Parashat Vayishlach: a bite or a kiss? a messenger or an apology?

In parashat vayishlach we see the moment where Jacob the trickster, the one focussed only on himself and his own needs and aspirations, is able to change. He is on his journey home, a wealthy and powerful man. However he must first encounter his estranged brother Esau whom he had dispossessed from his birthright and from whose terrible pain and murderous anger he had fled all those years ago.

In preparation for the encounter he sent out messengers in order to both impress Esau with his power and wealth, and in order to try to find out what was likely to be ahead of him. The messengers’ report on their return distressed him – they had met Esau on his way to meet Jacob, accompanied by four hundred men. His response – to try to save what he could of his family and possessions by dividing them into two groups, and then he prayed for help, invoking the merit of his ancestors and the promises God had made to him regarding his descendants. Following this, he began selecting groups of animals that he could send ahead as gifts to Esau, in order to appease him before their meeting. Then he says a particularly curious sentence, given what is about to happen:

וְאַֽחֲרֵי־כֵן֙ אֶרְאֶ֣ה פָנָ֔יו אוּלַ֖י יִשָּׂ֥א פָנָֽי”

And after this, I will see his face, perhaps he will raise my face/accept me”

Having taken his family, divided into two camps, across the ford of Jabok and over the stream, Jacob was left alone, yet in the same sentence that tells us  וַיִּוָּתֵ֥ר יַֽעֲקֹ֖ב לְבַדּ֑וֹ that he had been left behind and was completely and utterly alone, we are also told

     וַיֵּֽאָבֵ֥ק אִישׁ֙ עִמּ֔וֹ עַ֖ד עֲל֥וֹת הַשָּֽׁחַר:

And a man wrestled with him until the morning dawned.

He was alone, but he was not alone. He was in the dark of the night. He was wrestling. His struggles through the dark night of his soul changes him forever. He is in liminal transitional time after which he will be transformed and given a new name – though not so transformed that he would lose his old name forever….

Who is Jacob wrestling? The narrator of the text tells us it is “ish- a man.”

The wrestler himself is more complex telling Jacob that he has struggled with God and with men and has prevailed:

כִּֽי־שָׂרִ֧יתָ עִם־אֱלֹהִ֛ים וְעִם־אֲנָשִׁ֖ים וַתּוּכָֽל:

Later in the text Jacob seems to believe the fight was with God, as he names the place Peniel, the face of God:

וַיִּקְרָ֧א יַֽעֲקֹ֛ב שֵׁ֥ם הַמָּק֖וֹם פְּנִיאֵ֑ל כִּֽי־רָאִ֤יתִי אֱלֹהִים֙ פָּנִ֣ים אֶל־פָּנִ֔ים וַתִּנָּצֵ֖ל נַפְשִֽׁי:

And he continues “for I have seen God face to face and my soul is preserved”

Traditional explanations are that Jacob is fighting an angel, in particular the guardian angel of Esau who is attempting to weaken Jacob before the meeting, or that ‘the’man’ was Jacob himself, struggling with himself and his own feelings and needs, with the two inclinations all humanity possess – the yetzer ha’ra and the yetzer ha’tov, the inclination to be motivated primarily for one’s own self-interest versus the inclination to be motivated for the good of the community and of others, battling it out for charge of his soul.

There is, I think, a clue to this critical and iconic night of struggle in another part of the sidra. When Jacob meets Esau we find that Esau was coming with a welcoming party not a gang of ‘heavies’, and we are told that far from there being a clash between the brothers there is instead from Esau’s side real emotion and warmth at their reconciliation. We are told that he ran to Jacob and embraced him and fell upon his neck and kissed him:

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

But written in the Masoretic text over the words “and he kissed him” וַיִּשָּׁקֵ֑הוּ are dots, and these are understood in the midrash to be there to draw attention to the word and to add to its meaning. Rashi quotes midrash (Sifrei) and comments that the dots are there to show that the kiss, while it seemed whole hearted, was actually insincere. But the weight of rabbinic tradition goes even further. In Midrash Genesis Rabbah (78:9) we are told that R.Yannai plays on the word ‘vayeshakei’hu’ and by changing just one letter in the word while keeping the sound, one can translate it as Esau biting Jacob. From this midrash comes the stream of Rabbinic traducing of the biblical Esau, to develop him into an enemy of the Jewish people, eventually becoming Edom, the code for the Roman oppression.

 

I do not like this interpretation, being in fact a big fan of the biblical Esau who just couldn’t somehow get it right, but who clearly loved his parents and who wanted to be the son they wanted. However, I would suggest that what was good enough for R.Yannai is good enough for us – so let us look at another word that could be available to the midrashic technique of creating a homophone with a meaning that can alter our understanding of what is happening. ‘Vayishlach’, the name of the sidra, comes from the root שָׁלַח ‘to send’

One homophone, a letter different, is the root סָלַח ‘to pardon or to forgive’

When Jacob then is sending out messengers, maybe we could see that he is in the beginning of the process of searching out for forgiveness, something he clearly needs to do as he has achieved so much of the material possessions he has desired but has not yet matched this achievement with the facing of what he did that had brought him to Laban as a young and frightened boy, alone in the world after having betrayed his father and brother, effectively excluded from his father’s house and inheritance.

So what happens if we bring this word play back into the text? When Jacob wrestles with a man while all alone, while he recognises that the man is in some way both God and human, he is indeed wrestling with himself and his own inclinations. But what he is wrestling with is not so much his two natures but his desire for pardon and his desire not to have to ask for it, not to have to climb down from his arrogance and his power and admit his wrong doing. In Jungian terms, Jacob is fighting with his Shadow side, the darker side of his own self, the irrational and instinctive and unknown aspect of his personality where a perceived personal inferiority is recognised as a perceived moral deficiency in someone else.

 

We all know the phrase that ‘sorry seems to be the hardest word’. For some people it is so hard that they will do almost anything not to have to say it. They will pass on the blame to others, project their feelings so that they see the reconciler as the attacker, reconstruct their narratives of the past so that they will appear the blameless ones, or even the victims of others. They will blacken the name of someone else in preference to owning up to their own mistakes. They will put obstacles in the way of meeting and encountering the other, so as not to have to face up to the humanity and reality of the person whom they have wronged. They will see the ‘admission’ of an apology as something that makes them vulnerable, lose power, or lose their status and become in some way the loser. Saying sorry might mean taking some responsibility for a problem, diminish them in some way, give others the right to judge…

 

We see this everywhere, from individual human interactions to workplace politics to the way that nations in conflict will absolve themselves from the problem and blame it all on the other side. The midrash that claims that Esau bites Jacob rather than kisses him is a manifestation of it. So the idea that Jacob is wrestling in order to say ‘selicha: I am sorry, please forgive me’, is a nice counterpoint.

 

It takes him the whole night and he is physically damaged in the encounter, leaving it with a permanent limp to remind him of both the struggle and the outcome. He is also changed – he can become Israel, the one who struggles with God- while sometimes reverting to Jacob, the heel and the trickster. Saying sorry isn’t a one-time thing – we can find it hard to repeat the word, or to say it in the next situation we should be saying it having made another mistake.

 

And yet apologising when we are at fault is the beginning of redemption. It is about recognising the effect of our actions and taking responsibility for them in order to change our selves and out behaviours. It is at the root of the idea of teshuva, of return to God, of return to the right behaviour that we would want and expect from ourselves.

It is the moment we can turn from Jacob to Israel, the moment when we stop focussing on our pride in our possessions and begin focussing with empathy on others and their needs.

 

Saying sorry is the pivotal moment when we change, when we notice our negative impact and begin to heal it. It is a lifetime process, a skill we need to practise again and again, the moment when we stop being obsessed with our own power and status and rightness and look around us with empathy and compassion and try to care more about others than about ourselves.

When Jacob wrestles and the dawn breaks, he realises that his struggle has meant that his soul is preserved, the sun comes up, the dark night of the soul is over. How did he preserve his soul? He learned of the importance of recognising his own responsibility in what he had done, he said ‘selicha’ he made his peace with the part of him that didn’t want to admit to any flaw or vulnerability. He took his place in the world and limped out, damaged by the encounter but also blessed by it, into the future.

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