Parashat Vayishlah- The Bite and the Kiss
Parashat Vayishlah tells the dramatic story of Yaakob Abinu’s reunion with his brother, Esav, from whom he had fled twenty years earlier. Upon hearing that Esav was approaching with an army of four hundred men, Yaakob was very frightened, and prepared for what he feared would be a violent confrontation. When they met, however, the Torah tells that Esav ran over to Yaakob, embraced him, and kissed him (33:4).
The Midrash takes note of the fact that the word “Vayishakehu” (“he kissed him”) is written in the Torah with a series of dots over the letters. These unusual markings, the Midrash explains, allude to the fact that Esav did not initially intend to kiss Yaakob. His plan was actually to bite his brother, as he still despised him. But G-d performed a miracle, and Yaakob’s neck turned to marble, preventing Esav from biting him.
The Rebbe of Bobov asked, if this is the case, then why did Esav kiss Yaakob? How could it be that he despised Yaakob to the extent that he wanted to bite his neck, and then, when he was prevented from doing so, he kissed him, instead?
The Rebbe answered that when Esav saw he could not defeat Yaakob through his bite, he decided to try to defeat Yaakob through his kiss.
Our enemies threaten us in two opposite ways – through their bite, and through their kiss. The first, and more obvious, method is by “biting” us, through persecution. The Inquisition, the pogroms, the concentration camps – these are just a few of many tragic examples of Esav’s “bite,” of the hatred and hostility that we have endured at the hands of enemy nations. However, we are just as vulnerable to the other nations’ “kiss,” to their goodwill and friendship. When the gentile nations invite us to take part in their culture and to become full participants in their societies, we face the grave threat of assimilation, of abandoning our traditions and values in order to be like the non-Jews.
When Yaakob prayed in advance of his feared meeting with Esav, he beseeched G-d to save him “Mi’yad Ahi Mi’yad Esav” – “from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esav” (32:12). The Bet Ha’levi (Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik of Brisk, 1820-1892) famously explained that Yaakob feared both of Esav’s tactics – as an enemy, and as a brother. He begged Hashem to protect him both from Esav’s hostility, as well as from his friendship, which could lure him and his descendants to abandon their faith and assimilate. We need Hashem’s protection from both Esav’s “bite” and Esav’s “kiss.”
Modern Jewish history have shown us the catastrophic consequences of both threats. Not too long ago, Am Yisrael suffered the “bite” of Esav in the form of the destruction of European Jewry. Immediately thereafter, we entered the period of the “kiss,” when we warmly welcomed into American society and given freedom. As grateful as we must be for this opportunity, we must also lament the spiritual destruction that this freedom has caused, with literally millions of Jewish souls having been lost through assimilation.
In Yaakob’s initial message to Esav which he sent as he made his way back to Eretz Yisrael, he told his brother, “Im Laban Garti” – “I have dwelled with Laban.” Rashi, in a famous comment, explains this phrase to mean, “Im Laban Garti Ve’taryag Misvot Shamarti” – “I have dwelled with Laban, and I observed the 613 commandments.” (The word “Garti” has the numerical value of 613.) We might ask, where in these words is there any allusion to Yaakob’s observance of th3 613 Misvot? On what basis did Rashi understand Yaakob’s message to mean that he observed G-d’s commands?
The Rebbe of Bobob explained that the word “Garti” stems from the word “Ger,” which means “stranger,” or “foreigner.” Yaakob was telling Esav that throughout the twenty years he spent with Laban, he lived as a foreigner, he acted differently, he did not become like Laban. He retained his identity, his values and his traditions, without taking on Laban’s culture or values. The only way this is possible, the Rebbe said, is by adhering to all the Misvot, by strictly observing the Torah. When we live in a foreign society and surrounded by a foreign culture, the only way to remain a “Ger,” to retain our unique identity, is through strict, unwavering commitment to Torah and Misvot. In order to withstand the pressures and influences of general society, we need to passionately adhere to our traditions, without compromising our ideals and customs. We must use the unprecedented freedoms we enjoy in the United States to increase our study and observance and Torah, in order to ensure that these freedoms lead to our continued growth and progress, and not, Heaven forbid, the opposite.