See Dinah

D’var Torah on parashat VaYishlach by Rabbi Emma Gottlieb, 5781

This week’s Torah portion doesn’t come with a trigger warning. But it should. One minute we are reading an emotional narrative of two brothers reconciling, and the next minute we are confronted with a rather terse, unemotional telling of a violent incident of sexual misconduct. The Torah doesn’t come with trigger warnings, but I will give one here before moving further into this D’var Torah. If this isn’t the sermon for you, please feel free to stop reading now. 



In this week’s Torah portion, Dinah, the daughter of Jacob, is raped.

She is raped, but sometimes we whitewash it, because we don’t like that such a story exists in our beautiful Torah.

She is raped, but we’ve called it a “complicated love story” in contemporary midrash.

She is raped, but we find other parts of the parasha to talk about instead. 

She is raped, but we question the Torah’s historical accuracy anyway, so it probably never really happened.

She is raped, but we shy away from it because we don’t want to seem like angry feminists.

But Dinah’s story is not a love story, and it is not a story we can ignore. Dinah’s story is the reason we need angry feminists. Because Dinah’s story is still happening. Every Day. Multiple times. All over the world, women are raped. Women are raped and people are attacked brutally for who they are or who they love, or for what they look like or what they believe, or for where they come from. . .  

We humans inflict terrible, unspeakable damage on one another out of hatred, out of fear, out of desperation. It’s in our Torah and it on our streets. It’s in our country and it’s in our community. It’s not something that happened once upon a time. It’s something that is happening right now. To someone. This very minute.

This week, I received an email from the Cape Town branch of the Union for Jewish Women, imploring rabbis to speak about Dinah over Shabbat, as a catalyst for focusing on the elimination of family violence and prevention of gender-based violence, in connection with the upcoming 16 Days of Activism, beginning on November 25. 

Dinah’s story presents us with an opportunity to ask important questions that we might otherwise avoid. Here are some questions suggested by the UJW for discussion:

  • What does respect look like in a relationship?
  • Has there ever been a time when you felt unsafe because of your gender?
  • What are some of the expectations we have for people of different genders within society? How are they different? Is there a connection between our expectations and the way we respond to a violent incident?
  • What are the impacts of blaming the victim of violence? What is our responsibility in calling this out?
  • Do you think the world would look different if people of all genders were equally represented in leadership roles? In what way?
  • Dinah has no voice in this parsha; in what ways are women (and others) silenced in our world today?

But before we can even really begin to ask and answer these questions, we must first just accept the fact that Dinah’s story IS. Dinah’s rape, and these other forms of unforgivable violence, are not something we can look away from. We cannot name them as anything other than what they are. Rape. Abuse. Misogyny. Homophobia. Transphobia. Xenophobia. Racism. 

We need to hear these words and be uncomfortable. This is exactly why Dinah’s story is in the Torah in the first place. Our sacred text is imploring us:  DO NOT LOOK AWAY! We are Dinah’s witnesses, and we must be the advocates for all the Dinah’s of today until such a time as there are no more Dinah’s, Please God may it be so.

It is especially important for us to bear witness because, as Rabbi Laura Geller writes, “No one asks Dinah what she wants, what she needs, or how she can be comforted. Her silence is loud enough to reverberate through the generations.” Rabbi Geller goes on to cite statistics relating to rape, honor killings, dowry deaths, so called “crimes of passion”, sexual slavery and human trafficking. 

More ugly words. More things we must not look away from. “What happens to Dinah in the aftermath of her ordeal?” Rabbi Geller asks. “We do not know. We never hear from her, just as we may never hear from the women and (others) in our generation who are victims of violence and whose voices are not heard. But the legacy of Jacob as Israel,” Rabbi Geller continues, “the one who wrestles, demands that we confront the shadowy parts of ourselves and our world – and not passively ignore (the) facts.” Rabbi Geller quotes the feminist educator Nelle Morton, who, “urged women to hear each other “into speech.” 

“Dinah’s story,” concludes Geller, “challenges us to go even further and be also the voices for (one another).”

This year, our weekly Torah study shiur group has been focusing on the Haftarah readings. One common feature of the prophetic books is the way they end. Often, after shouting and railing at the people about their wickedness, the prophets will turn, quite suddenly sometimes, to words of comfort.This is called a nechemta. The prophets don’t want to leave us in a state of hopelessness. They want us to feel optimistic about the future.

This week’s haftarah comes with a nechemta, but I am not going to leave you with platitudes. If we want to feel better about the way we treat one another, then we must treat one another better. And if we want to feel better about our world, then we must, each and every one of us, be actively engaging in its repair. We cannot just sadly shake our heads and cluck our tongues. We must be educating. Advocating. Supporting. Contributing. Telling Dinah’s story and the millions of other stories like it. 

If you are not doing something,  then I am sorry to tell you, you are doing nothing. And nothing is unacceptable.

Because Dinah was raped and every single woman, or otherwise-marginalized individual in this country knows a Dinah, or is a Dinah.

If we want to feel comforted, we must first comfort the Dinahs; Protect the Dinahs; And demand that the rest of humanity do better.

Only then can we write a nechemta together.


Kein Yehi Ratzon. May it be God’s will.

Scroll to Top