Years ago, a beloved friend sent me a postcard that read, "Do the work where you need to, and soften everywhere else." It has been taped up next to my desk ever since.
These days I have been staring at it more longingly. I have been feeling more irritable than usual, which is a profoundly uncomfortable feeling. A friend reflected back to me that it is almost worse for the person who feels it, than the recipients of one's impatience. And let me say, if any of you have been the recipient of my irritability, I am so sorry.
Blame it on late stage pandemic life and the perpetual uncertainty we all endure. Blame it on the waning hours of sunlight and my diminished meditation practice. Whatever its source or cause, it is unpleasant.
Such irritability has propelled me into a near constant meditation on the 13 Attributes of Mercy. Adonai, Adonai, El Rachum v' Hanun...Holy One, full of compassion and grace, can you help me be more slow to anger and quick to forgive? Can you help me soften?
The question of forgiveness is central to this week's Torah portion, which continues Jacob's story. He returns after a 20-year stay in Haran with the hopes of reconciling with Esau, his older brother whom he deceived to steal his birthright.
After a sleepless night in which Jacob wrestles with an angel by the river Yabbok, Jacob and Esau are set to reunite. Their reunion is fraught with anticipation and expectation. Injured from his late night encounter, Jacob looks up and sees Esau coming. Jacob sends his family ahead and bows low to the ground seven times until he is near Esau.
It has been thirty-four years since Jacob deceived Esau. Uncertain who they have each become, the story imagines a vengeful Esau. And yet, in the moment, "Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept" (Gen. 33:4).
וַיָּ֨רׇץ עֵשָׂ֤ו לִקְרָאתוֹ֙ וַֽיְחַבְּקֵ֔הוּ וַיִּפֹּ֥ל עַל־צַוָּארָ֖ו וַׄיִּׄשָּׁׄקֵ֑ׄהׄוּׄ וַיִּבְכּֽוּ׃
As you can see above, the word vayishakeihu, "and he kissed him," has a line of dots above it, which is the Torah's way of telling us to pay attention. But what are we to learn from this kiss?
There are a myriad of interpretations of these mysterious dots. One famous midrash (Sifrei Bamidbar 69:2) suggests that the kiss was insincere. That Esau did not really embrace him with his whole heart. Or perhaps worse, that Esau was really trying to kill Jacob by biting his throat. At which point another midrash (Tanhuma Vayishlach 4:5) imagines that Jacob's neck becomes as hard as marble. And Esau's teeth brittle and break.
But of all of these wild imaginings, the one I am drawn to most, is the simple idea that in the moment of their reuniting, Esau was overcome with a quality of compassion and he softened, and they wept together.
As someone who has felt quick to anger and slow to forgive, I am looking to those dots for inspiration. If profound deceit and decades of separation can be resolved in an instant, maybe I too can find myself overcome with mercy in moments of conflict, transforming my reactive grip into a tender embrace.
Adonai, Adonai, El Rachum v' Hanun...Holy One, full of compassion and grace, can you help me be more slow to anger and quick to forgive? Can you help me soften? I offer you my personal meditation, that we may each have the courage to do the work where we need to, and soften everywhere else.
Rabbi Ari Lev
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.