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Parashat Vayishlach – Dinah’s Assault and its Remedy

Even the gravest incident can bring a change for the better, and even the most painful trauma can be healed

“Dinah, Leah’s daughter who she bore to Jacob, went out to see the daughters of the land. And Shechem, son of Chamor the Chivite, the prince of the land, saw her and he took her and lay with her and assaulted her.”

This tragic episode relating to Jacob’s daughter, Dinah, can be approached from two different angles. Either it can be viewed from the perspective of the people involved in the act, or it can be viewed from God’s Omniscient perspective.

From our earthly perspective, rape is obviously a cruel and unforgivable act that demands that the victim be rescued from her assailant. In this context, Dinah’s brothers, Shimon and Levi, took her attack to heart and adopted an extremely severe approach. Despite Jacob’s criticism, their fraternal act of self-sacrifice to avenge their sister’s honor can be seen as an example that we should identify with. Indeed, the Lubavitcher Rebbe emphasized that from an educational perspective there are some things that are so sanctified that their desecration touches the very essence of the soul, which is above all reason.

But, what happened once the episode was over? Shechem and Chamor could no longer interfere—nor any of the city’s residents, for that matter—and Dinah returned home to her family. Any act of violence leaves the victim with a deep scar on their soul, and a broken spirit that is difficult to heal. Indeed, the sages teach us that after meting out justice on the City of Shechem, Shimon (the older of Dinah’s two fraternal saviors) did not suffice with polishing his sword and returning it to its sheath, but truly took care of his younger sister by marrying her (this was permitted before the Torah forbade marriage between siblings). In her desperate moment of need, with no idea how to deal with her pain, he made an effort to alleviate her misery.

Elevating Fallen Sparks

The way to truly heal a wounded soul is to transcend the mundane and rise to a higher perspective. Shechem’s act was obviously an atrocious deed, but the Torah’s inner dimension reveals that there is a Divine purpose hidden even in such an act. The Arizal reveals that although no-one at the time was aware of it, somewhere deep down in Shechem’s mean, contemptible soul hid a holy spark that needed to be released from its prison and elevated to a new level. This spark could only be extracted by contact with Dinah, as alluded to in the phrase, “His soul clung to Dinah, Jacob’s daughter.” The good element of Shechem’s soul escaped and literally clung to Dinah’s soul, so much so that it became included within the holiness of the Jewish people.[2]

Moreover, with his spiritual insight, the Arizal revealed Dinah’s reincarnations throughout the generations. Amongst others, Dinah was reincarnated as Abigail, wife of Naval the Carmelite, who married King David after Naval’s demise. Later she was reincarnated once again as wife of the evil Tineius Rufus, who converted to Judaism and then married Rabbi Akiva (as his second wife). The underlying theme in all Dinah’s incarnations suggests that her task is to pass from the hands of someone evil to someone righteous – from Shechem ben Chamor to her brother, Shimon; from the drunken Naval to King David; and from the evil Tineius Rufus to Rabbi Akiva. Each transfer further clarifies and elevates the sparks that were captured and concealed in the depths of the impure shells.

Since they contain an element of Divine insight, the Arizal’s data sources cannot be disputed. However, the dangers of misinterpreting his teachings must be made clear. Any benefit that may be gleaned from plummeting into the depths of sin can only be understood retroactively and by no means offers any legitimacy to instigating such acts with prior intentions (as unfortunately some would mistakenly believe, misleading others to follow them in the name of “Kabbalah.”)

Three Types of Refining

One type of God’s service is the “service of clarification” by which holy sparks that were previously intermingled in mundane or impure realms are rescued from their fate to return to holiness. There are three principal methods by which these sparks can be refined:

The first method is achieved completely a priori, when an individual consciously deals with mundane matters with the intention of choosing to do good, thus refining reality through his actions. In its perfected state, this is the service of the righteous, who perceive every act they do―even when it does not directly involve doing a mitzvah or refraining from sin―as an opportunity to refine reality. For example, every morsel of food that is eaten by such a righteous individual is consumed with the intention of clarifying the holy spark that is in the food, i.e., God’s word that vitalizes it, and to elevate that energy by using it in their service of God. In this method of service, the righteous individual is in complete, conscious control; they initiate the act and shape reality to bring it to its desired goal.

The second method of clarification happens when I find myself in an unpremeditated situation. For example, perhaps I arrive somewhere for a business meeting and I make a blessing on a cup of coffee there. At the time I am totally unaware that my entire journey was Divinely ordained so that a spark that was trapped there would be refined or elevated by me making a blessing ―a fact that may only be revealed to me when my soul reaches heaven. This is how the Ba'al Shem Tov interpreted the verse, “And you shall go to the place Havayah, your God, will choose.”

One should realize that one’s travels from place to place are not one’s own initiative, but because one is being led from Above, the intention being “to have His Name dwell there” – i.e., to disseminate holiness in that location.

This method is applicable to any Jew, but it is achieved involuntarily, as one is generally unaware of the clarification process that has been achieved. It is good to always be aware of this teaching of the Ba’al Shem Tov, and to live in the comforting knowledge that no matter where I happen to be, I can always achieve something positive through my actions.

The third method is as we have seen with Dinah, when an individual unwittingly falls into an adverse situation. When the process cannot be achieved by any other means, God’s intention to refine the world still remains true even under such conditions. In Dinah’s case, she was assaulted, totally against her will, but there can also be situations in which an individual actually falls into sin, God forbid. Even though their sin is through their own erroneous choice, their act has a hidden purpose of which they are totally unaware (nonetheless, they are entirely responsible for their own actions and are held accountable for them). This is a very difficult concept to grasp (and, as above, we need to be very careful to keep it within the boundaries of Torah law). This is the “terrible plot upon mankind”[3] that God weaves for us humans, which includes all our downfalls. But ultimately, “no-one banished shall be banished [eternally]”[4] and even if someone falls to the deepest depths, every fall that they experience ultimately directs them to a fallen spark that can be rescued and elevated; perhaps we will only realize of its purpose when Mashiach comes.

In our generation, the Lubavitcher Rebbe stated that the service of clarifications has ended, which in our context means that the first level—of consciously clarifying reality achieved by the righteous—has ended. Our current task is to involve ourselves more with the “service of unifications” (as explained in Parashat Toldot), which is associated with Mashiach’s imminent arrival, and not to make an issue of consciously refining reality. Obviously, it is still good to have in mind that we eat to receive energy to serve God with joy (which elevates and refines the food) and we should certainly aspire to observe the verse, “know Him in all your ways”[5]—but in general, our consciousness should be directed towards a different goal altogether—the goal of bringing the final redemption by uniting the mundane world in which we live with the Divine world.

Similarly, the second type of clarification mentioned above plays a less significant role. We no longer need to travel to the ends of the world to recite a blessing, because this service is also coming to an end (besides which, the world has become one big global village and everything is readily available, wherever we happen to be). But, the most difficult clarifications, achieved by falling into sin, have clearly not yet ended and the Divine “terrible plot” continues until we will eventually reach the happy end, may it be soon!

Trauma Therapy

How can we incorporate these teachings into trauma therapy?

The knowledge that even the most terrible fall has a purpose is “first aid” for the tortured soul that has undergone such a trauma. Knowing that whatever happens is Divinely ordained elucidates the event and offers some comfort. Every tragic episode is just one piece of the great puzzle put together in Heaven. Divine knowledge like that of the Arizal, who would tell people their exact rectification in this world according to their soul-root is beyond our scope. Nonetheless, the Ba’al Shem Tov guided us with the important principle of simple faith in the knowledge that whatever happens to me is indeed for the best and for my own personal benefit.

But, for this healing power to penetrate deep enough into our souls, and not just serve as a topical pain-killer, we need to understand Shechem's father, Chamor (חַמוֹר), whose name means, “donkey.” The Torah’s inner dimension reveals that this donkey has a much more profound significance than is apparent at first glance. At the beginning of the parashah, Jacob said, “I have oxen and donkeys” and the sages teach us that Jacob’s oxen refer to Mashiach, son of Joseph, while his donkeys refer to Mashiach son of David,” Indeed, Mashiach ben David is referred to as, “A pauper riding a donkey.” Jacob’s cattle were holy oxen and his donkeys too, but by contrast, there are also oxen and donkeys of the impure husks. Chassidut explains that an ox represents heat and explosive power (think how wary one needs to be of standing in the path of a seething ox), whereas a donkey expresses coldness. The Talmud states that a donkey is always cold, even at the height of summer. Like a stubborn donkey that cannot be shaken from its routine way of life, the donkey-like character of the impure husks manifests as apathy and cold indifference to everything that happens, even when it is truly evil, as we see with Chamor. By contrast, the holy donkey reflects a positive stoicism that allows us to carry everything that God confers upon us with equanimity and in awe of God, like a disciplined donkey that carries its yoke without complaint.

In our context, positive indifference means accepting all that happens to me by submitting to God’s will without being overwhelmed by the raving emotions that threaten to engulf me. By looking at everything from a cool, rational perspective that allows me to detach myself from the upsetting event itself, I can learn to look at it from a more elevated perspective. Obviously, a victim of assault will find it very difficult to relate with indifference to what has happened to them, which is why we need a righteous individual, a truly virtuous “therapist” to assist them in extricating themselves from the catastrophe and begin the healing process. That righteous individual also needs to be somewhat donkey-like in their ability to show indifference towards what happened. Should they allow their sympathetic feelings of compassion to overwhelm them, they too would be sucked into the crisis and would not be able to assist the victim. Under these circumstances, the ability to view calamity in a cool, calm and collected fashion is the manifestation of the therapist’s true compassion, which will eventually bring comfort to the aching heart that weeps before them.

Mashiach ben David is referred to as “a pauper riding on a donkey.” It is he who will complete this rectification, bringing healing and comfort to every tortured soul and bequeathing them with the true and comforting sense that all their downfalls were ultimately for the very best.


[1]     ù From a class on 13th Kislev, 5773.

[2]     The Arizal pinpointed this hidden spark as the soul of Rabbi Chanina ben Tradyon, one of the greatest Tanaim, and one of the ten martyrs who were killed by the Romans. This is alluded to in the words, “The land was broad-handed” (וְהָאָרֶץ הִנֵּה רַחֲבַת יָדַיִם; Genesis 34:21), in which the letters of “broad” (רַחֲבַת) are the initial letters of Rabbi Chanina ben Tradyon (רַבִּי חֲנִינָא בֶּן תְּרַדְיוֹן)

[3] Psalm 66:5.

[4] II Samuel 14:14.

[5] Proverbs 3:6.

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