Sunday, December 14, 2008

Esav's Kiss

When Ya'akov returned to the Land of Israel and saw his brother Esav for the first time in 22 years, Esav hugs and kisses him (Gen. 33:4). About this kiss, Rashi offers two explanations, one of which is (Hebrew, English):

הלכה היא בידוע שעשו שונא ליעקב, אלא שנכמרו רחמיו באותה שעה ונשקו בכל לבו.
It is a rule (halakhah) that it is common knowledge that Eisav hates Yaakov, but, his pity was aroused at that moment and he kissed him wholeheartedly.
Click here to read moreThis is a Rashi that has puzzled people throughout the generations. An "halakhah" is usually a universal rule, and it is strange that such a term should be used about the relationship between two brothers. I was thinking that perhaps the following, which might be obvious to some but was not to me, might be the intent.

There is a debate among historians what the word "halakhah" means. It is certainly an ancient word but nowhere do we find an exact definition (Prof. Saul Lieberman writes about it, "The origin of this word is not definitely established" -- Hellenism in Jewish Palestine, p. 83 n. 3). Some suggest that it means a "portion"; others that it refers to the boundaries of proper behavior. It seems to me that the majority of scholars associate the word with its roots of h-l-kh which means to go or to walk, as in the verse "והזהרתה אתהם את החקים ואת התורת והודעת להם את הדרך ילכו בה ואת המעשה אשר יעשון -- And you shall teach them the statutes and the laws, and show them the way in which they must walk (yelkhu vah) and the work they must do" (Ex. 18:20). Halakhah seems to mean the path, the way to go.

If that is the case, Rashi could be saying that Esav's consistent path was one of hatred to Ya'akov. However, even someone who goes down a path does not act in the same way all the time. The Midrash famously says that someone who is merciful on the cruel will end up being cruel to the merciful. When you show mercy to someone cruel, and he ends up getting a chance to be cruel again to someone else, then your mercy has caused cruelty. It would have been more merciful to act cruel in that one instance. In other words, the path of mercy sometimes requires cruelty. Similarly, the path of love sometimes requires acting in an unloving way, what we call "tough love", and the path of hatred could include sometimes acting in a loving way, perhaps in a calculated, manipulative way.

What Rashi seems to be saying is that Esav normally hated Ya'akov and the hug and kiss could be seen as part of that hatred, as a manipulative gesture to disarm Ya'akov. But, says Rashi, that is not what it was. It was actually a genuine act out of pity or mercy. We could have looked at Esav's act in a cynical way but the truth is that it was genuine.

If even Esav -- who as a rule, as a personal path, hated Ya'akov -- could act in a genuine manner to Ya'akov, then I think it behooves us to tone down our cynicism towards our political enemies and consider whether sometimes they can act genuinely as well.

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