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Parashat Vayishlach

Two countries for two nations

At the beginning of this portion, Yaakov Avinu is filled with anxiety over the approaching meeting with his brother Esav after a twenty year separation. He doesn’t know what to expect. He only knows that Esav is coming towards him with four hundred men from his people.

Yaakov's lack of certainty concerning his fate is expressed very well by RaSHI, with his saying that prior to this meeting, "Yaakov prepared himself for three things: for a gift, for prayer and for war" (RaSHI on Bereshit 32, 9). In other words: Yaakov didn’t know what to do – whether to tempt his brother in order to find favor in his eyes and to develop a feeling of “political horizon”, or to prepare for a destructive war, or whether to depend on the grace of The Holy One.

However, from the perspective of this weekly portion’s reader, there isn’t much room for optimism. A person reading the Torah for the first time will immediately feel that there isn’t much room for making peace, rather for revenge and the beginning of waves of violence between the two sides. There is a great probability that in the end, blood will be spilled at the site of the meeting. However, in the end, the two adversaries kiss and embrace in the center of the arena.

Many commentaries have been made on this very same embrace. There are those who say that Esav “nashak” (kissed) his brother with all his heart (RaSHI on Bereshit 33, 4), and there are those who say that Esav “nashach” (bit) him with all his heart. Between “kissed” and “bit” (“nashak”/ “nashach”) there are innumerable commentaries. One of them is the commentary of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (which was cited in Rashi’s commentary on Bereshit 33, 4) which states: "It is a rule that it is common knowledge that Esav hates Yaakov, but, his pity was aroused at that moment and he kissed him wholeheartedly”.

Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai describes this embrace, in my humble opinion, in a rather problematic fashion. He says that Esav’s hate towards his brother was known (it’s a rule, an halacha!!) and only at that moment did his compassion grow for his brother.

This feeling doesn’t change, hints RaSHbI. In RaSHbI’s opinion, Esav was a “serial hater” and that hate was in his DNA code. Only on rare occasions was he able to have compassion for his brother Yaakov. The embrace was genuine, but RaSHbI was convinced that it was almost “a miracle”. It is impossible to rely on a person like that, because it is impossible to rely on a miracle.

At the beginning of our Torah portion, the RaMbaN says “that all what occured to our forefather with his brother Esav will always occure to us with the sons of Esav.” He is basically describing this meeting as a “prototype” of all of the meetings that occurred over the generations between the Jewish people (B’nei Yisrael) and the nations of the world. Meetings in which there were kisses that were also bites, and embraces that were counterfeit; meetings in which the suspicion dominated the setting.

Even if the RaMbaN related to the prototype principally in regard to “the sons of Esav”, I feel that it can also serve as a prototype of the relations between us and the sons of Ishmael.

What do we learn from this meeting between Yaakov and Esav?

The first thing that it teaches us is that even if the kiss was genuine, it didn’t make them friends forever. But the most important point is not in the present story. The important point is that on that occasion, they understood that there was room in the world for both of them. And most importantly: they understood that there is no more important battle than the struggle for co-existence between two entirely different conceptions of the world.

It’s reasonable to assume that Yaakov and Esav continued to live very differently from each other as they did at the time of their births. Even if Esav invited his brother to continue the journey together in saying “... "Travel on and let us go" (Bereshit 33, 12), Yaakov quickly realized that there was no point to it. Yaakov continued along his path to the Land of Canaan, and Esav made his way to Seir. That was perhaps one of the first opportunities in history in which the slogan has made: “Two countries for two nations”.

Weekly Torah Portion

Old Hebrew Prayer Book
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