When A Kiss Is Not Just a Kiss
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When A Kiss Is Not Just a Kiss

Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 4:10 p.m.
Torah: Gen. 32:4-36:32
Haftorah: Hosea 11:7-12:12 (Ashkenaz); Book of Ovadiah (Sephard)
Havdalah: 5:13 p.m.

TAfter years apart, two brothers meet, hug, and kiss.

Before we tear up over the beauty of the moment, we notice the Torah’s record of the incident raises suspicions: the dots in the scroll over “and he kissed him” [Genesis 33:4]. Rashi records two views, either that Esav was insincere in the kiss itself or — the view of Shimon Bar Yochai in the Midrash — that despite the well-known fact that Esav hates Ya’akov, here Esav’s emotions got the better of him, and he hugs and kisses his brother wholeheartedly.

Neither view is positive about Esav, which explains Ya’akov’s polite but adamant refusal to build the relationship further.

Yet Rashi also cites a Midrashic tradition that notices that Dinah is not mentioned among those who crossed over the Yabok River with her father Ya’akov. Ya’akov hid Dinah from Esav, the Midrash says, lest he be interested in her.

Her troubles in Shechem [Gen. 34] were Ya’akov’s punishment for that. Had she met Esav, his interest in her might have led him to improve himself. When Ya’akov prevented that, Dinah’s life took an even worse course (a reminder to be careful when we think we can outsmart the future).

Esav wasn’t the only evildoer Ya’akov encounters in this parsha, and the other incident also shows us ways to deal with people we encounter. Rambam reads the incident at Shechem as an example of the enforcement of Noahide law. When Shechem abducted Dinah, his fellow citizens were obligated to arrest and judge him for his violation of those laws, which include the law against kidnapping. Their failure to do so made them liable for death, which Shimon and Levi meted out.

Rambam does not explain Ya’akov’s objection, leaving us to assume he saw it as practical, worrying about whether the family had the right to assume Hashem would protect them from those seeking to avenge the deaths of the people of Shechem.

Ramban wonders at Rambam’s reaching for that example of the Shechemites deserving death, when they were idolaters. Shimon and Levi’s error, Ramban says, was in thinking that it was their role or responsibility to punish these crimes. For Ramban, that’s what their father was telling them, that enforcing Noahide law among strangers isn’t their business.

The two interactions present five options for how to behave with those whose morality we find lacking: Punish them, each as they deserve; refrain from any punitive action, but only to avoid paying the practical price for it; refrain from punitive action because it’s not our place to judge others; greet evildoers cordially, at arms’ length, whether or not their response is sincere; or, reach out to them in the hopes of producing positive movement towards good.

It can be hard to see that that’s what we’re being shown, because we might get stuck on the idea of killing. But these responses apply beyond any situation involving capital punishment. Depending on our sense of those around us, we might treat people cordially, although at arms’ length, accepting their conviviality, sincere or not, in return.

Sometimes, we will find the other person too distasteful for even that, not travelling with them (literally or figuratively) for fear of their poor morality rubbing off on us. Other times, we risk a closer relationship, out of practical necessity or in the hope that we can contribute positively to their moral development.

That defines the question when there’s no particular crime to which we have to respond. When the other person or group has committed one or many crimes, we have to decide whether we are the ones to react. We might decide it is not our job, or we might decide it is too dangerous (and that we are not obligated to incur that danger). Finally, there will be times when we in fact must take on this evil, danger and all.

It’s not one or the other, it is choosing the right option from Column A, applying it correctly to Column B. And it’s not only when killing is involved, it’s a set of questions to ask ourselves, choices to make, whenever we interact with others who behave wrongly, to whatever degree. 

It starts with recognizing the other. We don’t sugarcoat Esav, the commentators imply. We accept that he might always hate the Jews; he was sincere that one time or he wasn’t. We don’t pretend the people of Shechem were innocents when they weren’t.

There’s only the question of choosing our response once we’ve made as accurate an assessment as we can: Whether to take our Dinah out of hiding, in the hopes of bringing improvement; be cordial but aloof; or actively setting right what is wrong.

Not easy. But without careful thought and honest evaluation, not easy turns into impossible.

Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein is the author of “We’re Missing the Point: What’s Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It,” as well as “Murderer in the Mikdash,” a murder mystery set in the Third Temple.

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