by Hazzan Barbara Barnett
This week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, is fascinating, deep and textured on so many levels. In it, Jacob famously wrestles with what is described as an “ish” (man). Is it really “a man,” or is it a heavenly being? G-d? Or a struggle within himself?
After this struggle, G-d changes Jacob’s name to Yisrael, “for you have wrestled with G-d, and with people, and prevailed.” The name can be deconstructed as Yisra-el, the first part of which stems from the word “to struggle” and “el” referring to G-d.
This face-to-face encounter with G-d, panim el panim, as the text says, precedes another face-to-face encounter with his twin brother Esau, this encounter is one that Jacob fears, and for good reason. But rather than run away from what might be a disastrous meeting, Jacob is ready to face Esau. He does not go naively into their meeting but prepares well, keeping his growing family protected—just in case Esau is out for revenge, still seething after Jacob usurped his birthright.
The first meeting between the estranged brothers is interesting. After Jacob approaches cautiously and humbly, prostrating himself seven times at Esau’s feet, The text continues, “Esau ran to meet [Jacob and his family]. He hugged [Jacob], and throwing himself on his shoulders, kissed him. They [both] wept.”
Taken on face value, the text suggests that the years have faded the bitter memory of the stolen birthright from Esau into some sort of acceptance, and rather than bitter, one reading of the Hebrew text suggests some sort of reconciliation—a hug to “forgive and forget.”
But above the text for the word “kissed” dance a series of dots (one on each letter), a scribal oddity, a unique formation that appears only few other times in the Torah scroll. is ambiguous, and as suggested by the scribal uniqueness of the word “kissed,” Above the word וַׄיִּׄשָּׁׄקֵ֑ׄהׄוּׄ (vayi’shakei’hu—”kissed him”) you might notice all the tiny dots.
The meaning of the dots themselves wherever they appear suggest that there is something more than meets the eye within the word or words beneath these dots. Perhaps the spelling of the word is not as originally intended (a scribal version of a typo?).
Rabbis and scholars have pondered the meaning of these dots since the time of the Talmud, positing the dots suggest Esau’s kiss was ambivalent at best, or even that it wasn’t a kiss at all, but an attempt to bite (!) Jacob in the neck.
Hmm. So, is “Vayisha’kei’hu וישקיהו (and he kissed him) really supposed to be “Vayisha’kei’hu וישכיהו and he bit him?” Quite a different meaning, eh? The words sound the same, but one of the verb’s consonants is different (noted in bold), and vastly changes the meaning of the passage
One letter entirely alters Esau’s sentiment (and the direction of his heart) from a kiss of reconciliation after years of estrangement, to the betrayal of vulnerability and friendship instead.
The truth is, we don’t know for certain (and that’s often the fun of parsing Biblical text).
To me, those dots above the word suggest Esau’s ambivalence toward his brother, but for this inevitable meeting, he is willing to bury the past, if only for the moment, and later in this portion, to bury, together, their father Abraham. And that all got me thinking about Thanksgiving, gatherings, and getting together with family members with whom we may have (or had) rivalries, bad vibes, and vehement differences of opinion.
This year as many of us venture out beyond the Zoomscape next week to gather in person for Thanksgiving feasts, we’ll undoubtedly meet up with those in our intimate circle for whom we don’t, let’s say, have the kindest of feelings—especially these days. How will we greet them? Yeah, you may be inclined to bite them (metaphorically with a sarcastic snap), but you won’t, and instead embrace (or bump fists or elbows), not wholeheartedly, but in the interest of keeping peace, maintaining civility, and enjoying the moment. Imagine, and then set aside, the dots, letting them fade from relevance, if only for a day.
From our family to yours, a meaningful and joyous Thanksgiving.