Thursday, December 15, 2016

Parsha Vayishlach: Kissing and Making Up

When people wrong us, we have a number of ways we can react: ignore it, be passive-aggressive about it, berate others that have nothing to do with the wronging, or even take revenge on the one who wronged us. One can see how in Torah, Jacob was worried about his brother, Esau, taking revenge. These two biblical figures have fought since they were in the womb. In past Torah portions, we see that not only did Jacob trick Esau in giving up his birthright for some food (Genesis 25:29-34), but Jacob also tricked Isaac in giving Jacob the blessing that was meant for Esau (Genesis 27:34-40). Esau was angry and wanted to kill Jacob (Genesis 27:41), and it was bad enough where Jacob fled and worked for Laban for 14 years. Fast-forward to this week's Torah portion. Esau is in pursuit of Jacob, and has 400 men accompanying him. Jacob is understandably in fear for his life (Genesis 32:8). When Jacob and Esau finally meet after all those years, how do they react? You would think that Esau would have Jacob slain, but no:

וירץ עשב לקראתו ויחבקהו, ויפל על צוארו וישקהו ויבכו.
Esau ran to meet him and embraced him. Esau fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept. -Genesis 33:4

What in the world happened? Here I thought that Esau was out for blood. In the Masoteric text [in the Torah scroll], there are dots over the phrase "and they kissed" (וישקהו), and some rabbinic commentary tries to figure out what those dots mean. Some do not want to attribute Esau with any positive motives: the Midrash says that Esau tried to bite Jacob's neck, but Jacob's neck turned into marble shortly beforehand (Genesis Rabbah 78:9). However, given what transpires, I am willing to give Esau at least some of the benefit of a doubt, even if Esau has done some less-than-reputable actions. Right before Esau gives Jacob a kiss, Jacob prostrates in front of Esau seven times. Rashi thinks that the prostration took Esau so aback that he felt the need to embrace him. By prostrating seven times, Jacob performed the exact reverse blessing that Isaac gave Jacob, the one that said "Be master over your brothers, and let your mother's sons bow to you (Genesis 27:29)." Esau could have taken that as a repudiation of the blessing Isaac gave Jacob all those years ago. 

Right after Esau gives Jacob the kiss, they weep. Given how men traditionally remain emotionally guarded, the fact that Esau let his guard down and wept says a lot in terms of how the men were genuinely moved (R. Hirsch, Genesis 33:4). After crying, Jacob gave his tribute. By giving the immense tribute, Jacob was showing the superiority of Esau (Ramban, Genesis 33:8). When Esau said to Jacob "Let what you have remain yours," he was acquiescing Jacob's right to Isaac's blessing (Rashi, Commentary on Genesis 33:9). Jacob then says (Genesis 33:10) that seeing Esau's face is like seeing the face of G-d because of the favor Esau bestowed. We don't see Esau asking for compensation. He doesn't even ask for an apology. The kiss is the signal of the resolution of another kiss, the deceitful kiss that started this whole feud (JPS Commentary on Genesis 33:4).

Was this scene in Genesis 33 truly a resolution? It's hard to say. On the one hand, it could have been a political ploy. On the other hand, Esau was holding all the cards, so it's difficult to say that Jacob had anything to use as leverage. Perhaps this scene was a reminder that Esau is still a descendant of Isaac and Jacob. After all, Jacob and Esau at least able to come together to bury their father later (Genesis 35:28-29). But wait, what about the fact that the Edomites have military conflict with the Israelites later? It might be a new conflict regarding power and resources, but it could also be a continued strain dating all the way back to Jacob and Esau. If that's the case, it says a lot about the importance of forgiveness. The brothers' embrace is a parallel of Jacob's encounter with the angel, which represents both the love and ability to grapple with the struggle of the situation (Dr. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg). 

How we react when someone wrongs us is a sign of one's character, and that is seen in this week's Torah portion. But we also see the importance of addressing wrongdoings. In the Talmud, R. Eliezer (Shabbat 153a) says that we should repent one day before we die. Since we do not know when we die, R. Eliezer concludes that it is all the more reason that we should repent today. Jacob and Esau waited way too long to bury the hatchet in any meaningful sense, and even whatever that were able to set aside didn't completely remove the tension. We find ourselves with a biblical verse showing us what not to do. We shouldn't let problems or wrongdoings fester. We should be proactive enough to make sure we can have as clean of a slate as possible. I know that each strained relationship has its own unique circumstances, but it's better to have some resolution than to carry it inside. We can take at least one lesson from Jacob and Esau: it's better to "kiss and make up" sooner rather than later, but at the same time, better late than never. 

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