How do we know when a peace offering is sincere?
Our Torah portion, Va-yishlach, raises just this question—which is more timely than ever. Jacob and Esau are born into enmity, struggling mightily for supremacy while still in their mother’s womb. Eventually, Jacob and Rebecca connive to steal the blessing that Isaac intends to give Esau, and Esau responds by threatening to murder his deceitful younger brother.
As this week’s portion begins, twenty years have passed since their ugly parting, and the two adversaries are reunited. As Torah describes the encounter, Esau runs toward Jacob, falls on his neck, and, weeping, kisses him. This seems to play like a Hollywood ending. The brothers reconcile and move forward in peace.
Yet our commentators are quick to note that in the Torah text, the Hebrew word for “kiss”—va-yishakayhu—contains dots written over each letter. This is highly unusual. Rashi suggests that these dots may point to the “kiss” being less than sincere. A medieval midrash even goes so far as to propose that instead of kissing Jacob, Esau actually bites him. There is no peaceful resolution; the two remain bitter enemies.
Others interpreters insist that this line is too cynical, and the reconciliation is genuine. As Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin describes the scene: “Jacob approaches tentatively and bows low. Esau, however, runs to meet him and embrace him, falling on Jacob’s neck and kissing him. What genuine and caring actions! After all these years and his own agony and sense of betrayal, Esau has come prepared to embrace his brother Jacob and Jacob’s family.”
Finally, Aviva Zornberg offers a middle ground, which portrays the brothers’ encounter as neither wholly positive nor entirely negative. She notes: “The brothers’ embrace resembles Jacob’s encounter with the angel. It is a combination of hugging in love and grappling in struggle, as each one wants to merge with the other but also to defeat him.”
How do we read this text? Are we optimists or pessimists? Naïve or cynical? Or somewhere in between? This is no theoretical question, for it is also at the root of our understanding of the recent cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. Should we rejoice and see this as an opening for real peace? Should we view it as a cynical ploy by Hamas, with no hope whatsoever to endure? Or should we follow Aviva Zornberg’s view, which would have us recognize the possibility of real reconciliation—but also advise that we keep our guard against an enemy who still wishes to defeat us, given the opportunity?
Count me in that centrist position. I believe that Israel should pursue every possibility of peace, no matter how slim—while also preparing for the kind of war that would crush Hamas militarily before they crush us.
We shall see what the coming weeks and months bring.