Friday, November 23, 2018 /15 Kislev, 5779
Parashat Vayishlah Genesis 32:4-36:43
Can a person change? Can one who previously was hateful, violent and bitter, change one’s ways and become loving, embracing and worthy? (Or, vice versa, though I am choosing not to ponder that trajectory in this week’s D’var Torah.) Do people change? Can time, or epochal, transformative experiences truly shift a person?
There are those who argue, NO – we are set in who we are, and there is abundant evidence to support this. Contrariwise, there are those who assert the opposite, YES, and equally have abundant evidence to support their position. And, this week, a similar plot-line courses through our Torah portion, and the results are equally irresolute.
This week, we read of the meeting of the estranged twins, Jacob and Esau. Ever since Jacob had wrested the familial birthright from his elder brother, enmity to the verge of violence had prevailed between the two. Now, after a twenty-year absence, Jacob is returning to his homeland, and he learns that Esau stands before him with a hefty force of men. Preparing for the worst, Jacob awaits the encounter. Esau, however, comes running, embraces his brother, weeps and kisses him. Interestingly, in the Torah there are six dots poised above each of the six letters in the word, va’yishakeihu, “he kissed him.” What is the meaning of the diacritical dots? We don’t really know, yet some commentators suggest that the dots come to indicate equivocation and insincerity in Esau – that the embrace was phony. Did Esau really change from being a hateful brother to be a loving one, or not?
Samson Raphael Hirsch, the 19th century sage of modern Orthodoxy, wrote, “When the strong, i.e. Esau falls on the neck of the weak, of Jacob, and casts his sword away, then we know that humanity and justice have prevailed.” And, as always, there are opposing viewpoints, such as that of the Midrash Tanhuma which states that Esau did not fall on Jacob’s neck to kiss him, but to bite him.
Friends, I find the view of Hirsch more realistic and appealing than that of the Midrash. It squares with the text, and with my own need to live in a world of optimism and reconciliation, even in times of darkness, which we seem to be experiencing. Had Esau changed? We can never know the truth.
All we can do is choose what kind of world we wish to live in, and then strive to make that our world. I choose a world of hope, possibility, reconciliation and human potential. Living in the opposite is just too severe.
Rabbi Doug Kohn