A Lack of Empathy

Jacob's reaction to Dinah's rape is puzzling and disturbing.


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In Parashat Vayishlah, Dinah is captured and raped by Shechem, a local prince. Her father Jacob’s reaction is both puzzling and disturbing; he does nothing. Silent, he sits and waits for his sons to return from the pasture, where they are tending the family flocks.
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We can conceive of reasonable ways to explain Jacob’s behavior. Perhaps he wishes to confer with his family before entering a tricky, potentially danger-fraught negotiation or retaliation. Perhaps Jacob feels too weak to counter his daughter’s attacker alone, and so waits for his sons to produce a show of strength.

Out of Character

But these explanations seem out of character for the patriarch, for whom self-assured, individual action is the norm. Earlier in Vayishlah, when Esau confronts him with an army, Jacob acts decisively, strategically and without conferencing with his sons. In the following chapter, Jacob battles a Divine being entirely alone, and though he is injured in the process, Jacob wins, suggesting a great personal power. And if we should think that Jacob’s injuries weakened him, leaving him unable to face Dinah’s attacker, the text informs us that “Jacob came complete to the city of Shechem.”

Given his history, it seems unlikely that, in the case of Dinah, Jacob feels the need for counsel or fears a lack of strength. This suggests another, more troubling reason for Jacob’s lack of response. Perhaps he simply does not care enough for Dinah to feel responsible for acting on her behalf. The text’s introduction of Dinah as “the daughter of Leah” hints at Jacob’s indifference towards her. Though outside her family she is viewed as Jacob’s daughter, perhaps Jacob did not feel compelled to defend the daughter of Leah, a wife he did not want and did not love.

Jacob’s apparent lack of empathy is not reserved exclusively for Dinah. He regularly disregards the safety of Leah’s other children. When Jacob is faced with famine, he sends her sons on a dangerous mission to acquire food, but does not send Benjamin, Rachel’s son. Later in the narrative, when Leah’s son Simon is taken captive in Egypt, Jacob leaves him to his fate, rather than complying with the demand to send Benjamin in order to save Simon. Jacob’s apparent indifference to these children of his unloved wife can explain his silence in the face of Dinah’s rape. He does not feel the empathy and connection that would have forced him to respond.

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Aviva Presser Aiden is a student at Harvard Medical School. She co-founded Bears Without Borders, an organization fostering economic opportunities among developing-world artisans, and is co-founder and CTO of Lebone, a social enterprise developing microbial fuel cells as an off-grid energy and lighting solution for Africa.

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