February 22, 2020

Parashat Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43)

After their grandfather died, a friend and her brother sat with an attorney.

“You never really know the strength of a sibling relationship until you inherit together,” the attorney said.

The same can be true of other “inherited” and challenging situations and relationships — colleagues, bosses, spouses, parents, children and synagogue members.

Sadly, for too many people, the heart-rending families we find in Genesis mirror their own family, work or community life. Perhaps Torah gives us those stories — of parents playing favorites, siblings feuding, in-laws bickering, Israelites disagreeing — that we might recognize ourselves in that mirror and use the reflection to improve our looks.

Change does happen in Torah — not always or in every relationship, but as we go along, people learn, people grow. Cain kills Abel in the first sibling rivalry, but fratricide doesn’t happen again. Isaac and Ishmael part company at a young age, but come together many years later to bury their father Abraham. The next generation brings Jacob and Esau, the next troubled siblings. What hope could there be for these twins when their rivalry begins in utero, and their parental role modeling (“inheritance”) includes favoritism and trickery, even from Jacob’s father-in-law, Laban?

In this week’s Torah portion, after 20 years of separation, Jacob returns to his homeland to meet up with his brother Esau. An uncertain reunion to be sure, considering that two decades earlier, Jacob fled from home with Esau threatening to kill him. But now, after a night of wrestling with a mysterious stranger, Jacob limps across a river to meet Esau. Informed of his brother’s return, Esau comes toward him with 400 men. Will this meeting end in slaughter or reconciliation? We readers do not know. Perhaps neither Jacob nor Esau knew either, until the moment they came face to face:

“And Esau ran to greet Jacob, and embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him, and they wept” (Genesis 33:4). In every Hebrew version of this verse an odd set of dots appears — one over each letter of the word vayishakayhu, “and he kissed him.” It seems to be an ancient version of a yellow highlighter, but without margin notes, who knows what it means! The dots lead some commentators to a word play, noting the Hebrew for “kiss” sounds similar to the Hebrew for “bite.” Do the dots look like teeth marks? Was Esau’s greeting really a bite?

The “Twilight” fans among us might appreciate such an interpretation.

I prefer the view of Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai who saw in the peculiar dots over vayishakayhu not a warning but a glittering message of hope. He suggests the dots alert us to the possibility that, given the right circumstances, an enemy can turn into a friend.

Life tells us all too frequently, and sadly, that we never know when we might be asked to come together to bury a parent or a sibling, a friend … or a former friend. What if we could bury the hatchet before we have to bury the person?

What led Esau and Jacob into the right circumstances to kiss and make up? Twenty years of separation? Perhaps. Each of them becoming independently wealthy? That could help. Was it their life experiences, or did the sight of each other cause a sudden and unexpected upwelling of love?

What is it that gives anyone the “right circumstances” to turn an enemy into a friend? Perhaps these challenging times of terror and war, economic uncertainty, general tension and fear are reason enough. Or perhaps the approach of the season of miracles — the Festival of Lights and the messages of peace that several religions deliver at this time of year. Or perhaps just your own heart. Wouldn’t you rather make peace — make love — than war? What would happen if you said so? What would happen if, like Jacob, you sent gifts to the one you’d angered, and came humbly toward the person with words of peace? What would happen if, like Esau, instead of bringing “soldiers” along, you ran forward alone to greet and embrace the one who “did you wrong”?

“Given the right circumstances, an enemy can turn into a friend,” Rabbi ben Yochai said. Perhaps we should add to our sage’s teaching: Given the right circumstances, and the right attitude, perhaps a rival or a peer, an ex-spouse or a current one, a difficult parent or child or a rivaling sibling can turn into a dearly beloved friend.

Any factions in your “family” in need of giving or receiving an “Esau kiss”?

Lisa Edwards is rabbi of Beth Chayim Chadashim, a Reform synagogue in West Los Angeles, online at bcc-la.org.