proportion that we flinch whenever we read it. Verse 25: They took their swords, came upon the city, and killed all the men.

What’s really going on here? They saw this as an affront to their family honor, and they were seeking justice against their sister’s attacker.  In fact, the name Dinah actually means justice. But justice is not what Dinah needed in that moment. What she needed was support; she needed the presence of loved ones; she needed a safe place to go; she needed assurance that she would be protected.

Dinah’s brothers are wrong to make this about their anger toward the attacker rather than about the needs of the victim.

So there’s a great deal we can learn from this Torah portion about what not to do when we become aware of Domestic Abuse in our community. We ought not to assume that the victim is at fault or wants to be in an abusive relationship. We ought not to keep silent or assume that it can’t be real. We ought not to become angry and vindictive toward the attacker at the expense of the victim’s real needs.

But there is a great deal that we can do.

We can take time to educate ourselves about the warning signs of this hidden epidemic – both the signs of an abuser and the signs of a victim. There are resources available online or through Shalom Bayit – a local organization that provides support for victims.

We can learn what to say and what not to say to a victim of abuse. And by the way, the most important thing we can say is, “It’s not your fault.”

We can talk to our children about what it means to be in a healthy relationship – about self-esteem, about partnership, about the ways that boyfriends and girlfriends should talk to and about each other. (Did you know, by the way, that between 25% to 30% of adolescent relationships are abusive.[6] We have a lot of work to do.

Above all, we can establish ourselves and our congregation as safe places for those women and men are not safe in their own homes. We have already begun to do this work. 2 years ago, the Temple Beth El board passed a resolution on Domestic abuse. We have created a partnership with Shalom Bayit. We brought in a speaker last month.  And our clergy – along with those of Temple Israel, Ohr Hatorah, and Lake Norman, attended a training session on supporting victims.

Just like the unpleasant story of Dinah and Shechem, Domestic Abuse is something that we would rather not think about. But by acknowledging that it happens in our community, we can begin to bring this hidden epidemic into the light. Removing that stigma is the best thing that we can do for its victims.

We cannot solve Domestic Abuse. There will unfortunately, be another Dinah. But we pray that next time, she will have a supportive, loving community surrounding her so that she can begin to pick up the pieces and move on with her life.

Amen.


[1] Family Violence Prevention Fund, 1994.

[2] First Comprehensive National Health Study of American Women, The Commonwealth Fund, 1993.

[3] Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Abuse , Spring 2006 newsletter. http://jcada.org/downloads/springnewsletter2006.pdf.

[4] National Crime Statistics Report, 1993.

[5] Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Abuse , Spring 2006 newsletter. http://jcada.org/downloads/springnewsletter2006.pdf.

[6] L.A. Commission on Assaults Against Women.