Vayishlach: when is a kiss not a kiss?

Texts and beliefs By Rabbi Lee Wax 14th Dec 2016

Lovemaking that is also not lovemaking

Vayar otah…vayikach otah vayishkav otah vaye’aneiha

[Shechem] saw her, took her, raped her and humiliated her

Dinah, a young woman, who has gone out to see other women, is raped by Shechem. The language used matches the act: brutal, terse, unmitigated violence perpetrated on an innocent. Whether or not he falls in love with her afterwards, or she with him, is debatable. But it does not detract from the violence of the initial act, and tenderness afterwards does not mitigate the attack – nor does it prevent further sexual violence or humiliation once married. Many of our domestic violence survivors bring stories of forced sex and non-consensual sexual humiliation. They bring testimony of how the sacred bonds of marriage or partnership are degraded and debased within their sexual relationship, as part of a whole array of different types of abuse and controlling behaviour. Just as the biblical Dinah has no means to protect herself from humiliation, our women have been brought to a point where they cannot protect themselves from the permanent onslaught of sexual, verbal, physical, psychological or emotional abuse and humiliation of an abusive relationship. And the psychological scars of sexual violence last longer than the physical ones. At Jewish Women’s Aid the free counselling they can access helps them rebuild their shattered sense of trust and their destroyed self-respect.

A gift that is also not a gift

Vayikach min ha-ba be’yado minchah le’Esav achiv

[Jacob] took gifts to his brother Esau, from what he had

The biblical Jacob is about to be reunited with his brother – who is probably still furious with Jacob for having cheated him cruelly out of his birthright. So Jacob, ever the wily diplomat, cleverly sends gifts of propitiation before they see each other again. Lavish, over-the-top gifts, gifts which are doubtless meant to demonstrate apology – and also show Esau how powerful, wealthy and magnanimous Jacob is. The ultimate “I’m sorry, I’ll never do it again” gift. The gift which says: “I cheated you and caused you pain – but I am a changed man, and now I want to be your friend”.  The gift which takes the wind out of one’s sails and the healing message which you want to believe in. For JWA this is very familiar. We talk about the “honeymoon period” after an attack, which might last a few days, a few weeks, months or even years. After an attack, there are apologies, and gifts (flowers, clothes, jewellery, a holiday…). There are tears, appeals for her forgiveness, her forbearance, her love; veiled threats (“If you leave me I will die”); and protestations of his undying love. He will never do it again. Until, of course, the 2nd, 9th or 35th time.

A kiss that is also not a kiss

Vayipol al tsavarav vayishakehu (33:4)

And he [Jacob? Esau?] fell on his neck, and kissed him.

Whilst the text is unclear who is doing what to whom, rabbinic tradition is clear on one thing: this kiss is also not just a kiss. They bring our attention to this by putting tiny dots on top of the word in the Torah (one of only 15 times this happens in the whole Torah!). One midrash suggests that it’s actually a bite (the Hebrew n-sh-k which means ‘kiss’ is very similar to the word n’sh’ch which means ‘bite’) – that it’s Esau trying to bite Jacob but Jacob’s neck miraculously turns to stone at that moment. Personally I prefer the reading that it’s Jacob whose kiss is also an attack, perhaps in fear and self-defence – or perhaps that old sibling rivalry resurfacing! Either way, we’re compelled to think about it more deeply, and look behind the seemingly innocent kiss.  Survivors of an abusive relationship often talk about their perpetrator behaving impeccably to them in public, the controlling, manipulative and coercive behaviour saved for when they are in private. Only their children know the truth, because in 90% of all cases there are children in the same or next room. Whether the victim is Mummy or Daddy (men can also be victims), the effects of them knowing what one parent is doing to the other does long-lasting damage to their young hearts and minds. They know, and they feel the pain lodged deep in their hearts, that his kiss is not just a kiss.  For the women who get to us, their children can be supported by our specialist Children’s Worker, who does beautiful, painstaking therapeutic work to help them deal with the awfulness of what they have witnessed in their family.

Kicking them when they’re down

Bih’yotam koavim… vayehargu kol-zachar…

When they [the Hivite men] were in pain..they [Simeon and Levi] killed all the men…

As revenge for Shechem violating their sister Dinah, Jacob’s sons demand that all the men should be circumcised as a condition for being allowed to marry her. When they are weakened after the mass circumcision, Simeon and Levi attack and murder them all. This horrific biblical account of a sort of ‘honour killing’ that Simeon and Levi take upon themselves is not condoned either in Torah or by their father.  (Of course we don’t hear Dinah’s reaction – we don’t hear about Dinah again or what becomes of her, leading some modern rabbinic commentators to question whether Dinah herself survived.)

But the words are recalled here to remind us that abusive relationships are about power and control: always one way, always designed to disempower and weaken, always coercive and manipulative, with abusive incidents occurring more frequently and with increasing severity once  the victim is already in a weakened and dependent state.  And not just to people who seem weak or submissive.  The client who said “He kicked me again and again, and then made me lie on the floor and lick his shoes” was a professional, highly educated woman.  The non-judgmental, healing and empowering work we do is unique in the Jewish community.  You can help us make a difference.


  • 1 in 4 women in the UK will experience domestic violence or abuse.
  • 1 in 10 women in the UK are experiencing it at any given moment.
  • The Jewish stats are no different.
  • JWA relies on the generosity of the Jewish community for over 90% of our funding.

Domestic violence and abuse in the Jewish community is real, is painful, but is hidden. If you are concerned about a friend, or your own relationship (even if you haven’t characterised it as abuse), we can help. Call our anonymous Freephone Helpline 0808 801 0500.

Rabbi Lee Wax is a member of New North London Synagogue and works for Jewish Women’s Aid.

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