Jacob, after working for his uncle Lavan for twenty years, returns to Canaan in this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach (“And he sent”). When he left Canaan he was alone; when he returns he brings back two wives, two concubines, eleven sons, servants, a wealth of livestock, and one daughter—or perhaps only one daughter whom the Torah considers worth mentioning.
Eager to settle down, Jacob buys the land where his household is camping in front of the town of Shekhem.
And Dinah, the daughter of Leah whom she had borne to Jacob, went out to see the women of the land. And Shekhem, son of Chamor the Chivvite, a chieftain of the land, saw her, and he took her, and he lay with her, and he violated her. (Genesis/Bereishit 34:1-2)
dinah (דִינָה) = judge her, pass sentence on her; her judgment, her verdict.
shekhem (שְׁכֶם)= shoulders; an ancient town on the west bank of the Jordan1.
Dinah’s name hints that she is doing something unacceptable. In the culture of the ancient Near East, a young unmarried woman did not leave her family’s compound unaccompanied. Her motive is merely to make friends with the women who have become her neighbors. But walking alone, in that time and place, was considered asking for trouble.
And trouble comes. Dinah is raped—by the young chieftain whose name is the same as the town. It is as if the whole town of Shekhem rapes the whole household of Jacob. Honor, shame, and responsibility were not restricted to individuals in the ancient Near East; what happened to one family member affected the standing of the entire family.
But Shekhem does not throw his victim out in the morning.
And his soul became attached to Dinah, daughter of Jacob, and he loved the young woman, and he spoke al leiv the young woman. Then Shekhem spoke to Chamor, his father, saying: “Take for me this girl as a wife” (Genesis/Bereishit 34:3-4)
al leiv (עַל־לֵב) = upon the heart of. (In biblical Hebrew, the heart is the mind, the seat of conscious thoughts and feelings.)
Clearly Shekhem falls in love with Dinah. He not only wants to keep her and take care of her; he wants to repair her reputation (as much as he can) by marrying her through an official contract between his family and hers.
How does Dinah feel now about the man who raped her? The Torah does not say. The only clue we have is that Shekhem speaks al leiv her, upon her heart.
Touching the heart
Biblical Hebrew uses several idioms that include the word leiv or its alternative spelling levav. When something arises in someone’s heart, an idea or a memory is occurring to that person.2 To place something upon one’s heart is to think it over.3 What does it mean to speak upon someone’s heart?
At the end of the book of Genesis, Joseph’s brothers are afraid that Joseph will finally take revenge for when they sold him as a slave. Joseph reassures them: “And now don’t you fear, I will provide for you and your little ones.” And he comforted them, and he spoke al leiv them. (Genesis 50:21)
Joseph’s intent is to reassure his brothers so they no longer feel afraid.
In the book of Judges, a man’s concubine runs away to her father’s house. After four months, Her husband got up and went after her, to speak al leiv her to get her back. (Judges 19:3)
The concubine does head back with the man, so he must have changed her feelings about him.4
King David’s troops win a battle and kill his son Absalom, who had seized David’s throne. When David ignores his soldiers and weeps for his dead son, the troops become demoralized. David’s general, Yoav, warns him that if he does not act at once, they will all desert overnight. Yoav concludes: “And now get up! Go out! And speak al leiv your followers!” (2 Samuel 19:8)
Here, King David must persuade his soldiers that he appreciates their victory after all, and he is still their king.5 He must change their feelings from despondency to optimism.
Ruth gives the idiom a different shade of meaning when she is a gleaner in Boaz’s field. He asks her to stick to his field, where he has ordered his men not to molest her; tells her to help herself from the water jugs; compliments her on taking care of her mother-in-law; and gives her a blessing. Ruth replies: “I find favor in your eyes, my lord, since you comfort me and since you speak al leiv your maidservant—although I, I am not even one of your maidservants.” (Ruth 2:13)
Ruth does not need to be persuaded to return to Boaz’s field.6 She is telling him that he has reassured her and made her feel better.
The other two occurrences in the Hebrew Bible of the idiom “to speak al leiv” are in prophecies that God (in the role of a husband) will take back the Israelites (in the role of a wife) even though they have strayed with other gods. God will tenderly reassure Israel that “her” suffering is over.7 Then the Israelites will no longer feel despair.
So if speaking al leiv someone means reassuring someone or changing someone’s feelings, we can conclude that in this week’s Torah portion, Shekhem changes Dinah’s feelings about him, and she wants to marry him.
Not touching the heart
Shekhem offers to pay Jacob any bride-price he asks for. But his father, Chamor, stipulates that the people of Shekhem and Jacob’s household will all intermarry and become one people. He promises Jacob’s people that they can share the town’s land, and he promises the town’s people that they can share Jacob’s livestock. It does not occur to Chamor that Dinah’s family is still upset about her rape and hates Shekhem—both the man and the town.
Chamor does not speak al leiv Jacob or his sons, and their feelings do not change.
Then the sons of Jacob answered Shekhem and his father Chamor, and they spoke deceitfully, since he had defiled their sister Dinah. And they said to them: “We cannot do this thing, giving our sister to a man who has a foreskin, because that is a disgrace for us.” (Genesis 34:13-14)
Jacob says nothing. But his sons pretend to agree to intermarriage if all the men of the town will circumcise themselves. After the men of Shekhem have done so, and are disabled by pain, two of Dinah’s brothers, Simon and Levi, swoop in, kill every male, take their sister out of the chieftain’s house, and leave. Then the “sons of Jacob” (which sons are not specified) plunder the town of Shekhem and take its women and girls as slaves.
When Dinah’s brothers are finished, the reformed Shekhem is dead, and Dinah is a tainted woman with low market value instead of the happy wife of a chieftain.
The story of Dinah illustrates both that human feelings can change—and that when people refuse to change their feelings, they may hurt the people they care about as well as those they consider enemies.
May everyone who is trapped in old feelings of anger, resentment, or despair be freed. And if nobody steps forward to speak al leiv, may we hear an inner voice comforting our hearts with a different point of view.
- Shekhem was 30 miles (49 km) north of Jerusalem, between two round hills, Mt. Gezerim and Mt. Eyval. It is now part of the modern city of Nablus.
- Arising in someone’s heart: e.g. Jeremiah 44:21, Ezekiel 38:10.
- Placing upon one’s heart: e.g. Deuteronomy 6:6, Jeremiah 12:11, Isaiah 57:11, Malachi 2:2.
- The King James Bible (KJV) translation is “to speak friendly unto her”; the Jewish Publication Society (JPS) translation is “to woo her”.
- The JPS translation is “placate your followers”.
- The KJV translation is “thou hast spoken friendly”; the JPS translation is “to speak gently to”.
- Hosea 2:16, Isaiah 40:1.