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Friday, November 15, 2013

A Bite and an Embrace

When Ya’akov was still a young man, he stole from his brother the only thing that mattered.  Though Esav was the older of the two, that was only by a few minutes, and he was used to his clever younger brother taking advantage of him.  But with this final theft, Esav flew into a murderous rage, and Ya’akov had to flee for his life, taking only the shirt on his back and whatever provisions his parents could put together for his journey.

Twenty years passed.  Esav surely grew and changed during that time, but our story does not follow him.  Our story follows Ya’akov.  We read of how he obtained two wives, then two concubines, eleven sons, one daughter, countless sheep, and apparently some servants as well.  We read that Ya'akov again had to flee a family member who hated him for outsmarting him (this time, his uncle and father-in-law Lavan) .  Though in Ya’akov’s defense, it could be said that he never did anything he did not need to do to  survive, and it does seem that God was on his side.  

As Ya’akov made his way back to the promised land, he was heavy with prosperity.  Approaching Se’ir, the red mountains on the east bank of the Jordan river, he began to worry about the brother he had left behind.  He sent messengers ahead with gifts for Esav, hoping to buy back his favor.  The messengers returned with the news that Esav was moving towards him, accompanied by 400 men.
Ya’akov flew into a panic.  He separated his household into two camps, telling himself if, Heaven forbid, the worst should happen and Esav should find one camp and slaughter them all, at least the other camp could slip away and half his family would be saved.   After Ya’akov separated the camps, he prayed, and this is what he said (click here.)

I hope you followed the link, and heard Yonatan Razel’s beautiful rendition of the first half of Ya’akov’s prayer, "Katonti".  That song has been haunting me for weeks. Most of Razel's songs use original lyrics, often with traditional phrases woven into the composition.  For example, one of his more popular songs goes :

כי מציון תצא האהבה.  . . שחכינו לה אלפים שנה, בארץ רחוקה
From Zion will come forth the love . . . we have waited for it 2000 years, in a far away land.

Katonti has no original words in it.  The sentences repeated over and over are one and a half verses taken directly from the Torah: the first half of Ya'akov's prayer before encountering Esav.  (The one different sentence, near the end of the song, is from Psalms, and its meaning is very similar to the meaning of Ya'akov's prayer.)  It's a strange choice of verses to put to music, so that the choice itself becomes a reinterpretation, a modern midrash.  Let's go over their meaning: first as pshat, what Ya'akov would have meant when he spoke those words, and then as midrash, what I imagine Razel is thinking when he sings them.

קטנתי מכל החסדים ומכל האמת  I am small, unworthy of all the kindnesses and all the truths

שעשית את עבדיך    That You have done for Your servant.

במקלי עברתי את הירדן   With my staff I crossed the Jordan.
With nothing but my staff.  I was fleeing for my life.

ועתה הייתי לשני מחנות  And now I have become two camps.
Two camps!  I left Canaan with nothing, and now my household is so large I can divide it into two camps.  And now I must divide into two camps, for I am in mortal danger.

And in modern interpretation . . .

במקלי עברתי את הירדן    With my staff I crossed the Jordan.
I came from Syria, from Iraq, Iran, even as far as Ethiopia.  I left everything behind and came.
Or if I didn't cross the Jordan, I crossed the Mediteranean. On a crowded boat, not sure if we would be turned back when we reached the Palestinian shore -- back to the forests of Europe, where we hid by day and ran by night, for if we were seen we would be shot on site.
ועתה הייתי לשני מחנות  And now I have become two camps.
I have grown and prospered in this land.  My household now numbers over 6 million!  And I am divided, deeply divided, into camps.  My religious camp hates my secular camp, my secular hates my religious.  Some of my hawks hate Arabs so bad, they are blinded to our common humanity.  Some of my doves hate themselves so bad, they want to sell us all out.

Yonatan Razel's brother, Aharon Razel, is an even more popular singer than he is.  He, too, incorporates traditional words into his original lyrics.  Almost all of Yonatan's songs, like this one, emphasize either humility or love: dovish themes.  Aharon's songs emphasize the natural beauty of the land of Israel, and he has become an icon of the right-wing settlers' movement.

הצילני נא, הצילני נא, הצילני נא   Save me, please!  Save me, please.

When Esav finally meets up with his brother, he is overcome with emotion.  He falls on him, hugging him, kissing him, crying.  It seems a perfect reunion.  But the scene that follows is painfully awkward.  Ya'akov refers to himself as "your servant", and to Esav as "my master", perhaps eager to prove that his father's stolen blessing "You will be master to your brother" had not come true.  He presses Esav to keep the gifts he had sent him, though Esav tries to refuse.  And when Esav suggests that they travel together, Ya'akov tells him: "You go on ahead.  The children and sheep are slow."

Perhaps because of Ya'akov's cold response, our sages viewed the brothers' initial embrace with suspicion.  The biblical text says וישקהו, and he (Esav) kissed him (Ya'akov).  In the Torah scroll, that word has unusual dots above it.  Here is what Midrash Rabbah says about those dots:

אמר ר' שמעון בן אלעזר... מלמד שנכמרו רחמיו באותה שעה ונשקו בכל לבו. אמר לו ר' ינאי: אם כן
 למה נקוד עליו? אלא מלמד שלא בא לנשקו אלא לנושכו ונעשה צווארו של יעקב אבינו של שיש, וקהו שיניו של אותו רשע.
Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar said ... (those dots) teach us that (Esav's) mercy was bought at that moment, and he kissed (Ya'akov) with all his heart.  Rabbi Yanai said to him: if that's the case, why are the dots written above the letters?  Rather, they teach that he did not intend to kiss him (l'noshko) but rather to bite him (l'nashcho), and our father Ya'akov's neck became marble, and the teeth of that wicked man were blunted.

Kabbalists believe history repeats itself, because the patterns of history reflect the patterns of the cosmos. Here we stand again, locked in an embrace with a brother who perhaps wants to kill us: Ishmael this time, not Esav.  He is murderously angry, because he believes we stole the only thing that matters. And we,like Ya'akov,  believe we only ever took what was ours, and perhaps also what God intended for us.

We face this brother after fleeing a brutal, treacherous cousin, who hated us for being more clever than he: a cousin who most certainly decreed not just on the males but on everyone, and he nearly succeeded in destroying us all.  

So what did happen in that embrace between Esav and Ya'akov?  Did Esav try to bite him?  Or did he kiss him?

And what will happen to us, in the embrace we are locked in now?  Can we -- all of us, all sides, all camps, in all the places of our abode -- work together to turn a bite into an embrace?