11/26/2012 05:08 pm ET Updated Jan 26, 2013

A Kiss of Life or Death?

The opportunity to write a commentary on the Torah portion of Vayishlach is a welcome one for two reasons.

First, the parsha (portion) is replete with important and meaningful events ranging from Jacob's wrestling with the angel to the deeply troubling story of the rape of Dina. It is not difficult to find episodes and motifs in this portion worthy of commentary.

Second, commenting on Vayishlach allows me the opportunity to revisit the teaching of my eldest daughter, Tali Stolzenberg-Myers, who became a bat mitzvah on the Shabbat of Vayishlach nine years ago. I had the privilege to study the portion with her in preparation for her bat mitzvah, and now I have the privilege to follow in her interpretive path.

What caught Tali's attention was the actual physical encounter between the two estranged brothers, Jacob and Esau. The parsha opens with Jacob expressing great anxiety and fear about the imminent prospect of meeting his twin brother 20 years after he and his mother Rebecca had tricked his father Isaac into bestowing the birthright on him rather than on the elder Esau (Genesis 26-27). Jacob assumes that Esau would be filled with anger and a desire for revenge, and that their impending meeting would be violent. To forestall this development, he sends a series of gift-offerings to Esau.

The tension in our story builds as the two brothers, accompanied by hundreds of followers, move toward each other -- and as Jacob spends a famous fitful night wrestling with a "man" (commonly interpreted as an angel). The manner in which Jacob and Esau encounter each other is striking, as we read in Genesis 33:4: "And Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him."

Particularly intriguing to us is the Hebrew word for "kissed him." As the great medieval commentator, Rashi, notes, the highly unusual dots above the Hebrew word in the received text signify not only that it is an important word, but also one about which there is a sharp divergence of opinion.

In fact, that disagreement reflects, as Nehama Leibowitz observes in her Torah commentary, two competing strands of interpretation about the sincerity of Esau in embracing his brother. On one hand, some classical commentators follow the tradition found in Bereshit Rabbah (78:12) that Esau actually intended not to kiss his brother (nashko) but to bite him (noshko) -- at which point Jacob's neck turned to marble.

From this version of the story developed an unbridgeable divide between the two brothers and their descendants. Whereas Jacob is understood to be the source of purity and benevolence, Esau is understood, as the 20th-century Hasidic master Netivot Shalom (Sh. Y. Barazofsky) claims, as the embodiment of the "evil inclination" in humanity.

Arrayed against this view are those commentators who regard Esau's intention in running to meet his brother as well-intentioned. For example, the midrashic text Avot de-Rabi Natan (34) asserts that whereas Esau was usually "motivated by hate," the encounter with his brother was "inspired by love." The 19th-century German rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes of this encounter: "Even Esau gradually relinquishes his sword and begins to feel the chords of human love" (Hirsch Commentary on the Torah, Vayishlach).

How one interprets the meeting between Jacob and Esau, in fact, tells us more than the meaning of a verse from the Torah. The two brothers came to be regarded among the rabbis in diametrically opposed terms: as the prototypes of Judaism, on one hand, and Rome (and later Christianity), on the other. This dichotomy between Jews and Gentiles has real significance. For to read Esau as possessed of an ineradicable evil almost of necessity mandates an attitude of fear, segregation and enmity toward non-Jews, as many well-known interpreters insist.

Conversely, reading Esau as possessed of the capacity for reconciliation permits a more open, generous and tolerant attitude toward non-Jews. One of the most remarkable expressions of this latter sentiment issues from the pen of the great 19th-century Orthodox rabbi the Netsiv, who writes: "Whenever the seed of Esau is prompted by sincere motives to acknowledge and respect the seed of Israel, then we to are moved to acknowledge Esau: for he is our brother" (Ha'emek Davar, Vayishlach).

These differing regimes of interpretation raise urgent questions for us. Is Esau's character unchanging? Might Jacob's descendants have learned from Esau's violent ways and made them their own, as the probing 20th-century thinker Simon Rawidowicz feared? On a more optimistic note, might we contain within us the capacity to move beyond deeply entrenched stereotypes and imagine our erstwhile enemies as human, no less as potential partners for co-existence?

This question is, of course, most apposite not with respect to the historically vexed relationship between Jews and Christians, but rather to the current tensions between Jews and Muslims (and to be sure, Israelis and Palestinians). Whereas there are those who continue to adhere to the model of an irreparable breach between Jacob and Esau -- and thus are incapable of seeing the humanity in the other -- I follow in the path of my daughter Tali, who drew three important lessons from this parsha: first, human beings are capable of transforming themselves; second, it is acceptable and necessary to reach out to people unlike us; and third, just as we must revere our tradition, we must also question.