Totally optional poem: gratitude
The challenges of telepresence

This week's portion: the meaning of the kiss

In this week's Torah portion, Vayishlach, Jacob wrestles with the angel and then encounters his brother Esau for the first time since the Incident of the Stolen Blessing. Tomorrow morning I'll be chanting the verses where the brothers meet again -- and as soon as I opened my text to start studying them, I noticed something calligraphically fascinating here: the word denoting the kiss Esau gives to Jacob has six dots over the top.

These are a scribal signpost, meant to let us know that there's something unusual going on here. One traditional interpretation holds that the dots are there to remind us of a classical argument about whether or not Esau's kiss was genuine. (See When dots make all the difference.) In the classical rabbinic imagination, Esau and his descendants are seen in a negative light. Esau represents uncontrollable impulse -- remember, Esau sold his birthright for a bowl of lentil stew. Plus Esau is understood as the progenitor of Amalek, the ancient nation that is read as a stand-in for all enemies of the Jewish community throughout history.

Maybe not surprisingly, I lean toward a more psychological reading of the text. As twins, Esau and Jacob are a literary externalization of the paired impulses inside each of us. Esau represents ego and appetite, while Jacob represents control and restraint. Esau represents foraging for sustenance; Jacob represents farming. Esau represents the wild and the woods; Jacob represents the orderly camp. Esau represents the needs of the body, and Jacob the needs of the mind. For a variety of reasons, we've historically identified with Jacob... but what would happen if we tried to integrate these two sides of ourselves, instead of inevitably privileging one over the other?

When Jacob and Esau meet again, they fall upon each other and embrace. Jacob offers Esau a generous gift of livestock, and at first Esau demurs, saying that he has been fortunate and doesn't need anything. But Jacob says, "No, please -- do me a favor, take this gift, because seeing your face is like seeing the face of God." That's a pretty remarkable statement, especially given that this might be the first time in their lives that the two men have really faced one another. They fought in the womb; they had nothing in common during their childhood and adolescence; and then there was that whole makhloket (dispute) about the birthright, which ended in Jacob sneaking away before Esau could kick his ass.

But I see in this text reason to hope that people are capable of change. This is an I-Thou moment! Jacob's experiences with Laban, his marriages, and his experience of fatherhood have shaped him into someone who's capable of seeing his brother in a new light.

Granted, the change doesn't seem to come naturally to him. Earlier in the portion we read about the extensive preparations he took because he feared that Esau would attack him. Clearly their old baggage has a powerful pull, even on this new mature adult Jacob. But evidently Esau has had some maturing adventures of his own, because when they finally cross paths he pulls Jacob into a tight hug and doesn't want to let go. One way or another, these twins are able -- finally -- to recognize that they can interact in a new way. They don't have to play out the old family dynamics of favoritism and bitterness and angst.

When Jacob learns to see Esau not as his rival but simply as kin, he becomes aware that he's encountering the face of God. How many of the struggles we face could be transformed if we were able to take a step back and become aware of the presence of holiness even in those we've always believed would be out to get us if we let down our guard? If we take both of these twins as our role models for a change, can we turn these six dots into a reminder of how enriched our world can be when we let go of our fears and truly meet?

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