The Torah in Parashat Vayishlach tells the unsettling story of Dina’s abduction at the hands of Shekhem, the prince of the city bearing the same name. After Shekhem abducted and raped Dina, he desired to marry her, and sent his father, Chamor, to Yaakov in order to arrange the marriage. At the meeting, Dina’s brothers schemed to convince the townspeople of Shekhem to undergo circumcision, and as the men of the city were recovering from the painful procedure, two brothers – Shimon and Levi – launched a deadly assault on the city. They killed the men, rescued Dina, and looted the city’s property. Yaakov strongly condemned Shimon and Levi for their violent response to their sister’s defilement.
The Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 80:70 cites a startling comment in the name of Reish Lakish, comparing Shekhem’s feelings for Dina to God’s special love for Am Yisrael. Reish Lakish noted that the Torah describes Shekhem’s desire to marry Dina with three different verbs: d.b.k. (“va-tidbak nafsho” – 34:3), ch.sh.k. (“chasheka nafsho” – 34:8), and ch.f.tz. (“chafeitz be-vat Yaakov” – 34:19). All these verbs, Reish Lakish observed, are also used in reference to the special bond between God and Am Yisrael: “ve-atem ha-deveikim b-Hashem Elokeikhem” (Devarim 4:4), “chashak Hashem bakhem” (Devarim 7:7), “tiheyu atem eretz cheifetz” (Malakhi 3:12). The three verbs used to describe God’s love for His people, Reish Lakish taught, are learned “from the section of this wicked person” – meaning, from the story of Shekhem.
What connection could there possibly be between the unique bond between God and the Jewish People, and Shekhem’s lust for an innocent girl, whom he violently abducted and defiled?
Rav Zev Wolf Einhorn of Grodno (the “Maharzu”), in his commentary to Midrash Rabba, offers a surprising explanation, asserting that according to Reish Lakish, Shekhem’s feelings for Dina evolved from sheer lust to genuine respect and admiration. Rav Einhorn writes: “At first, it says only, ‘He saw her…and took her’ (34:2)… But then afterward, when he understood who she was and whose daughter she was, the desire ignited within him to attach himself to her not only out of physical desire…but because he sensed in Yaakov the notion of ‘attachment’ [to God].” According to Rav Einhorn – difficult as it might be to imagine – although Shekhem was initially attracted to Dina solely by sexual desire, thereafter he was drawn to her because of her piety and that of her saintly father. Shekhem had committed a grievous, violent, criminal act, but a spiritual spark of sorts was ignited within him as a result of his exposure to Dina’s righteous character.
Rav Henoch Leibowitz (Chiddushei Ha-leiv) points to this passage in the Maharzu’s commentary as a striking example of our tradition’s belief in the capacity of all people to improve their characters. We recognize the innate goodness within every human being, and trust that even the lowliest evildoers have a spark of nobility within them that can be kindled and which can lead them to change and improve.
As many have noted, this might also be the meaning of the Midrash’s famous comment earlier (cited by Rashi to 32:23) that Yaakov was punished for hiding Dina from Eisav out of fear that Eisav would want to marry her. The Midrash writes that Yaakov should have allowed this to happen, as it was possible that Dina’s character could have inspired positive change in Eisav’s conduct. One approach to explain this remark is that the Midrash seeks to note that everybody, including somebody as evil as Eisav, is capable of positive change. We should never assume that people who have acted wrongly in the past will continue doing so in the future, and we must instead recognize every person’s capacity for change and encourage all those around us to unlock their hidden potential.