This week’s Torah portion is often summarized as “the one where Jacob and Esau meet and reunite and Jacob’s name is changed to Israel and then at the end Rachel dies.” While none of this is incorrect, this is certainly not the complete story either. Vayishlach, this week’s parsha, in fact contains one of the darkest stories in the Torah – the rape of Dinah, and the subsequent destruction of Shechem’s city by Dinah’s brothers. This story has many disturbing undertones, including (but definitely not limited to) its portrayal of a woman’s relationship to her partner, its interpretation of what it means to have been a victim of rape, and its conception of revenge.
Yet this portion also has a lot to say about what it means to be a family. Are Jacob and Esau – brothers who were separated by fighting for most of their lives and only to reconcile in adulthood – a family? Are Dinah’s brothers – who eliminate an entire population in order to restore honor to their sister’s name – a family? I think that the answer (or at least the answer we might find in the Torah) is yes. Both of these stories contain examples of ties strong enough to withstand obstacles, be these obstacles the test of time, a history of deception or even a violent event.
To be fair, our conception of families have certainly evolved since biblical days. But the idea that a family has the autonomy to make decisions about protecting itself, and should have the power to execute those decisions, still rings true today. For example, we believe strongly in a woman’s right to choose whether or not to have an abortion. We also believe in full access to contraception – which is especially pertinent given the recent CDC report linking better family planning with decreased abortion numbers. And while we certainly don’t condone violence—let alone slaying a whole city—in response, some outrage over violence against women isn’t totally out of the question.
It can be easy to dismiss a lot of what we read in the Torah as outdated and antiquated. But trying to draw connections to our life today can still be very informative and rewarding, and can help shed an interesting light on some of the most pressing issues of our time.