The Torah in Parashat Vayishlach tells of Yaakov’s preparations for his feared encounter with his brother, Esav, and we read that he made his way towards Esav with his wives and “his eleven children” (32:23). Rashi, noting that Yaakov at this time had twelve children, cites a famous and startling comment of the Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 76:9) that this figure excludes Yaakov’s daughter, Dina, who was kept hidden in a chest. Yaakov feared that Esav would be attracted to Dina, and so he kept her hidden such that Esav would not see her. Surprisingly, the Midrash adds that Yaakov was punished for preventing the possibility of Dina’s marriage to Esav, as she might have positively influenced him, and because of this mistake Dina was later abducted and defiled by Shekhem.
Many writers struggled to explain the Midrash’s comment, to understand how Yaakov could lock his daughter in a chest, and why he was punished for not anticipating her positive influence upon an evil, violent man such as Esav. We might perhaps avoid these questions by interpreting the Midrash’s remarks as an allegorical illustration of a mistake that many of us make. Possibly, in speaking of the potential positive influence that Dina could have exerted upon Esav, the Midrash refers to the potential within each and every one of us to have an impact and make a difference in the lives of the people around us, and, less directly, in the world generally. We all have a “Dina” within us, a set of skills, character traits and assets that can be used to spread goodness, and to neutralize, if only to some slight extent, the evil of “Esav” that abounds in the world. Often, however, due either to laziness, apathy or cynical despair, we keep this potential “locked” within us. We are uninterested or afraid to get involved, and so we keep our talents and capabilities cloistered in a “chest,” denying the world the potential benefits they have to offer.
The Midrash here warns that if we withhold our capabilities from the world, then we unwittingly allow evil the opportunity to spread. If we fail to use the “Dina” within us to spread goodness, it runs the risk of being overrun and defeated by “Shekhem,” by the forces of evil that we are to struggle against. Chazal here teach us of the importance of utilizing all our potential for this struggle, to resist evil through goodness, to positively influence the world to the best of our capability, lest we lose ground to the negative elements that we are here to suppress and, hopefully, overcome.