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  • Andrew Roland

Parashat Vayishlach 5777: Peace in Abraham’s tent

There is an interesting discussion in the Midrash. When Esav and Yaakov finally meet each other, the Torah tells us that Esav ran to Yaakov, embraced him and kissed him, both brothers crying on each other’s neck. The word in Hebrew for kissed him, vainashkehu, appears in the Torah and in Humashim with a series of dots on top of it. In the Midrash, one of the rabbis, Rabbi Shimon Ben Eleazar, claims that his shows that at least this time, Esav was really moved by the moment and kissed his brother sincerely. Rabbi Yannai, on the contrary, believe that the dots are telling us that he didn’t really intended to kiss Yaakov, but to bite him. A miracle happened and Yaakov’s neck turned into marble and Esav broke his teeth. So they were both crying, Esav for his teeth and Yaakov for his neck. Both rabbis agree that the dotting on the word “kissed” demand an explanation, but they are deeply in disagreement regarding which explanation. We must remember, as we have said in the past, the background to these rabbis’ opinions: the identification of Esav with the Roman Empire, that is occupying their country and subjugating their people. Later on, Romans would become the Catholic Church. Rabbi Shimon stills see the dots are emphasizing the literal meaning of the kiss, a show of genuine affection from Esav towards his brother Yaakov. His Midrash focuses on reconciliation and not on the conflict between them. Rabbi Yannai, on the other hand, approaches with irony and a bias that reflects the despair and anger he feels towards Esav as “spiritual father” of Israel’s enemies. This historical approach explains the demonization of Esav (he is called in the Midrash “that wicked”) and how this midrashic tradition transmitted anti-Christian feelings to Jews that were really living under the rule of anti-Semitic Christians. When we read this Midrash today, I think we tend to reject the radical reading of Rabbi Yannai and to accept the first idea, of Rabbi Shimon, that teaches us about Esav forgiving and making peace with Yaakov. A similar example we can find in the Talmud Rosh Hashanah about Yishmael, when the angels complain to God that he will save Yishmael and Hagar on the desert, as they know that Yishmael’s descendants will be enemies of Israel. God answers that a person is judged only by his current actions and right then Yishmael was an innocent boy. Maybe that’s the tradition that Rabbi Shimon adopts in order to judge Esav favorably. The approach that often our sources have towards Christians and Muslims, even if understandable because of our historical experiences, doesn’t justify to encounter these people today with an approach based on this narrative of fear and hate. The Christians of Egypt and the Muslims of Aleppo have suffered terrible violence and death this past week. Esau’s and Yishmael’s sons and daughters are suffering and we must remember that we are children of Abraham. We must mourn the death and help the helpless. We must join together to destroy terrorism, but in order to do that we must use the tools of education and kindness. Violence, even if necessary sometimes as a last resource, can destroy the terrorists, but only education, respect and kindness will destroy terrorism in the long term. This is probably the biggest challenge of our time. May the hard memories of the far and near past be forgiven, if not forgotten, but may them not be an obstacle to advance to a new era of peace, love and fraternity between all children of Abraham, the biological and spiritual. May we all sit in Abraham’s tents together as brothers and sisters, Hine Ma Tov Uma Naim.

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