THE BLOG
11/29/2014 12:57 pm ET Updated Jan 29, 2015

Is Reconciliation Between Brothers Possible, Then and Now?

The book of Genesis is replete with sibling rivalry -- Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, all struggle with each other in different ways.

Cain murders Abel in the first murder in Biblical history and the text challenges us with classic questions that ought to disturb us to this day: "Am I my brother's keeper?" Cain asks. And God responds: "Your brother's blood cries out to me from the ground!"(Genesis 49-10).

Isaac and Ishmael don't exactly get along either. In the text of the Hebrew Bible, the Isaac story dominates, and the Ishmael story fades out. In the end, hey both go their separate ways.

The same is true about Jacob and Esau. They struggle with each other even in the womb of their mother! They quarrel over the birthright. Jacob tricks Esau. Esau gets angry. Jacob runs away to Haran for a long time.

And then, in the Torah portion which Jews around the world will ready in our synagogues on this coming Shabbat, known as Va'Yishlach, (Genesis chapters 32 to 36:43), we find the fascinating story of momentary reconciliation between brothers. At the beginning of chapter 33, Jacob sees Esau coming, accompanied by 400 men! So he is naturally afraid. He divides the children among his wives, Leah and Rachel, and prepares for the worst. Yet, he goes to greet Esau and bows 7 times, out of fear or out of respect, we don't quite know. And then, all of a sudden, we are surprised by the big moment of the encounter between them.

Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him, and falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept.

In the Torah scroll, from which we read in our synagogues, the word for "he kissed him" is marked with four asterisks on the parchment. This, of course, has led classical commentators to offer various interpretations of this puzzling text.

Was Esau's kiss genuine? Did he mean it? Was his purpose in coming to meet his estranged brother to repair their relationship after so many years? These are the questions that disturb our commentators as well as us today.

According to the greatest Jewish medieval commentator, Rashi:

There is a difference of opinion in this matter. Some interpret the asterisks to mean that he (Esau) did not kiss him wholeheartedly. (But there is another opinion). Rabbi Shimon Ben Yohai said: It is well known that Esau hated Jacob; however, his compassion was moved at the moment and he kisses him wholeheartedly.

Another classic commentary, Bereshit Rabbah (a classical rabbinical commentary on the book of Genesis), agrees that Esau's motives were not pure and does so by using a pun on the Hebrew word "to kiss". Instead of coming to kiss him, the Midrash argues, Esau came to bite him, since this man Esau is essentially an evil person, and therefore he certainly cannot be trusted.

But another famous midrash, Avot D' Rabbi Natan, takes issue with the interpretation of Bereshit Rabbah and says: "Everything Esau ever did was motivated by hatred, except for this one occasion which was motivated by love."

Were the embrace and the kiss genuine? Was this a real moment of brotherly reconciliation? Could it have led to a totally new relationship between the two estranged brothers?

Had the brothers changed?

Earlier in the Torah story, Jacob had struggled with God and become "Israel"? So, in this encounter, is he the old Jacob the trickster? Or Israel, the person who is genuinely prepared to struggle and live with God and his fellow human beings? And has Esau also gone through a transformation?

According to the great 19th century German rabbi, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, considered by many as the founder of Modern Orthodoxy, who authored his own fascinating commentary to the Torah:

This kiss and these tears show us that Esau was also a descendant of Abraham. In Esau, there must have been something more than just the wild hunter. But Esau, also, gradually lays the sword aside, turns gradually more and more towards humaneness, and not just Jacob on whom Esau has most opportunity to show that and how the principle of humaneness begins to affect him.

I find this to be a very helpful interpretation.

It seems that both Esau and Jacob have to change to make reconciliation possible. The same can probably be said for the current interlocutors in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or in any conflict with estranged brothers or peoples.

Then and Now

Contemporary readers of the Biblical story can only wonder: Was reconciliation between Jacob and Esau only momentary? Could it have worked for the long haul?

In our contemporary situation, who is Jacob? And who is Esau? Who is the strong? And who is the weak? Or maybe we are both strong and weak at the same time?

In the Biblical story, they go their separate ways. So at least the war between them ended. No more fighting. You live here and I'll live there. Separation becomes the operational modality. Not Peace. Just an armistice.

Some people today might call this "coexistence". Each group lives separately. As long as you don't shoot missiles at us, you can live over there in Gaza, or in Lebanon, or wherever. We can live our separate lives.

Or within Israel, the Arab minority and the Jewish majority live generally separately. Integration is not the model. Love and mutual understanding are really not needed for mere "Coexistence". This is not an exciting solution, but it is better than killing one another.

Nevertheless, in our contemporary context, we have witnessed some remarkable processes of reconciliation!

The most important one is the great reconciliation between the Jewish People and the Catholic Church. (According to rabbinic thinking, the people of Israel are seen as formerly Jacob and the Christian world is represented by Esau, who becomes Edom.) This is one of the great reconciliations in human history. The religious leaders of Christianity and Judaism actually embraced and kissed at Vatican II in the 1960's and since that time have been in genuine dialogue in a spirit of trust and mutual respect.

The second great act of reconciliation in our time was the visit of Sadat to Jerusalem, his speech in the Knesset, and his initiative to establish peace with Israel. This peace, even if it is very cold, has lasted for all these years.

The third act of reconciliation was perhaps the handshake (not an embrace or a kiss!!) between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin, at the famous signing of the Oslo Accords on the White House lawn, on September 13, 1993. The intentions were honorable, but the reconciliation process has faded from sight, diminished greatly, and almost disappeared. Nevertheless, I believe that we must still hope that reconciliation between Israel and Palestine will still be possible in the not too distant future.

And last, will the followers of Judaism and Islam--the children of Isaac and Ishmael--be able to reconcile with each other in our time? The leaders of Islam will have to go through their own process of reformation (as the Catholic Church and other Christian Churches have done). But the religious leaders of Judaism will have to engage in this also, by working incessantly to reach out to moderate Muslims, who do exist, to engage in this process together. Some first steps have been made in this direction--I personally have been involved in some of them--but much more effort will be needed to pull off a serious reconciliation process by Jews and Muslims in the years and decades ahead.

So is reconciliation possible between brothers or peoples who have been in conflict for a long time? The answer is yes, but it requires maturity, wisdom and courage.