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Parshat Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43)

“Jacob gave the site, where God had spoken to him, the name of Bethel.” (Genesis 35:16)

Parashat Vayishlach contains some intense drama, not all of it G-rated.  Jacob wrestles with an angel, is re-named Israel, and reconciles with his brother Esau.  Rachel dies, and Reuven, Jacob’s eldest son, sleeps with Bilhah, his father’s concubine.  This violates a host of Biblical taboos, and Reuven pays dearly for it.  The classical commentators condemn Reuven even as they speculate about his motives.  They focus on Reuven’s desire to consolidate his power as the first born, and his need to assert Leah’s (his mother’s) primacy over Rachel (Bilhah was Rachel’s maid).  None of the commentators spend any time thinking about Bilhah.  Rabbi Lia Bass (the first woman from Brazil ordained as a rabbi) does and looks to Hebrew grammar to make sense of the episode.


Usually, when the Bible describes sexual relations, it uses the phrase “vayishkav im”  (and he lay with; im means with).  Three times, however, it uses “vayishkav et:” the rape of Dinah (Gen. 34:2), the rape of Tamar ( II Sam. 13:14.  Vayishlach is the third (“vayishkav R’uven et Bilha” (Reuven went and lay with Bilhah; Gen. 35:22)).  The word “et” is untranslatable, but it indicates the word that follows is the object of the verb.


Bass infers from the presence of the word “et” (as opposed to im) that Bilhah also is a rape victim.  As with Dina and Tamar, the sexual act is motivated by power, not desire.  But the Torah delivers a clear message with these stories: abusing women is not the route to power, because in each case, the rapist is either killed, or loses all power.  The Torah is telling us, “No means no.”


Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom


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