Drash on Parashat Vayishlach
Rabbi Kim Ettlinger
Temple Beth Israel
St Kilda, Victoria
Our Torah and in particular, Parashat Vayishlach, shares with us the reunification of Jacob and Esau. Even though the lead up to this reunification seems tentative and cautious, when the brothers meet up, they embrace and they kiss and weep as it states in (Genesis 33:4) Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept.
I want to focus not on the reunification in and of itself, but on the connection between the two men, Jacob and Esau. Yes, they are reunited after years, but the way they embrace and kiss is extraordinary. It is beautiful and it is perhaps expected. After a long time or even not so long a time, without seeing family or friends, I too embrace and kiss and occasionally weep, depending on the circumstance. The act of embracing is something deeply human. The show of sibling intimacy is touching. In an article by Ray Williams, a renowned psychologist, he states that “Physical contact distinguishes humans from other animals. From a warm handshake or sympathetic hug to a congratulatory pat on the back, we have developed complex languages, cultures, and emotional expression through physical contact. But in a tech-saturated world, non-sexual human touch is in danger of becoming rare, if not obsolete. Despite the benefits of digital advancement, it is vital to preserve human touch in order for us truly to thrive. ”
Recently, I visited a gravely ill member of my congregation in hospital. She was attached to many tubes and machines, but was aware of my presence and we could talk. She told me of how isolating it had been for her in hospital, how alone she had felt; but she said that the hardest thing for her was that the only time someone would reach out to touch her was to take her temperature, or to help her shower, or take blood from her. There was no criticism of the work the doctors and nurses have to do, in fact it was only admiration, but what was missing was the touch of kindness. The touch of compassion, or true chesed. She told me this, the whole while, I was holding her hand. She teared up.
Too many people in our community feel the same way… one does not need to be sick to feel the lack of appropriate human touch. At times, when I’ve met with families over a bereavement, or difficult situation, at the end of the meeting, I will sometimes ask if I can give them a hug. Tears well up again, like Esau and Jacob, and the hug tends to be quite tight and I hear quiet sobs during the hug.
I fully respect that halakhik Judaism forbids touching someone in public who is of the opposite sex and post bar or bat mitzvah age. This halakhik principle is called shomer n’giah – one who guards against touching.
Judaism derives the prohibition regarding touch from two verses in Vayikra, Leviticus: “None of you shall come near anyone of his own flesh to uncover nakedness: I am the Eternal” (18:6), and “Do not come near a woman during her period of uncleanness to uncover her nakedness” (18:19). The verses speak to modesty and of ritual purity. In my opinion, these verses can be extended to ensure that both men and women behave respectfully towards one another. But, at its textual level, these verses are placed among other verses that speak to appropriate relationships. These Levitical texts also formed the legal grounding in halakhah.
Yet, giving a hug of support or encouragement, or holding a hand with someone does not detract from halakhah, or even the intent of the halakhah. In fact, I believe it reaches the highest form of chesed and care for our fellow human beings. Chesed is one of Judaism highest values, and I believe guides our morals and ethics. We learn in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Ancestors) 1:2 that the world rests upon three things: Torah, service to God, and bestowing kindness (chesed)" Chesed further is grounded in Torah, as Rabbi Simlai in the Talmud states "The Torah begins with chesed and ends with chesed (BT Sota 14a). We need to do what we think is fitting for the moment. Throughout Jewish text we are called to the care of people: merely being present isn’t enough. Sometimes, words are quite simply not enough. And, sometimes, there are no words. But a hug can speak volumes.