Parashat Vayishlah

Friday, December 4, 2020 /18 Kislev, 5781
Parashat Vayishlah Genesis 32:4–36:43

Dear Friends,

Is reconciliation possible? This question is at the heart of this week’s Torah portion.

After decades apart, Jacob and Esau prepared to meet for the first time since Jacob stole Esau’s blessing of the firstborn, and Esau vowed revenge. The tension was palpable as the brothers’ camps approached one another. To calm the situation, Jacob sent messengers ahead to inform Esau that Jacob would like to offer him gifts to gain his favor. The messengers returned with alarming news, Esau was approaching with four hundred men. Jacob prepared for battle but hoped for a far more amicable reunion. After a long night of wrestling, tossing and turning, the day had finally arrived. Jacob asked his wives and children to approach Esau and bow down to him. Then Jacob bowed low to the ground before his older brother. Esau greets Jacob, embraces, kisses, and weeps with him. For a book that is anything but sentimental,  this is as emotional as it gets. All of the anxiety, stress, fear, anger, and trepidation fall away into one tear-filled embrace. While Esau and Jacob would never be best friends, it appears that the brothers have found a way to let go of their past.

After all the brothers had been through, we are left awestruck by this relatively peaceful encounter. Even the Rabbis are skeptical about the brothers’ reconciliation, which is evidenced in the Torah itself. We read וַיָּ֨רָץ עֵשָׂ֤ו לִקְרָאתוֹ֙ וַֽיְחַבְּקֵ֔הוּ וַיִּפֹּ֥ל עַל־צַוָּארָ֖ו וַׄיִּׄשָּׁׄקֵ֑ׄהׄוּׄ וַיִּבְכּֽוּ “Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept.” (Genesis 33:4) You might notice a scribal oddity over one of the words in this text. The word vayishakeihoo “to kiss” has six dots—one over each Hebrew letter in the word. Rav Shimon ben Eliezer teaches that these dots represented deep emotion, indicating Esau’s compassion being aroused so that he could kiss his brother with all his heart. Rabbi Yannai, on the other hand, believed that the dots indicated a wordplay. Rather than giving his brother a kiss, (נשיקה) Esau bit (נשיכה) him. (Bereishit Rabbah 78:12) Other Rabbis speculate that the kiss was insincere or meant with malice. They question whether brothers could ever find healing after all that happened between them.

I believe that though the brothers were never destined to become good friends, they did find healing. They approached one another preparing for battle, preparing for a biting encounter. Instead, when they looked into one another’s eyes, they realized that they no longer wished to hold on to their anger and pain. They wanted to embrace. This was only possible because of the experience and wisdom they had gained—for the internal wrestling they had engaged in preparing for this fateful day. This is why Jacob can say what I believe are some of the most beautiful words of the Torah, “For to see your face is to see the face of God.” (Genesis 33:10) After everything, the brothers are able to appreciate that which is sacred in one another. In our divisive world, may we be inspired by their example.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Cassi Kail