Educating Girls: Balancing Modesty with Maximizing potentional

As Yacov is on his way to meet Esav, the Torah describes him crossing the Yabok stream with his two wives, two maidservants and his eleven sons. One person is glaringly missing from this account of Yacov’s family: his one and only daughter, Dinah.

The commentaries infer: If Dinah’s birth is recorded in parshat Vayetze and then reappears later, in the story of her abduction, then there must be some reason why she is missing during Yacov’s encounter with Esav. Rashi explains that Yacov had hidden her in a tevah, a box, out of concern that Esav would see her and want her as a wife. According to Rashi, Dinah had the potential to bring Esav to do teshuva and Yacov prevented this from happening. According to this difficult midrash, Dinah is later raped by Shchem as a punishment for Yacov’s hiding her from Esav. (Rashi on Bereshit 32:23)[1]

The rape of Dinah is such a difficult narrative to read that the commentaries struggled to make some sense of how this cruel act could have happened to Dinah, causing distress to her and her family. Attempts to rationalize or explain the rape of Dinah fall short to the modern reader who, living today, understands so much more about women’s rights and that blaming the victim is callous and offensive.

Yet, the midrashic idea of Yacov hiding his daughter in a box is an image that can teach us something about the challenges of parenting and what message we impart to our daughters and to girls in general. As religious Jews we all try to filter some amount of what our children are exposed to (while of course taking age and maturity into account). However, we also believe in the value of living and interacting with the world around us and giving our daughters opportunities to maximize their potential. Instead of only worrying about how our children will be influenced badly by others, it is important that we think about ways to strengthen our children so that they can make good choices and influence others for the good.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe deals with this issue head on in his discussion of Rashi. When the Torah tells us that Dinah “went out” (Bereshit 34:1), Rashi says that Dinah was a yatzanit, she liked to go out. This is sometimes interpreted as blaming Dinah. However, the Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that Rashi viewed this as a positive attribute,[2] in Leah and in Dinah, and that Rashi is saying Dinah was justified and doing good in her going out. He explains that she had the potential to influence others for the good and was able to balance her modesty with her ability to be a leader. This is why it was so wrong for Yacov to put her in a box. He stopped her from being herself and maximizing her potential.

We all struggle as parents and educators with protecting our daughters while at the same time empowering them to be who they are. Sometimes, our leadership gets this balance wrong and puts girls in a “box.” Religious girls today need to hear more empowering messages from rabbis and Jewish leaders. Instead of making proclamations about what is assur, girls need to hear about what they can achieve. What they don’t need is to be told it is prohibited for them to join the army or do sherut leumi. What they do need is role models who give them confidence, skills and words of encouragement to be able to cope with living in the real world. Don’t put them in a metaphorical “box”. Instead, believe in the good they can do for Jewish and Israeli society, and send them out to inspire others.

[1] There are three other times it says that the rape of Dinah was punishment to Yacov: On Bereshit 33:20, the midrash reads the pasuk as saying that Yacov called himself a lord and for this was punished (Bereshit Rabbah 79:8). See also Bereshit Rabbah 73:9 when Yacov makes a deal with Lavan. Other commentaries blame Leah or even Dinah herself.

[2] In the standard printed edition of Rashi commentary, Rashi says that Dinah was a yatzanit like her mother Leah, and adds in parenthesis: ועליה משלו משל כאמה כבתה, a quote from Ezekiel which implies the association is negative. This would contradict the Rebbe’s interpretation of Rashi. However, while the verse in Ezekiel appears in the original midrash, it seems Rashi did not include it, as it is does not appear in the manuscripts and first printed editions of Rashi. Rashi’s omission of the verse supports the Rebbe’s interpretation that Rashi did not view being a “yatzanit” as a negative attribute but a positive one.