This week’s parsha of Vayetze contains much about family relationships and conflict. Jacob, in love with Rachel, is forced by Laban, his uncle, to work the land for seven years to receive her hand in marriage. However, when the time comes for marriage, Jacob is deceived by Laban, who forces him to marry Leah instead. It is only after Jacob agrees to work a further seven years that Laban allows him to marry Rachel, his true love.
This deception by Laban on Jacob is the reason behind the part of the Jewish wedding ceremony called the Bedekin, when the groom visits his bride-to-be just prior to the Chuppah to ensure he is about to marry the correct person before placing the veil across her face. Just after this has taken place, we read the Ketubbah, the marriage contract, in which a husband undertakes to “work for and cherish” his wife. Again the reference to this week’s parsha is clear.
Sadly there remain too many occasions when the veil that is brought down over a woman’s face is one of anger not love, resulting in domestic violence or abuse in all its terrible forms: physical, emotional or psychological.
The International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women – which takes place each year on the 25th November – is an annual reminder that sadly domestic violence still exists in society. It is a shameful act and one which goes against the very premise of our faith which places so much value and importance on the family, the sanctification of the home and on the relationship between husband and wife.
It is a problem one cannot wish away and have a duty and responsibility to do all in our power to tackle. To think that somehow our community is above it all, would be mistaken. That is why I – and our rabbinate as a whole – are so supportive of the work done by Jewish Women’s Aid in this area. The charity provides refuge and resettlement for wives and children who face domestic violence. It runs a confidential helpline staffed by trained volunteers. It offers therapeutic counselling and runs programmes in Jewish schools, educating teenagers about healthy relationships and the dangers when they break down.
In Judaism, the home is a protected, sacred space. That is its beauty. But it brings with it the danger that behaviour that would not be countenanced anywhere else can happen there precisely because of its privacy. Insult, intimidation, the use of force, emotional blackmail and physical violence can happen behind closed doors without anyone else knowing. When it comes to abuse, the home provides the maximum amount of temptation with the maximum amount of opportunity.
That is why Judaism places such emphasis on shalom bayit, peace within the home. It is here that we are tested, here that we learn that love is more than physical passion. Love is respect, consideration, gentleness, the capacity to listen as well as speak, sensitivity, graciousness and the willingness to make sacrifices for one another, as Jacob does for Rachel in this week’s sedra. These are the things that bring the Shekhinah, the Divine Presence, into the home.
Together, as a community, we must not turn a blind eye or deaf ear to the problem of domestic violence. We must not allow someone else to bring a veil of ignorance in front of our faces, covering the realities of the trauma hidden within. We must oppose those who practise it and offer practical support to those who suffer from it. No one should feel the need to suffer alone.