Vayishlach: A Kiss or a Bite?

Topic Details and Replies

    • Tzvi Chulsky 3 months ago

      In the book of Shmot and beyond, the names Yaakov and Israel both refer to the Jewish people rather than a single person, and the concept of מעשה אבות סימן לבנים suggests that we could look at it the same way when reading Breishit. The gemara suggests that Esav, by that view, refers to the Western world[1]. Indeed, reading our parashah in our time, and watching a hurt and limping Yaakov return to his homeland and get Esav’s permission, we cannot help but think of a “limping” Jewish nation in the late 1940s getting permission from the UN to create a government in the homeland to which we were returning.

      In light of this, it is also interesting to watch[2] Esav run to Yaakov, embrace him, fall on his neck and kiss him as they cry together. Rav S.R. Hirsch (d. 1888) writes about this verse as follows:

      The word “ויבכו” (“and they wept”) attests that Esav was overcome by genuine human emotion. A kiss can be an affected gesture; not so tears that flow at such moments…. Tears spring from the depths of the human soul. This kiss and these tears show Esav, too, as a grandson of Avraham.

      Esav must have been more than just a wild hunter. Otherwise, how could he have succeeded in dominating the whole development of mankind? The sword alone, brute force alone, cannot accomplish this.

      Esav, too, will gradually lay down his sword; more and more, he will make room for humaneness. Ya’akov will be the one to provide him with the opportunity of showing to what extent the principle of humaneness has prevailed in his heart. When the strong respects the rights of the strong, this is merely discretion. But when the strong, as Esav here, throws himself on the shoulders of the weak and casts away the sword of aggression—only then does it become clear that justice and humaneness have prevailed in his heart.

      “We shall not quarrel with Hirsch,” writes Nechama Leibowitz, “who didn’t know what we know today about the ‘sword’ turning into holocaust and not love.”

      In another time period altogether, Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar, to whom Esav was the Romans who destroyed the Temple, almost certainly in his lifetime, writes similarly to Rav Hirsch, that “[Esav’s] feelings of compassion are aroused, and he kisses [Yaakov] with all his heart.” Rabbi Yannai, perhaps a century later, disagrees, saying that Esav intends to bite Yaakov, but Yaakov’s neck turns to marble[3]. Yaakov, continues Rabbi Yannai, weeps for his neck, and Esav weeps for his teeth.

      Perhaps in every age, there are two views of the West among the Jews: the view of Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar and Rav Hirsch, that the West will have its compassion aroused, will lay down its sword, and, in us, will find the opportunity to see its own commitment to justice and humaneness; and the view of Nechama Leibowitz and Rabbi Yannai, that we subscribe to the optimistic vision at our peril, and that we must prepare for a bite instead of expecting a kiss, despite the damage to which such preparation may subject us, leading us to cry over our marbled necks. R. Yannai would routinely refuse a Roman escort when he traveled[4], and this appears consistent with his approach.

      Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurcanus, roughly a contemporary of R. Yannai, ascribes the following language to Esav[5]: “I will not kill Yaakov with a bow and arrows, but I will kill him with my mouth and suck his blood.” It seems to us that R. Eliezer is expanding on R. Yannai’s view, saying that the West will ultimately find that physical weapons are not very effective at “sucking the blood” of the Jews—but that mouths are. Perhaps he is claiming that it is precisely through using their mouths that the West seeks to destroy us; that we must “marble our necks” before we face the West.

      It is easy to have a pessimistic view of the West. Watching German Jewry of the 19th and early 20th centuries lean in for the kiss, only to get bitten, was just the latest example. German Jews of the 1910s and 20s routinely exalted Germany as the shining example of the future, where Jews can live like anybody else, and many of these Jews rejected Jewish nationalism outright, claiming that Berlin is their Jerusalem. If we are to follow R. Eliezer’s approach, the mere fact that these Jews had been convinced to give up their Judaism in exchange for Germanness is a consequence of Western “bloodsucking.” This dynamic of leaning in for the kiss and being bitten seems to be a recurring one; it would explain why R. Shimon takes an optimistic view, and a century later, R. Yannai takes a pessimistic one; Rav Hirsch takes an optimistic view, and, a century later, Nechama Leibowitz takes a pessimistic one.

      There is much to be said for the optimistic view, of course. It is not our messianic mission to turn only inward, and to be suspicious of all on the outside. And even after the World Wars, the West often seems indeed to be moving toward peace and freedom. This should be welcomed and encouraged, even as it is treated without naïveté—with a full awareness that governments are tightening the screws on their citizenries and that more destruction may be very close in the future of the West.

      In the meantime, perhaps Pinchas Polonsky’s view is a happy medium: Esav’s plan was to kill Yaakov, but once Esav saw that Yaakov was limping, he did not look like a threat, but like an unfortunate brother who could be pitied. Thus, after the Holocaust, the “international community” compassionately agreed to allow us to have a tiny country in three discontiguous pieces. They feel very differently now that we stand on our own two feet.

      At the beginning of psukei dzimrah, we at one point say two psukim from Tehillim 66: תנו עז לאלקים. על ישראל גאותו ועזו בשחקים: נורא אלקים ממקדשיך. קל ישראל הוא נותן עז ותעצמות לעם. ברוך אלקים—“Render might to God. His majesty is on Israel and his might is in the clouds. You are awesome, God, from your sanctuaries. God of Israel, He gives might and power to the people. Blessed is God.” If we pay attention to these two psukim and remember them, and remind ourselves of them if at any point we think that we depend on the benevolence of the West, this may allow us to deal with the West properly. If we view God as our source of power, there will be no temptation to commit to the West over Israel, and no fear of being abandoned by them. Once we feel secure, we can comfortably draw knowledge from the West and trade with the West without worrying about being influenced.

      The only reason there was any danger from Esav was that Yaakov was weak by comparison. We are no longer weak. And we need not thank Esav for that.

      [1] It actually identifies him with Rome, but the claim at the beginning of Avodah Zarah that Rome will last until mashiach is strong evidence that “Rome” is a reference to the West in general.
      [2] Breishit 33:4
      [3] Breishit Rabbah 78:9. In the Torah, every letter of the Hebrew word for “and he kissed him” is dotted above, and both rabbis are expounding on how those dots may alter the meaning of the word.
      [4] Yalkut Shimoni
      [5] Pirkei dRabbi Eliezer

Viewing 0 reply threads
  • You must be logged in to reply to this topic.

PIP WIX Home Forums Current events Vayishlach: A Kiss or a Bite?

  • You must be logged in to create new topics.

Join the conversation

Sign up