Sermon: Vayishlach

Written by Rabbi Colin Eimer — 26 November 2015

80 years ago, in October 1935, the Italians invaded Ethiopia, an act condemned by the League of Nations, which then imposed economic sanctions on Italy. To rally support, Mussolini designated December 18 as a “Day of Faith”: all Italian women were expected to give up their gold wedding rings to raise money for the Fatherland. December 18 was a Shabbat and in synagogues that Shabbat they read the same sidra that Rafaella read to us this morning.

On that “Day of Faith,” in virtually every Italian synagogue Jewish communities sang the National Anthem as well as the Giovanezza, the Fascist party song. In his sermon that Shabbat, Rabbi Aldo Lattes of Rome said:1

Just as during the war of unification, the Jews did not lag behind in their sacrifice of blood, so today they should be second to none in the resistance to the iniquitous sanctions. Brothers and Sisters! Falling short today in the duty we owe the Fatherland would be a betrayal not only before mankind but also before God. 1

The year before, some Jews had been arrested for antifascist activity. Perhaps to demonstrate Jewish loyalty to Italy, Rabbi Gino Bolaffio of Turin, said in his sermon on May 20:

We Jews, educated in a school of duty and discipline ….. remain struck with admiration by Il Duce, powerful, gifted with amazing, I would almost say, divine, qualities. No, the true Jew does not follow fascism out of duty, out of opportunism …. the true Jew considers fascism as a providential phenomenon, meant to take him back to God and his forefathers.2

Given what we now know, it’s surprising, shocking that Jews could have been such ardent supporters of Mussolini. Yet by 1935 hundreds of refugees from Nazi Germany had come into Italy and there was virtually no official anti-Semitism, which only really got going in 1938.

As we heard, our sidra describes the meeting between Jacob and Esau, after many years of separation. They had last been together when Jacob tricked Esau out of their father, Isaac’s, blessing. And now they’re about to meet.

For rabbinic tradition, however, this wasn’t just a story of two brothers meeting again. Jacob is to become Israel and gives his name to the Jewish people: we are bnei yisrael, the children of Israel. And for reasons we needn’t go into now, Esau becomes, in rabbinic thinking, the paradigm of the non-Jew. So at one level it’s an ‘ordinary story of country folk,’ the meeting between long-lost brothers; at a deeper, archetypal level, however, Jewish tradition read it as describing the eternal meeting between Jew and non-Jew through to the present-day. The rabbis coined a phrase for this: ma’asey avot siman la’banim “What happened to our ancestors is a sign for their descendants”3

In other words, whenever the Jew read these episodes of the relationship between Jacob and Esau, they were reading their story, in their time, about their relationship with Esau, with the non-Jewish world around them.

So they meet. Esau runs towards Jacob, he falls on his neck and then Esau – well, the next word va’yishakehu4 is a bit strange because, in the scroll itself, it’s written with a dot on top of each letter. Nobody knows why they are there, but if nothing else, they certainly draw our attention to that word. Perhaps it’s because it’s an ambiguous word in Hebrew: it can be understood as coming from the verb ‘to kiss’ or the verb ‘to bite.’ So it can be translated as either “Esau kissed Jacob” or “Esau bit Jacob”!

Kissing and biting are not that far apart. Indeed, we do talk, after all, about ‘love bites.’ So when they do finally meet, the big question is: was it a kiss or a bite?

Throughout our history, when relations between Jews and non-Jews were good, commentators at the time see the ‘kiss’ as genuine; when relations were bad, Esau’s ‘kiss’ is understood as a ‘bite’ – Esau is showing his eternal Esau-ness, intending to harm Israel. Indeed, in the Sidra commentary in yesterday’s Jewish Chronicle there was a rather unpleasant reading of the story.

…”our task” writes Rebbetzin Lindy Levin, “is to vanquish the Esau around us and rebuild what Esau and his progeny have decimated.”5

In 1935, those Italian rabbis saw it as a kiss, because they contrasted their situation favourably with that of Jewish communities north of the Alps, already 2 years into the trials and tribulations of Jewish life in Nazi Germany.

Ten years later, in September 1945, a rabbi, whose name I can’t remember, preaches about the Rosh Hashanah Torah reading, the ‘Binding of Isaac.’ Isaac lies on the altar as Abraham holds the knife to his throat. Isaac must have been terrified. As he was much later, the Torah tells us, when Esau brings him a gift of food, wanting his blessing. Isaac realises what Jacob has done and, Isaac trembled exceedingly 6.”What,” asked that rabbi, “makes the Jewish people not just tremble, but tremble exceedingly?” Is it to be on the altar, like Isaac, almost killed, or actually killed, as 6 million Isaac’s had just been slaughtered? Or is the greater threat symbolised by the gifts that Esau brings?

That rabbi suggested that Esau’s ‘gifts’ are more-dangerous, because they are more seductive, and ultimately more destructive. What are those ‘gifts’? The gift of emancipation, for example, which said to the Jew: “You can become part of society; all you have to do is give up your Jewish identity.” No prizes for figuring out the message of that rabbi’s sermon – you can’t trust the non-Jewish world. Either it tries to kill you or it seduces you away from your Jewish identity with ‘gifts.’ Kiss or bite – both are dangerous.

While we might share his concern about the disappearance of the Jewish people, we would, I presume, differ over how to respond to that threat. He seems to be advocating a self-imposed ghetto. We believe in living in the midst of society and don’t believe that social isolation is the right approach – not sociologically, politically nor theologically.

So there is a sort of spectrum. At one end are those who have, indeed, chosen that self-imposed ghetto. They see it as the only way, in their eyes, to preserve their Jewish identity and ensure Jewish continuity; at the other end of the spectrum are those who, for whatever reason, have given up all sense of their Jewish identity and merged completely into the general population. But the vast majority of Jews – and I imagine that includes all of us here – situate ourselves somewhere between those two ends, living with the uncomfortable tension created by occupying that intermediate position.

For it is an uncomfortable middle ground: issues are grey, not black and white; more fluid, less clearly defined; with fuzzy edges. Clarity and certainty of decision are more difficult. We can feel the push-and-pull of living as Jews in an open society – wanting to be actively and fully part of it, yet, at the same time, not wanting to lose our particular identity. It’s the tension any minority experiences. So while it might be uncomfortable, it’s not one I would want to exchange.

For we are an integral part of the world in which we live. Jacob and Esau do meet. Jewish history is not just a perpetual vale of tears; it is also a record of the meeting and the opportunities that come out of that meeting.

The enemies of freedom, wherever they are, whoever they are, want to pit Jacob against Esau, brother against brother, want to make every meeting into a bite and not a kiss. Given what has been happening in the past couple of months, especially, we can feel the fear and suspicion of the other. But to give in to that would be the worst victory that these people could achieve.

On 1 September 1939, the poet WH Auden was in New York trying to understand how the world had come to the state it had. He wrote:

Waves of anger and fear

Circulate over the bright

And darkened lands of the earth,

Obsessing our private lives;

The unmentionable odour of death

Offends the September night.

He concludes:

Defenceless under the night

Our world in stupor lies;

Yet, dotted everywhere,

Ironic points of light

Flash out wherever the Just

Exchange their messages:

May I, composed like them

Of Eros and of dust,

Beleaguered by the same

Negation and despair,

Show an affirming flame.

There will be times when we won’t be sure if it’s a bite masquerading as a kiss. “Letting in all those refugees means we’re also letting in a lot of terrorists!” is the accompanying mantra. There are risks, to be sure, but if we only see the potential bite rather than being sensibly open to the potential kiss, they they’ve won, whoever the “they” are – and there are all sorts of crazy “they’s” out there. All it does is to shut us down, turns us and our institutions into fortresses, which hands “them” victory.

Our hope and our prayer must be that all of us, beleaguered as we might be feeling, by Auden’s “same negation and despair” can also show that “affirming flame.”


  1. Alexander Stille, Benevolence & Betrayal (Jonathan Cape, London 1992) p58
  2. ibid p53
  3. Genesis Rabbah 48
  4. Genesis 33:4
  5. Jewish Chronicle 27 November 2015 p35
  6. Genesis 27:33