Rabbi Emanuel Cohn
Former Avrech in Montreal (2001-2003)
Founder of “Torah MiCinema” – Teaching Film and Judaism
For a long time I have been troubled with one Rashi which has its base in our Parasha. When Ya´akov finally meets his brother Esav after a long journey, the Torah describes their emotional encounter as follows: “Esav ran toward him [Ya´akov], and he embraced him, and fell upon his neck, and kissed him; and they wept.” (Ber. 33,4)
In the masoretic text of our Torah, we can find dots above the word “Vayishakehu”- and he kissed him. What is this strange phenomenon coming to teach us? Rashi says the following: “There are those who explain this dotting as saying that he did not kiss him with all his heart. (Some even say that he wanted to bite him…) But Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai said: “Halacha: beyadua she´Esav soneh leYa´akov” – “It is a law: it is known that Esav hates Ya´akov”, but his mercy was aroused at that moment, and he kissed him with all of his heart.” (Rashi, ibid., based on Sifri, Beha´alotcha 69)
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai makes a very powerful statement: It is Halacha, a LAW that Esav – i.e. the gentiles – hates Ya´akov – i.e. the Jews. And the same way the principles of our divine law cannot be changed and are valid forever, Jew-hating goyim will be an eternal fact, as well. (See Igrot Moshe, Cho”M 2, 77) Nevertheless, at that specific moment even Esav could overcome his general hatred towards his brother and – as an exception- kiss him with all of his heart.
Upon hearing this Midrash many of us will have images of antisemitism, of CNN and the Palestinians, of Europe and the “Gazette”, flashing through our minds. This affirms what we had thought all along! That the gentiles have an inate genetic hatred for Jews and even if they sometimes seem to behave nicely towards us, it is only out of hope of gaining some benefit as a result.
But let us be honest! Can we really affirm Rabbi Shimon´s statement? Do not all of us know at least one non-jewish person who is truly good-hearted with not one ounce of hatred or skepticism towards us Jews? I don´t think so. I know many gentiles – some of which I met here in Canada – who are indeed wonderful people. And I simply cannot identify myself with Rabbi Shimon´s harsh statement.
I would therefore like to suggest a different reading of Rabbi Shimon´s Halacha. Before I do so, we must recall the historical context in which Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai said his radical statement. Among what kind of gentiles did he live? “The harsh decrees and religious persecutions of the Hadrianic era and the cruel martyrdom of his teachers intensified Simeon´s hatred of gentiles in general – so that he said ´slay the best of gentiles´ (Mechilta Beshalach 2) – and of the Roman people and its culture in particular.” (Encyclopaedia Judaica, Vol.14, p.1552)
Is there a way to re-interpret Rabbi Shimon´s “Halacha” in our time? In my opinion there is one word which seems to be totally superfluous in his statement: “Beyadua” – “It is known”. Why does it say: “It is a Halacha: IT IS KNOWN that Esav hates Ya´akov”? This combination “Halacha…beyadua” does not appear anywhere else in the whole rabbinic literature! It seems as if this wording did not come about by mistake but rather brings an important message with it: Indeed, on the superficial, external level it is “KNOWN”, everyone “KNOWS” that the gentiles hate the Jews. But that is only the “official”, the “known” dimension. However, if we get to know a person on an individual, personal level, we will be surprised how often -but certainly not always- we can witness a process of demystification of the Non-Jew and realize that even if the general notion is that the gentiles hate the Jews, on an individual level -free from all stigmas- many of them show true ethical values and love. Indeed, Esav kissed his brother “with ALL of his heart”!
It is this truly emotional encounter between Esav -the forefather of Rome- and Ya´akov – the forefather of Israel- which led Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch to the following conclusion: “The one little word “vayivku” (“And they wept”) assures us that at this point Esav was overcome by purely human emotions. A kiss can be an affected gesture; not so the tears that flow at such moments…Tears emanate from the inmost depths of the human soul. By this kiss and these tears we recognize that Esav is still a descendant of Abraham…”