Thursday, December 12, 2019

The Kiss of Reconciliation

The Torah scroll is beautifully calligraphed. Each of its letters is meticulously drawn. It takes a Torah scribe one year to fashion a single scroll. Some letters have small, stylized crowns. The chapters and verses are perfectly arranged in columns, unfettered by punctuation marks. Although each scroll is different because it is fashioned by a different scribe, the letters and words of every Torah are calligraphed in a similar manner.

“Moses” looks the same in every Torah scroll. There is the mem, the first letter of Moshe. Then the shin, adorned with its crowns, and finally the heh. Like all the other words in the Torah, there are no vowels below the letters or cantillation marks above the letters. In fact, only a very small fraction of words in the Torah have additional notations.

Very few words have marks above the letters. This week we discover one of these unique examples: “Vayishakeyhu—and he kissed him.” Calligraphed above each of its letters is a dot. Here is the story that surrounds this kiss. Our forefather Jacob stole the birthright from his brother Esau. Esau then threatened to kill him. Jacob runs and builds a life for himself with his uncle. He marries (several times) and fathers many children. Now, many years later, the brothers are to be reunited, and we hope, reconciled.

This week we read, “Jacob himself went on ahead and bowed low to the ground seven times until he was near his brother. Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept.” (Genesis 33) The brothers appear reconciled. What led to the reconciliation? Was it Jacob’s act of humbling himself before his brother? Was it Esau’s embrace? The seventh century Masoretes, who developed the traditions of calligraphy with which a Torah is scribed, suggest it was the kiss.

Holding his brother close, Esau kissed Jacob and kissed him again and again, until they both wept. The Rabbis concur: “The word ‘kissed’ is dotted above each letter in the Torah’s writing. Rabbi Simeon ben Elazar said: this teaches that Esau felt compassion in that moment and kissed Jacob with all his heart. (Bereshit Rabbah) Reconciliation can only be achieved when people bring their heart—in its entirety. Repair involves compassion for the other. It necessitates forgiveness. And these must derive from the heart.

A kiss can be perfunctory. The Torah’s calligraphy suggests that, in this case it is anything but. A kiss should be punctuated by intention. Here it offers the compassion and forgiveness that leads to the weeping of reconciliation. The brothers stand together.

We are of course the descendants of Jacob. The tradition teaches that our enemies are the descendants of Esau. I wonder if our ancient calligraphers intended to teach that reconciliation between brothers is our most cherished hope and prayer.

Why else would they notate this word in a different manner than all other words?

Embedded in the kiss Esau offers Jacob is our tradition’s hope that the descendants of Esau will one day make peace with the descendants of Jacob. One day, we pray, we might make peace with our enemies, who, our tradition reminds us, are, and will always be, our brothers.

The Torah wishes to punctuate this hope for reconciliation and repair. One day brothers, and all humanity, will be at peace with each other.

And we will embrace, kiss, and finally weep as one family.

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