Posted on December 4, 2020 by Rabbi Arnold S. Gluck
This week’s Torah portion, VaYishlach, contains one of the most touching moments in the entire Hebrew Bible. After years of estrangement and bitter conflict Jacob and Esau meet and make peace.
As they approach one another, we read that “Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept.” (Genesis 33:4)
This moving encounter – this reconciliation between brothers – was not a given. Twice the parashah tells us that Esau was coming toward Jacob with 400 men, apparently bent on revenge. Jacob, we are told, feared for his life and assumed a defensive posture. He separated his family into two camps, so that if Esau attacked one group, the other might escape. Jacob himself crosses the river Yabok and braces for a fight – a fight that doesn’t happen.
Something has changed. Hearts have softened. The Divine spirit has touched the brothers, and they are able to put their differences behind them.
And yet, not every reader of Torah sees this happy and hopeful ending. They note that the Hebrew word for “he kissed him,” “va-yi-sha-kei-hu,” is highlighted in the text by a series of dots above the letters. This, they say, is a sign of a scribal error. The koof, they say, should be read as a kaf. With this change, the word still sounds the same, but its meaning has changed completely. It now means that Esau fell upon Jacob’s neck and bit him!
He bit him? Why? Why would these commentators choose to read the text this way? Why would they force this negative interpretation on what seems to be such a beautiful and tender moment?
For these readers, Jacob represents the Jewish people – he is Israel – and Esau represents our enemies. In their eyes, Jacob is the perpetual victim and Esau is the unceasing aggressor. Jacob can do no wrong and Esau can do nothing right. Israel and its enemies are doomed to eternal conflict.
For the rabbis, Esau first came to represent Rome. Later he became identified as Christendom, and still later as Islam. Rome is now long gone. That empire is a distant memory. But is it true that Jews and Christians are fated to be eternal rivals? And are we to believe that Judaism and Islam, as well, are irreconcilable? Some think so. I do not.
In fact, the Church and Synagogue achieved historic rapprochement decades ago. And just recently, we heard Saudi clerics renounce Muslim hostility toward Jews and Judaism. Nor is this the first time such sentiments have been expressed by Muslim leaders. We have heard such words spoken in our very own synagogue from the mouth of more than one imam.
To me, and to most Torah commentators, the dots above the word “va-yi-sha-kei-hu”do not indicate a scribal error. They are the Torah’s equivalent of an exclamation point. They cry out: Look! See what is possible. See how even age-old hatreds can be overcome. See and take heart! See and open your heart! Open your heart to your neighbor who looks different than you.
Open your heart to those who pray differently than you. Open your heart to your neighbor who voted differently than you. Open your heart and see that we are all sisters and brothers, all children of the one God who wants us to love and embrace one another and to live in peace.
V’chein y’hi ratzon! May this be our blessing!
Rabbi Arnie Gluck