Saturday, December 09, 2006

What's in a Kiss?

What is the meaning of a kiss?

It can express love, or intimacy in general, or a quick hello/goodbye, or even be a “kiss of death”.

When Yaakov and Esav are reunited in this week’s parsha, they kiss. Does it mean all is forgiven, after 22 years’ separation? Does it mean a warning? What?

The midrashim give a number of different answers: Let’s look at them in context of the speakers.

1) Rebbi Yehuda Hanassi, in the Midrash Rabbah, says that the kiss was wholehearted. Esav really bore no grudge, he had done well in the interim, he was just happy to see his brother. What were conditions like between Jews and Romans in Rebbi Yehuda’s time? Quite positive. Rebbi Yehuda had correspondence with Caesar Antoninus. So he doesn’t see any great reason to distrust Esav’s kiss.

2) Rebbi’s text in Yalkut Shimoni, a medieval midrash-compilation, adds one word that changes the whole meaning of the passage. The kiss was not wholehearted. Now, in the time the Yalkut was compiled, relations with non-Jews weren’t so good. Note that this negative text is also found in the tannaitic midrash Sifri, so the Yalkut apparently chose the version that most closely matched the reality of his own time.

3) The Sifri adds, after the negative statement above, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s statement that “Is it not known that Esav [taken to include Esav’s descendents, including Rome and the Church] hates Jacob? But in this instance, his mercy was turned around, and the kiss was wholehearted.” Now, Rabbi Shimon is known to have said nasty things about the Romans, on account of which he was on the run from them and had to live in a cave for 13 years. So his predilection was to say that Esav hates Yaakov. However, he recognized that such relations are not exclusive, that things can change around.

4) Rabbi Yannai, in the Yalkut Shimoni, says a funny thing. “Don’t read he kissed him [וישקהו], rather he bit him [וישכהו]. But Yaakov’s neck turned to marble, and he hurt his teeth. So then they yelled, Yaakov in surprise, and Esav in pain.” Now, this is a strange story. But strange stories come to make a moral point. The difference between the words for “kiss” and “bite” is one letter, one fraction of a letter: the caf vs. the quf. A quf is drawn as a caf with an extra little line. The difference between the two is tiny, a hairline, a little line. One can change to the other in the blink of an eye, so we have to be careful, and play our political cards right in dealing with non-Jews.

So while Chazal were not necessarily guided only by the events of their times, clearly their environments played a role in how they interpreted scripture. And just as clearly, we have to be careful how we deal with Esav, with non-Jews, because circumstances can quickly change.

This drasha was delivered by R’ Dr. Moshe Sokol
at the
Yavneh Minyan of Flatbush,
Parashat Vayishlach, 5767 (
Dec. 9, 2006)

* * *

In conjunction with last week’s drasha, on Yitzchak and Avraham’s repeated deceit in dealing with non-Jewish kings like Pharoh and Avimelech, indicating that deceit in dealing with non-Jews is sometimes necessary, e.g. putting on a façade of “one of the guys” at the office, or not wearing a yarmulke on a job interview; and the news that R’ Alan Brill will be teaching a course on “Orthodoxy and Other Religions” at the JCC in Manhattan next term, I wonder – is there something in the air that makes this an issue? My wife suggests that having a devout Protestant in the White House who is pro-Israel, but only because of a private religious agenda, gets our back up, puts us on notice that we have to be careful how we bring our Jewish selves and values to the world.

No comments: