Vayishlach: a kiss or a bite, it is all in the reading of it

וַיָּ֨רָץ עֵשָׂ֤ו לִקְרָאתוֹ֙ וַֽיְחַבְּקֵ֔הוּ וַיִּפֹּ֥ל עַל־צַוָּארָ֖ו [צַוָּארָ֖יו] וַיִּשָּׁקֵ֑הוּ וַיִּבְכּֽוּ:

“And Esau ran to meet him and he embraced him and he fell upon his neck and he kissed him and they wept.”

Francesco_Hayez_061  jacob and esau

In the Torah scroll, the word “vayisha’kei’hu” – “And he kissed him” has a scribal marking – six dots carefully placed over it, drawing our attention and demanding we question the text. But what is the question being asked? Is it that there is an extra word that should not be there? Is the word to be read differently – not “Vayisha’kei’hu    וישקיהו     and he kissed him” ,but “Vayisha’kei’hu    וישכיהו   and he bit him”.   Same sound, but one root letter difference changes everything – from the kiss of reconciliation after years of estrangement, to the betrayal of vulnerability and friendship instead. The midrash plays on this to say that Esau had attempted to bite Jacob’s neck but at the last minute it was turned hard as marble and so his evil intention to destroy his brother was foiled.

Jacob and Esau had struggled even before they were born, causing their mother Rebecca enough pain that she went to enquire of God about what was happening within her body. Each of them was favoured by a different parent, each of them had their own distinct personality: Esau a hunter and a man of the field, Jacob a man who liked to stay at home. If we look at the biblical texts about Esau without the lenses of rabbinic tradition and storytelling, we see a simple uncomplicated man who follows his powerful appetites, his huge physicality determining his behaviour. We see a man who loves his father and is admired by him. We see a man who stays local to his parents, marrying two Canaanite women, and who, when he realises that his parents are not happy with him marrying out of the family, marries the daughter of his uncle Ishmael, mistakenly believing that this is a choice which will please them.

After his brother Jacob had run away from his furious anger having cheated him of their blind father’s covenant blessing, Esau stays near home, becomes wealthy, and settles with his large and prosperous household in Seir. When their father eventually dies Jacob has also come closer to home, having left Shechem and entered Canaan, finally coming home to Hebron. The two brothers buried their father together, the text telling us “and they buried him, Esau and Jacob his sons” (Gen 35:29). It seems as if the reconciliation is complete.

And then we are told (Genesis 36:6)    וַיִּקַּ֣ח עֵשָׂ֡ו אֶת־נָ֠שָׁ֠יו וְאֶת־בָּנָ֣יו וְאֶת־בְּנֹתָיו֘ וְאֶת־כָּל־נַפְשׁ֣וֹת בֵּיתוֹ֒ וְאֶת־מִקְנֵ֣הוּ וְאֶת־כָּל־בְּהֶמְתּ֗וֹ וְאֵת֙ כָּל־קִנְיָנ֔וֹ אֲשֶׁ֥ר רָכַ֖שׁ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ כְּנָ֑עַן וַיֵּ֣לֶךְ אֶל־אֶ֔רֶץ מִפְּנֵ֖י יַֽעֲקֹ֥ב אָחִֽיו

And Esau took his wives and his sons and his daughters, and all the souls of his household, and all his flocks and his beasts and all he had acquired, which he had gathered in the land of Canaan, and he went to a land because of/ away from Jacob his brother. The bible goes on to tell us that the two brothers had too many animals between them to be sustained on the land together, and so Esau went to Mt Seir, the same is Edom. Rather as Abraham and Lot had separated earlier, in order to keep the tensions of their flocks and shepherds down, so here the twin sons of Isaac separate, and the one who leaves walks out of history. But it reads differently than the story between Abraham and his nephew – there is no recorded tension, no struggles between the shepherds, just the realisation that they each need to find their own space for their burgeoning families.

So why is Esau turned into Edom, into the paradigm for the enemy of the Jewish people when he seems to have overcome his ravening appetites, made something of his life, and made his peace with his twin brother sufficient for the two to mourn their father together? Why the need to draw attention to the kiss of reconciliation and by implication to suggest that not everything was as it seemed?

In rabbinic tradition Esau becomes the code name for the oppressor – Rome.

Rabbi Akiva (c50-135) first glosses the ambiguous statement of the blind Isaac at the time of the blessing of the firstborn son (when he says “The voice is the voice of Jacob but the hands are the hands of Esau”) as being a description of the anguished voice of the Jews/Jacob crying out against oppression perpetrated against them by Rome/ the hands of Esau. And in the middle of the second century Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai famously commented that “it is a Halachah/well established tradition that Esau hates Jacob” (Sifre Numbers 69).

It was a fairly clumsy cipher but it did the trick of being able to discuss their oppression and ways to counter it without the oppressors being too easily aware – at least for a time. By the time of Akiva’s student Shimon bar Yochai the Roman oppression was all consuming and he had to go into hiding to survive. No wonder then his belief that the implacable hatred of Rome for the Jews was somehow primal, a Halachah from Sinai, unquestionable and for ever.

But time moves on and we move with it. The power of Rome has long gone and what stays with us is the Biblical text and our obligation to encounter it and understand it in our generation. And in the biblical text Esau is not the figure of evil and hatred that he becomes in later tradition – indeed he is portrayed as running towards his brother to embrace him, they weep together (although this may be relief in the case of Jacob), Esau refuses the gifts Jacob offers to him in tribute. Essentially one might say that Esau has got over his anger. His personality of appetites and passions is sated with his own achievements, wealth and family. For him the fight over the birthright blessing is old news, finished business, dead and gone. The issue now is pragmatic- how do the two wealthy brothers with their large households and flocks and herds live on the land and support their needs? By separating of course, but coming together for the family rite of burial of their father. Esau walks out of history of his own volition, content with what he has.

So isn’t it time to stop the belief that there is a visceral and unquestionable hatred of us by the powers that line up to destroy us, and recognise that for sure there is anti-Semitism in the world, but that is not pre-ordained nor something we are powerless to engage with or combat. It is not primal truth that Esau hates Jacob; that Jacob has to duck and dive to survive. This is a model that has outlived its usefulness, a story that hampers us from proceeding with our lives. We will almost certainly encounter anti-Semitism, just as many of us will encounter other prejudices – against our gender or height or skin colour or sexuality. But this must be faced firmly and responsibly, engaged with, shown for what it is, protested against and other behaviour demanded. If Esau really kissed Jacob on his vulnerable smooth neck, (the part of him so unlike Esau Jacob had queried whether his father would know him by it) and if they had then parted on relatively reasonable terms and been able to come together to bury their father, then maybe we too can create a living peace, one that does not have to be passionate or entangled together, but respectful and honourable. And then maybe we can take those scribal marks off the scroll, and believe that reconciliation really is possible.

image of reconciliation of Jacob and Esau by  Francesco Hayez

Mikketz: the end of the sibling hatred is in sight – maybe

When Joseph meets his brothers again everything is different. He is no longer an arrogant and specially adored child taken up with visions of his own importance much to the annoyance of his older brothers. Now he truly is an important man, second only to the Pharaoh. He is no longer the dreamer – now he is the interpreter of dreams. But one thing seems to remain the same – the relationship between him and his brothers is strained and unhappy.

He recognises his brothers as soon as they come to Egypt to buy food, but he doesn’t reveal himself to them. Instead he behaves in a cruel and unusual way, acting like a stranger to them, and speaking harshly to them, asking, “Where do you come from”.  He must know that they are anxious and unsettled in a strange land where they have come to buy food because of famine at home.  He must know too that their father has suffered greatly in his absence and will be suffering until the rest of his sons are home. He must have known that imprisoning Shimon would cause terrible pain to his family. And that demanding for Benjamin to come to Egypt – and then keeping him – would potentially destroy his father. He must have known, but the knowledge doesn’t seem to affect him.

Why does Joseph behave in this way? Has the passage of time and the huge respect for him in Egypt not changed him? Has he not matured and let go of some of his justifiable anger towards his brothers? Does he actually believe what he will later tell his brothers, that God has arranged for him to be in Egypt and thus ensure the survival of his family?  Is he deliberately humiliating and testing his brothers or is something else going on?

The Berdichever Rebbe Levi Yitzhak suggested that Joseph was actually acting in defence of his brother’s feelings – knowing that it would be a terrible humiliation for his brothers were they to learn that the man towards whom they were making obeisance and bowing with their faces to the ground was their young brother who had once dreamed that they would do precisely this.  Instead of revelling in their defeat and in the reversal of their positions, Joseph chose to keep quiet and appeared to be a stranger so as not to shame them.

While this is an ingenious way of keeping the character of Joseph unblemished and righteous, it is I think a stretch too far for us. But there must be some reason why Joseph keeps his silence, and then goes on to test his siblings, and test them again.  

Assuming that Levi Yitzhak was right, and Joseph was acting from compassion rather than vengeance, it may indeed be that he was protecting his brothers from knowing who was standing before them.  Before they could have any kind of true and credible reconciliation, the brothers would have to understand what they had done all those years ago to Joseph and to repent – even if they thought they could no longer ask forgiveness of him. Had they known that while they were in the presence of this powerful Egyptian, that they were actually standing in the presence of Joseph, any move towards Joseph, any plea for forgiveness would seem to be insincere and made out of fear or a need for the food he could supply. 

Before Joseph could let go of his own anger and pain, he needed to hear that his brothers were repentant of their behaviour towards him and that they understood that their current predicament was some recompense.  His strange behaviour towards them does not have to have been vengeance, but part of the process that could lead them all to forgiveness and reconciliation. Once he could see that the brothers truly atoned for their behaviour, then he too was able to take the next step towards conciliation with them. By seeming to be harsh he was in fact allowing for an opportunity for real understanding and credibility.

We can’t know what was really in his mind, why he had not contacted his family when he became powerful in Egypt, why he dealt with his brothers in the way he did; – but we can see that the process of reconciliation is not easy nor does it require us to ignore the real pain we feel when we have been wronged or when we ourselves have wronged others. 

Vayigash

            The scene in which Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers is emotionally charged and powerfully transmitted to us. Overcome by his feelings in response to Judah’s plea that him that he keep Judah as his slave in the place of Benjamin, Joseph clears the room and, left alone with his brothers, he introduces himself and asks the urgent question:  “Ani Yosef. Ha’od avi chai?”  I am Joseph. Does my father still live?”  Unsurprisingly the brothers are too shocked to respond, so Joseph has to continue and introduce himself in a slightly different way – “Ani Yosef achee’chem – I am Joseph your brother.”  Then he begins to reassure his stricken brothers, pointing out to them how the whole chain of events that has brought them here must be managed by God, from the selling of Joseph in Dotan to the famine which had brought them all to Egypt.  The reconciliation between brothers, a theme that has been avoided since Cain killed Abel at the beginning of Genesis is finally happening, with the stated guilt and repentance on the part of the wrong doers, the punishment exacted by the wronged party, the forgiveness on both sides – and the recognition of God’s part in the problem all along.

            All the way through the Book of Genesis, God has been actively and some may say unhelpfully present in the text, creating situations for people to deal with as best they can, which generally isn’t too edifying for us to read.  Adam and Eve are faced with a forbidden yet deeply tempting fruit tree in their perfect garden- Why?  When they do the inevitable, what happens?  Adam blames Eve, she blames the snake, and they are all forced to move on.  When Abel’s sacrifice is accepted but Cain’s is not – well why not?  We know that there was nothing special about either, but the anger of the rejected Cain led to fratricide within the earliest chapters of the book.  Look where else God meddled – the destruction of Tower of Babel when people were getting on so well together but now were scattered and unable to communicate with each other; Abraham told to bind his beloved son Isaac as an offering for God, and consequently damaging his relationship with Isaac (and God) irreparably.  Jacob and Esau struggling in the womb, predestined to have an unequal relationship.  And yet no one calls God on it, no one confronts God’s role until Joseph does. 

            Joseph, the assimilated Jew.  The man who to all intents and purposes became Egyptian, with an Egyptian name, and Egyptian wife, and Egyptian children.  Joseph, the boy who dreamed his dreams, who showed little of what we might call spirituality in his vanity laden adolescence.   Yet paradoxically it is Joseph who describes himself as one who fears God – et ha’elohim ani yarei (42:18). 

            It is a curious verb – yod resh alef – meaning “to venerate, be in awe or fear”.  Until Joseph’s use of it, it is not used positively, nor is it used about God, – except once in the akedah when God tells Abraham not to kill Isaac, for now he knows he is a Godfearing man (ki yarei elohim ata  Gen 22:12)  But it is already too late in Abraham’s case, for whatever the test was up on that mountain, Abraham had not passed it for he never spoke to his son Isaac or to God again. 

            Only Joseph describes himself as one who is in awe of God, who fears and admires and reverences God.  And only Joseph uses this verb in a positive way – that he will be, to coin a phrase, honest decent and truthful in his dealings with the foreigners whom only he knows to be his brothers.  It is Joseph’s use of the verb to describe himself and the positive essential value which drives him,  which makes him the candidate to effect the sibling reconciliation which has for so long been so elusive in the family story.  Finally there is a person who sees yirat adonai, the fear and awe of God, as a positive statement about themselves and their lives.  It is the characteristic which enables the person to know a little about the Almighty with whom they are dealing, to know a little about how little they know, to avoid the cosiness which can beset such a relationship and also the projections which can blur it.  Yirat adonai is, as the psalmist wrote, “t’horah, omedet la’ad”  – pure, standing forever. (Ps19) – it enables us to be clear eyed in our dealings with God, and to understand a little, and engage a little.  So it is no surprise that towards the end of the Book of Genesis, Joseph is able to see God’s part in the events of his life, and, once his brothers have shown their shame and their unhappiness at what they did, (and Joseph has satisfied his own need to show how his early dreams were indeed correct), that he is able to acknowledge and forgive not only his brothers part in the way his life has turned out, but also God’s part in it too.

            The search for meaning in our lives is something we all do, whether in a religious structure, or in another philosophical framework or setting.  Those of us who use the religious tradition find in it many complex and often mutually incompatible things.  We can be overwhelmed by the richness of interpretations, constrained by our own needs and our own baggage.

 Interestingly, that same psalmist who praised yirat adonai, listed his six stakes of Judaism as being

Torat Adonai (the Teaching of God), Edut Adonai (the Evidence of God), Pikudei Adonai (the Duties of God), Mitzvat Adonai (the Commandments of God), Yirat Adonai (the Fear of  God) and Mishp’tei Adonai (the Judgments of God).  Taken together in the poem they make a bridge that links heaven and earth.  No mention is made of a required belief, or of much that people often say is core to religion-  instead there is teaching and witnessing, doing and considering, acting and fearing – these are what bring people closer to God. 

Joseph, Egyptianised, assimilated, the boy who never tried to contact his home again, is saying in this statement about himself that he never lost his love for his roots, that he was religious in his own way, in the best way – for he was one who could say “et ha elohim ani yarei”.

            The episode where Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and is reconciled with them takes place within one chapter. The beginning of it is bound by the question that Joseph asks his brothers “Ha’od avi chai?” -does my father still live?    The end is  marked by Jacob’s disbelieving statement “Rav, Od Yosef b’ni chai”   It is too much – Joseph my son yet lives.

            The echo is too deliberate, too obvious to miss. The whole episode is a complex and beautiful literary structure, and at its heart is the point where Joseph kissed all his brothers, and wept upon them, after which his brothers were able to talk with him.   It is for this that Jacob still lived, for this that Joseph’s life was spared.  The reconciliation enables us to finally close that first chapter in the moral development of humanity, when it can be shown that even great and terrible hurts can be forgiven and laid to rest.  All it takes is  Yirat Adonai:  not the intimate relationship that Adam and Eve had with God, not the fearful and self serving one that Cain had, nor the argumentative one Abraham had, nor the timid one of Isaac nor the bargaining one of Jacob.  The first important person we have in the text  who didn’t have a vision or a face to face conversation was the first person to make explicit that he could see God’s hand in his life.  Joseph was the first to describe God’s part in his misery as well as his great prosperity.  Joseph was the first to lay responsibility not only on his brothers but also on his God.   Yirat Adonai is the prerequisite to relationship with God, it is the first step towards a brit, a covenant of mutual obligation.  With the possible exception of Moses’ view of the back of God, or his death at the kiss of God, we never again see God quite so intimate nor so cosy as he was with the Patriarchs, but Joseph, the link between the Patriarchs and the Peoplehood, gives us another way to God, the way we have to this day.  To live our lives with a sense of the awe and mystery of God, to relate to God as a Power so large and transcendent who yet relates to us, to make our decisions in the light of that sense of God, that is a way to truly be religious.   Whether we are dati or hiloni, Orthodox, orthoprax, scriptural literalists, innovative halachists or identify with any of the many streams within Jewish practise and identity, however we express our religious sense this sidra reminds us that to have a sense of awe about God, to be y’rei Adonai, is the core of our religion. And from this sense of awe and awareness, everything else can flow.