Running, Embracing, Kissing and Weeping

Parshat VaYishlach definitely would make a great Hollywood movie. Two brothers, long estranged from one another, have a fateful encounter. The younger brother has been a refugee, running from his elder brother on pain of death. The older brother has amassed an army of 400 men in pursuit of his younger brother. When the younger finds out that the older is approaching, he presumes it is doomsday, dividing his family into two camps, reasoning that if one perishes, the other will survive. When the older brother arrives, the younger bows before him seven times and the older runs towards him, embraces him, falls on his neck and kisses him and they weep. The younger gives the older a gift and each goes on their merry way.

This portion provides a crucial lesson in relationships. Each of us has people we love, to whom we are close. At times things go awry and we become estranged from those to whom we are closest. This week’s reading teaches us that we are never too far removed from those around us, that there is always the possibility to “kiss and make up.”

There are dots above the word וישקהו, and every time there are dots above a word it suggests a homiletical teaching. Bereshit Rabbah provides two interpretations of the dots. Rabbi Yanai said that instead of falling on Jacob’s neck to kiss him (לנשקו) Esau really fell on Jacob’s neck to bite him (לנשכו). At that point G-d performed a miracle, making Jacob’s neck marble. Therefore both cried: Jacob on account of his neck and Esau on account of his teeth biting into marble.[1]  Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar, on the other hand, opined that Esau’s mercy came out at that moment and he kissed Jacob with all his heart.[2] Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai held the same view, asserting that while Esau hated Jacob, his hatred turned into pity (perhaps from Jacobs’s supplication towards him) and he kissed him wholeheartedly.[3]

The interpretation by both Rabbis Shimon, that Esau was genuine in his affection towards Jacob, resonates with me. Shimon (שמעון) means to hear, and both of these rabbis are listening carefully to the text’s message. It is asserting that in spite of past difficulties and real hatred that has developed from conflicts and from “the messiness of life,” there is always hope for reconciliation. We are never too far removed from the others in our lives to be able to return to them wholeheartedly, to have our merciful side dominate as opposed to our scornful one. If this was not the true pshat, if Esau was disingenuous in his reconciliation, then why would he twice offer for Jacob to accompany him for the family to be reunited, as well as to volunteer to leave some of his strong men behind to accompany Jacob? Jacob is the one who declines to join Esau, not the other way around.

In life, each of us faces estrangement and great difficulties with others. Conflict and controversy is not something to which we are immune. We often want different things out of life than our partners or an encounter quickly gets out of hand and devolves into a “shouting match.” The lesson to learn is not to avoid conflict, for it is woven into the fabric of our daily interactions. Rather, it is to recognize how to most effectively respond to difficulties with loved ones. As we’ve read about for the past three weeks, Jacob and Esau have learned this lesson the hard way. Jacob, whose story is told in greater detail, had to undergo numerous trials and tribulations, in which he greatly suffered. At the end of the day, however, it made him into a better, stronger person.

Why teach this lesson today, at an aufruf, a celebration of great joy between two people who have found their life partner? This lesson is not for this moment, a time of joy and bliss, but is meant to keep in the back of your minds for when life throws you curveballs. Whenever I counsel a couple, I tell them that from my experience, “getting married is easy; being married is harder.” As a team, the two of you will have many opportunities to celebrate, as you will in two weeks, but also over time there will be challenges. My blessing for you is to have the perseverance, inner strength and fortitude of our ancestor Jacob, believing that the two of you working together can conquer any challenge in your midst. That is what faith is all about: believing above all else that you are meant for one another and that together you will succeed in building a great household in Israel and making everyone proud of your accomplishments.

Mazal Tov Jason and Marissa on reaching this joyous day! Let us celebrate together by turning to Page 838 and read responsively.

[1] Bereshit Rabbah 78

[2] Ibid.

[3] Rashi on Genesis 33:4 ד”ה וישקהו. Based off Midrash Sifra Parshat Behaalotecha 89.

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