This sermon is based on a Dvar Torah shared with me by my son
The Torah portion begins with the buildup to and eventual meeting between 2 long-estranged brothers—Jacob and Esav. Jacob had stolen father Isaac’s blessing for Esav and Esav sought to kill him. Jacob fled to uncle Laban’s home. 20 years later he returns and sends messengers to Esav with gifts to assuage his rage. They report back that (Gen. 32:7): “We came to your brother, to Esav; moreover, he is heading towards you, and 400 hundred men are with him.”
Rashi interprets what they said as follows: “We came to him as your brother, but he behaves towards you as the wicked Esav!” In other words, you might think that he comes toward you as a brother. But he does not. The 400 men that he has gathered together are a war party, and you are to be the victim. Esav is coming as the old Esav!
But at the moment of their actual meeting, Esav has a complete change of heart. The Torah (Gen. 33:4) tells us: “Esav ran to meet him and hugged him. He fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.” The word for “and he kissed him,” vayishakeyhu, is written in the Torah with a dot above each letter. The Midrash comments: Said Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar, “Whenever there is more text than dots, one expounds on the text. Whenever there are more dots than text, one expounds on the dots. But here, there is an equal number of letters and dots. From this we learn that at that moment Esav’s mercy was aroused, and he kissed Jacob with all his heart.” Rabbi Yannai replied to him, “If that’s the case, then why are there dots at all? Rather, Esav came, not to kiss Jacob, but to bite him.”
It’s not too unusual for dots to appear above words in the Torah. It happens a few times and each time, the rabbis teach us, is an indication that there’s something deeper going on. According to the Midrash: When there are more letters without dots than dotted ones on a word, we are to interpret by combining the letters without dots, but when there are more letters with dots than without, then we are to interpret by combining the letters with dots. In our case, vayishakeyhu has an equal number of letters and dots. We are then left with a choice as to how to interpret, whether at face value or in another way.
Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar says, “It teaches that Esav’s compassion was aroused in that moment, and he kissed him with all his heart.” Rabbi Yanai, on the other hand, questions why there would be any dots at all if the word is to be interpreted at face value according to Rabbi Shimon. Rather, he says, this comes to teach us that Esav did not come to kiss him, but to bite him.
In the simple reading of the Torah text, Esav seems to be a changed person—coming first to bite him, but when in his presence his brotherly love surfaces and he kisses him. He urges Jacob to keep his gifts saying he has plenty. Then Esav insists that the brothers go on together but Jacob finds reason to decline, afraid, the sages teach, of the spiritual effect the wicked ways of Esav will have on his family.
In a stirring commentary, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch agrees with Rabbi Shimon and reflects on Esav as the hunter—the one who knows only the art of war. Hirsch writes: The fact that both brothers wept, illustrates that even a notoriously wicked person can, at times, be overcome by pure human feelings. Kisses can be false, but not tears. One cannot cry unless one is genuinely moved, for tears flow from the innermost feelings. Esav’s kiss, accompanied by tears, proved that he, too, was a descendant of Abraham.
A poignant lesson from this great reunion is that we all have the capacity to change for the better. No matter how far we have fallen, even if we have become wicked like Esav, we are all the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob…of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. The Torah teaches us that we must recognize the capacity for change in the other as well as in ourselves.
Let me suggest that the word vayishakeyhu (he kissed him) is highlighted with dots to emphasize that this moment of change, from cruel-hearted to compassionate, from espousing hate to spreading love, was a big deal. It comes to teach us that if Esav can move on from his wicked ways, than certainly we—armed with the teaching of the Torah and the lessons of our parents—have the capacity to recognize how we are falling short from what we know Hashem really expects of us. We each have the capacity to change right now for the better.
The Talmud tells us that the Roman Empire was descendant from Esav. It was they who persecuted the Jewish people and ultimately destroyed our Holy Temple. The story of Esav demonstrates, however, that even our enemies have the capacity to change, to put down the sword and make peace like Esav. Does this sound like pie in the sky?
It may seem like ancient history, but it was only 41 years ago that Egyptian President Anwar Sadat flew to Tel Aviv and told Israelis what they had waited decades to hear from an Arab leader: “We welcome you into the Middle East, we will put down our weapons.”
At that moment, Sadat—who only 4 years earlier had led Egyptian troops in a surprise attack against the Jewish state on Yom Kippur—transformed himself from a man of war to a man of peace. He—like Esav—found a way to put hatred aside and let bygones be bygones. Although Israel constantly fights wars of terror today, the peace agreement with Egypt has held. Egypt is no longer our enemy because of the bravery of one man to change for the better.
My friends, we all have the capacity to change for the better and we don’t have to wait until Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to do it. We can make a commitment to be a better Jew, a better parent, a better child, a better spouse right now. If Esav could do it, so can we. If a modern sworn enemy of the Jewish people like Sadat can do it, then we can too. And if we make the commitment to change, hopefully Hashem will give to us what Esav gave to Jacob—vayishakeyhu—a kiss of blessing and success from the Holy One Blessed be He. Amen!