Vayishlach (November 28, 2015)
(1) Looking up, Jacob saw Esau coming, accompanied by four hundred men. He divided the children among Leah, Rachel, and the two maids, (2) putting the maids and their children first, Leah and her children next, and Rachel and Joseph last. (3) He himself went on ahead and bowed low to the ground seven times until he was near his brother. (4) Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept.
Excerpted from The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Edition, editor W. Gunther Plaut (NY: URJ Press, 2005). Used by permission of URJ Press, www.urjbooksandmusic.com.
The first part of their story is one of rivalry, deception and revenge. Even in the womb, Jacob and Esau wrestle, (Genesis 25:22) and their rivalry continues at their birth, when Esau comes out first, followed by Jacob, who is grasping onto Esau’s foot. In fact, Jacob’s name, Yaakov, is a wordplay on the word akev, meaning “heel,” and its related verb, which means “to overreach.” Jacob, from birth, is trying to “overreach” his brother. (Genesis 25:25-26)
As a boy, Jacob dupes his famished brother into exchanging his birthright for a pot of stew. Later, on their father’s deathbed, Jacob tricks his now blind father into believing that he is Esau, so he can receive this blessing Isaac meant for his first-born. Esau, the text tells us, harbors a grudge; and desiring revenge, he vows to kill his brother. When this news is reported to Rebekah, she instructs Jacob to run away to her brother in Haran and to return only once Esau’s anger has subsided.
Vayishlach picks up on this story of these two estranged brothers 20 years later, as Jacob makes his way back to Canaan in hopes of settling his family in the land of his childhood. Jacob, fearing that Esau wishes to fulfill his promise of revenge, sends messengers ahead to scout Esau. Everything that the messengers see indicates that Esau is indeed preparing for retribution.
Jacob splits his camp into two as a precaution and prays to God for protection. His actions seem to intimate that perhaps Jacob regrets his actions. The morning of their anticipated reunion, Jacob sees Esau and 400 men coming toward him and his family. Unexpectedly, Esau yields a hug rather than a sword. The brothers embrace, and Esau “falling on [Jacob’s] neck, he kissed him; and they wept.” (Genesis 33:4)
This outcome is surprising. Tradition depicts Esau, the hunter, as harsh and vengeful. We might anticipate Esau accepting his brother’s apology and gifts but a hug and a kiss?
The Rabbis have the same doubt. The Hebrew vocalized text of “and kissed him” includes pointed dots over each letter of the word
There are a few explanations for why the word is written with these dots:
Rashi explains that the dots suggest skepticism that Esau’s kiss was genuine, that Esau is not capable of such an action.
Rabbi Simeon ben Elazar explains that the dots are meant to convince us that indeed the reconciliation is genuine and that Esau feels compassion in that moment and kisses Jacob with all his heart.
Rabbi Yannai counters this by asking, “Why bother to put any dots on the word if they do not affect the meaning?” He suggests instead that Esau intends to “bite” (nashach) and not “kiss” (hashak) his brother. However, in that moment, God turns Jacob’s neck to marble, and they both weep — not at the joy of their reunion but with Esau in pain and Jacob in fear of future retribution. (Genesis Rabbah 78:12, Midrash Tanhuma Vayishlach 4)
This interpretation shifts the entire reading of the story. After their reunion, Jacob and Esau part ways amicably, realizing that the best option is to live apart and to leave each other in peace. However, if the kiss is not genuine, then we see their reunion not as a peaceful ending but as two people resigned to their fate as enemies.
I want to believe that the kiss is genuine, an expression of compassion and of latent love resurfacing. I want to believe that I, like Esau, can look my enemies in the face and feel compassion toward them. I want to open my eyes and ears wide enough to see expressions of humility and regret and my heart wide enough to accept them. I want to be able to believe that there is a Divine spark in every person, even those who commit the most terrible of atrocities.
But right now my heart is too broken, and my eyes are shut tight to avoid the images of carnage from Paris, Beirut, Kenya and Israel. My ears can hear only cries of mothers and fathers, partners and friends who have lost their loved ones.
And this story of hope — that Jacob can change and become better and that Esau can move from desiring revenge to reconciliation — is difficult to accept. In these moments of incomprehensible violence, it seems more likely that Esau’s kiss is indeed a bite.
But I don’t want to not want to hold hate in my heart. I want to believe that one day I might be able to forgive, and maybe I, like Esau, need time to heal.
Rabbi Menachem Creditor, in response to the November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris, writes:
What does it mean when we say “terror won’t win?” It means that we are commanded … to urge the world one millimeter closer to fairness and justice, and to banish despair from our souls. Most of all, our response to something we experience as an attack on civilization must spur us to deepen our personal and communal commitments to build the world from love faster than anyone can tear it down.
May we find the hope and strength to rebuild our fractured world from love, and may the world we build be one in which we all can embrace rather than fight.
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