Blow Me a Kiss – Parshat Vayishlach 5777


The Bible is a kissing book. Who knew? In fact, kissing in the Bible serves a significant purpose, and it’s not always a romantic one. This week’s parshah, Vayishlach, again shows us interaction between Jacob and his brother Esau. The last time these two were together, Esau didn’t seem too attached to his birthright blessing until it had been given to Jacob, and Jacob didn’t care much about his brother’s right to the blessing until his brother threatened to kill him. Now, twenty years or so later, we find the brothers on a path to meet again. Both are now married and fathers of large clans, and both have large flocks with them.

When the brothers are reunited there is a scene that, on the surface, appears to be a straightforward reconciliation between two estranged brothers. They hug, they kiss, they move on. But anyone who is familiar with sibling relationships knows that this is no ordinary reconciliation. After all, Esau is usually looking out for himself and no one else, and his actions are almost always motivated by hatred. To see him kiss and hug his brother as only a close family member would feels foreign based on previous passages in the Torah.

We often express ourselves more through body language and actions than through words, and a kiss is one of the most intimate forms of expression. But this simple gesture can mean a lot of things. Of course there’s the passion and excitement of a first kiss or the tender kiss from parent to child, but we also use the term metaphorically. “The kiss of death.” “Kiss and tell.”

Shiri loves to give silly kisses. At bedtime we used to go through at least a dozen different silly kisses before she’d finally agree to go to her crib. There was the tiny kiss, the baby kiss, the monster kiss, the pineapple kiss (not even the silliest one, believe me). Each one had some different noise or expression that went with it, and you can bet Shiri would let me know if I did the expression wrong.

Clearly kisses can mean a variety of things, so what did the kiss between Jacob and Esau mean? Was it simply an act of fraternal love, or was it shallow and conciliatory and just for show? Certainly this is one of those Torah portions that asks us to draw our own conclusions. Kisses from mother to daughter, from spouse to spouse, and from sibling to sibling are all very different, even without the baggage that Jacob and Esau brought to their reunion. So perhaps the meaning, like the gesture itself, is to remain between two people and two people alone.

Good luck will rub off when I shake hands with you. Or blow me a kiss, and that’s lucky too. –“Chim Chim Cheree” from Mary Poppins.

Forever Changed – Parshat Vayishlach 5776

Forever Changed

Truly life-changing moments are few and far between.  A specific encounter can touch your heart, or a story on the news can make you think, but very few of these moments reach us so deeply that our lives are never the same again.  The instances that typically alter our lives are the ones you’d expect, like significant lifecycle events or major traumatic experiences.  However, occasionally an event which seems superficially insignificant can lead to an unexpected transformation.    

This is the case in parshat Vayishlach, which we read this week. The portion is filled with what should have been huge, life-changing moments for Jacob. Jacob and his twin Esau reunite and make up after a 20-year estrangement.  Following this, Jacob’s daughter Dinah is involved in a violent incident in Shechem that prompts her brothers to take revenge on her behalf, Rachel dies in childbirth, and Jacob’s father Isaac dies.  All of these significant events likely impact Jacob in one way or another, but it’s before these at the beginning of the parshah when his life is changed completely.

Jacob is preparing to meet his brother after decades apart, and he struggles with an angel in his sleep.  This unique encounter changes him in an instant, both physically and emotionally.  The wrestling knocks his hip out of its socket, and Jacob’s name becomes Yisrael, literally “one who struggles with God.”  

When Jacob and Esau reunite, Jacob is overcome with emotion.  In Chapter 33, verse 10, Jacob proclaims, “Seeing your face is like seeing the face of God.”  The text in Genesis Rabbah, a 5th century commentary on the Torah, suggests that Jacob is talking about his own transformation, not about his brother’s appearance. Jacob is sharing with Esau that he has seen the face of God and is a changed man, not the deceitful brother who tricked his twin. He no longer sees Esau as a rival, but as an equal, deserving of honor and dignity.  Clearly Jacob is a new person.

It’s a cliché to simply say “people can change.” Our parshah reminds us that change is really about having our perspective shifted so that we may see the world differently.  The hope is that we recognize in ourselves not only these significant moments when they happen, but the potential for them to occur at all.

Because I Knew You – Parshat Vayishlach 5775

In the smash Broadway musical “Wicked,” we learn an important Torah lesson from Elphaba and Glinda.  At a touching moment when they realize what they’ve learned from one another, they sing “Because I knew you, I have been changed for good.”  These two characters start out as rivals who  judge each other on first impressions alone.  But as the story progresses, the audience sees their relationship change.

Brothers Jacob and Esau have a history much like Elphaba and Glinda.  They begin their journey at their birth, Esau favored by one parent, Jacob by the other.  Jacob seems to win the favor of his mother easily and goes along with whatever plan she sets forth.  When this plan takes the blessing meant for Esau away from him, Esau turns on Jacob, forcing Jacob to run away.  This week’s parshah, Vayishlach, brings the brothers together again.  The last time these two were together, Esau didn’t care much for his birthright blessing until it had been given to Jacob, and Jacob didn’t care much about his brother’s right to the blessing until his brother threatened to kill him.  Now, 20 years or so later we find the brothers on a path to meet again.  Both are now married and are fathers of large clans, and both have large flocks with them.

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Breaking Up – Parshat Vayishlach 5774

Cartoons have a clever way of symbolizing the two inclinations that each of us has within us.  They place the tiny image of an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other.  Our rabbis refer to this as the yetzer hatov, the inclination to dogood, and the yetzer harah, theinclination to do evil.  These are considered the primary forces that tug on our consciences each time we are faced with a decision.  Of course,there’s a whole spectrum of emotions that influence our decisions.

Weare lifelong decision makers.  Adam andChavah, the first people in Gan Eden,were faced with decisions.  Chavah had asnake pushing her to make a bad choice, and she chose to eat the fruit of thetree.  Abraham, the first monotheist, isfaced with many decisions, from the choice to listen to God and go to a newland, to deciding between his two wives and sons as Sarah, Hagar, Isaac andIshmael can no longer live together. Esau, Jacob’s older brother, also has to choose between doing what isright and what feels good at the time when he sells his birthright.  Each of these biblical figures has been tornbetween right and wrong, between pleasure and pain.

This week, parshat Vayishlach shows us that Jacob is no different.  Jacob ispreparing to see his brother for the first time since he was forced to run awayafter receiving the blessing of the first born. The imagery leading up to this meeting shows us Jacob torn betweenextremes both physically and mentally. And Jacob must choose between listening to his mother, lying to hisfather, and receiving the blessing as an imposter or holding true to what isright, not deceiving his father, and risk being history’s first son todisappoint his mother.  In this week’s parshah, Jacob is again torn between hisphysical needs and the subconscious fight he has with God as his hip socket iswrenched.  Then finally, we see Jacobhaving to divide his family in preparation for meeting his brother.

Afterhis godly encounter, Jacob’s name is changed to Yisrael, “he who wrestles with God.”  This wrestling is different from thedivisions and fighting we have seen prior with Jacob.  In this part of the text, Jacob makesdecisions not based on his own gain or loss, but based on what will betterserve his entire family.  Jacob is nolonger forced to divide himself between doing what his mother asks and doingwhat he feels is right.  Instead, hemakes his decisions based on what will bring him the most completion.  As he moves his family into two separatecamps, he does this not to save one over the other but to protect themboth.

Decision making can often leave us feeling torn, with thegood inclination on one shoulder and the evil intent on the other.  Our parshah teaches us that while it can be difficult to do the right thing, the wrestling that comes with making the decision is what helps keep us balanced and focused on being true to ourselves.