Ron Kronish

Reconciliation in the Torah and in our time

Rubens, Reconciliation of Jacob and Esau, wikicommons
Rubens, Reconciliation of Jacob and Esau, wikicommons

The violence which we are witnessing between the Israel Defense Forces and the militias of Hamas in recent weeks is not new to the land of the Bible. The book of Genesis is full of such violent stories. On the other hand, stories about reconciliation are rare in the Bible, which is why this week’s Torah portion is such an unusual exception.

In the Torah portion which Jews in Israel and around the world will read in our synagogues on this coming Shabbat, known as Va’Yishlach, (Genesis chapters  32:4-37:0), we find an inspiring story of 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. Then he goes to greet Esau and bows seven times, out of fear or out of respect. 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, Hebrew the word for “he kissed him” is marked with four asterisks on the parchment. This 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?

According to the greatest Jewish medieval commentator, known as 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 Yochai said: It is well known that Esau hated Jacob; however, his compassion was moved at the moment and he kissed him wholeheartedly.

Another classic commentary, Bereishit Rabbah  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 Esau is essentially an evil person, a rasha, and therefore cannot be trusted [In our contemporary era, many people felt the same about Yasser Arafat when he shook Yitzkak Rabin’s hand on the White House lawn on September 13, 1993, at the historic signing ceremony of the Oslo Accords, which was meant to be a great moment of reconciliation between two estranged peoples].

Another famous Midrash, Avot D’ Rabbi Natan, takes issue with the interpretation of Bereishit Rabbah and says: “Everything Esau ever did was motivated by hatred, except for this one occasion which was motivated by love.

So, were the embrace and the kiss genuine or not? Was this a real moment of brotherly reconciliation? Could it have led to a totally new relationship between the two estranged brothers?

According to the great 19th century German rabbi, Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, 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. Otherwise, how could he have had the ability to domineer the whole development of humankind (which the Romans actually did)?

And Hirsch adds an amazing commentary about Esau which is rich in contemporary meaning:

The sword alone, simply raw force, is not able to do that. But Esau, also, gradually lays the sword aside, turns gradually more and more towards humaneness, and it is just Jacob on whom Esau has most opportunity to show that and how the principle of humaneness begins to affect him. When the strong respect the rights of the strong it may well be wisdom. It is only when the strong, as here Esau, fall around the necks of the weak and cast the sword of violence far away, only then does it show that right and humaneness have made a conquest!

What remarkable words from a modern Orthodox rabbi. I wish that more Modern Orthodox rabbis in Israel and abroad would follow Rabbi Hirsch’s wisdom!

Then and Now

We contemporary readers of the biblical story can only wonder: Was reconciliation between Jacob and Esau only a momentary event? Could it have worked for the long haul?

And, 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 in different ways at the same time?

In the biblical story, Jacob and Esau go their separate ways. Separation becomes the operational modality. Peace is not achieved; instead, an armistice is reached, like a long “cease-fire.”

Some people today might call this “coexistence”. Each group lives separately. As long as you don’t shoot missiles at us or attack us in other ways, you can live over there in Gaza, or in the West Bank, or wherever. We can live our separate lives—Palestinians over there and Israelis over here. But is this realistic? And is it good enough?

Within Israel, the Palestinian Arab minority (Muslims and Christians) and the Jewish majority generally live separately. Integration is not the normative model in this country, as it is in other Western countries.

Nevertheless, in modern history, we have witnessed some remarkable processes of reconciliation!

The most important one is the great reconciliation between the Jewish People (the people of Israel, formerly Jacob) and the Christian world (in Jewish Tradition, Esau became Edom who symbolized Christianity), especially with the Catholic Church. 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 1960s and have been in genuine dialogue in a spirit of trust and mutual respect for nearly 60 years. It is the most significant act of reconciliation between religious communities in the modern world that I know about. Since the issuing by the Vatican of the famous declaration known as “Nostra Aetate” (“In our Time”), on  October 28th 1965, Jews and Christians around the world, including in Israel, have been living in a new era of dialogue. (My wife, Amy, and I produced a film about these developments between Christians and Jews, with the help of an Israeli couple who make documentary films, called “I am Joseph Your Brother”, which is available now on the internet.)

A second great act of reconciliation in our time was the surprise visit of President Anwar Sadat of Egypt to Jerusalem, his speech in the Knesset, and his initiative to establish peace with Israel which took place in 1977. These actions led to the Camp David Accords of 1978 and the peace agreement  between Israel and Egypt in 1979, which was signed by Prime Minister Menahem Begin, President Sadat and President Jimmy Carter. This peace accord, which ended many decades of enmity between Israel and Egypt, has lasted for all these years.

A third great act of reconciliation in our time could have been the handshake (not an embrace or a kiss!!) between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin, alav hashalom , of blessed memory, 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 has almost disappeared during the subsequent 30 years.

Nevertheless, I believe that we must still hope that reconciliation between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs will still be possible in our lifetime, even if this does not look possible at the present moment. In recent weeks, there has even been much discussion in the media in Israel and abroad about renewing the peace process, with international mediation, after this war. We can only hope that another great act of reconciliation can take place—perhaps by surprise once again—in our generation.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr Ron Kronish is the Founding Director the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel (ICCI), which he directed for 25 years. Now retired, he is an independent educator, author, lecturer, writer, speaker, blogger and consultant. He is the editor of 5 books, including Coexistence and Reconciliation in Israel--Voices for Interreligious Dialogue (Paulist Press, 2015). His new book, The Other Peace Process: Interreligious Dialogue, a View from Jerusalem, was published by Hamilton Books, an imprint of Rowman and LIttelfield, in September 2017. He recently (September 2022) published a new book about peacebuilders in Israel and Palestine entitled Profiles in Peace: Voices of Peacebuilders in the midst of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, which is available on Amazon Books, Barnes and Noble and the Book Depository websites,
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