In Vayishlach, we encounter the climactic moment when Jacob and Esau meet after 20 years of separation. Esau runs to greet his younger brother. “He embraced him and falling on his neck, he kissed him, and they wept.” Rabbinic midrash insists upon the insincerity of Esau’s kiss. The words of the Torah in their context offer no reason to doubt Esau’s intentions, yet the rabbis hold that Esau’s hatred for Jacob can never be repaired. For the rabbis just after the destruction of Jerusalem, Esau is transformed into Israel’s enemy – Rome. The exegesis is useful to that generation because it gives expression to their deepest angst: the tyranny of Rome.
According to Dr. Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, “As a sacred text, the Torah could bear an infinity of interpretations. Each generation plumbed the Torah for the answers to its own plight.”
What then can we suggest about the intention of Esau’s kiss for our own time? Our country is polarized as never before– we live in partisan, ideological echo chambers. We disagree on values, policy, world outlook and decorum, and we increasingly know nothing about the other side. Like Jacob and Esau in 20 years of separation and silence, we grow farther and farther apart. We have forgotten how to talk to each other.
When people tell me that they cannot sit at the Shabbat table with old friends or that they stayed away from Thanksgiving family gatherings out of fear of political talk or disdain for others’ opinions, I feel dismay. What if we ran toward these old friends and relatives rather than backing away? Can we not fall upon the neck of those we know intimately but disagree with powerfully? What if Esau’s kiss was just that – a kiss of recognition and shared history?
We have forgotten how to listen to the other side. It is not easy to do so. But there is no other place to begin than with those we know. Can we listen, disagree, but not hate? Esau’s kiss might be just the starting place we need.