2003This week's Torah portion, Vayishlach, continues the story of Jacob as he returns to the land of Israel after his years of servitude to Laban. However, to understand the beginning of this week's paraha, one must remember the circumstances under which Jacob left. After Jacob tricked his father Isaac into giving him the blessing at the end of Toldot two weeks ago, Rebecca had sent him off to Haran telling him "Your brother Esau is consoling himself by planning to kill you." (Genesis 27: 41) So now, twenty years later, as Jacob prepares to return home, his mind naturally turns to his brother Esau and wonders what type of greeting he will receive. After sending messengers to let Esau know he was coming, dividing his camp into two parts, praying for God's protection, and receiving a new name and a new blessing, Jacob stands ready to meet Esau, still frightened at the unknown that lie ahead.
A Kiss or A Bite
Genesis 33: 1-4
Looking up, Jacob saw Esau coming, accompanied by four hundred men. He divided the children among Leah, Rachel and the two maids, putting the maids and their children first, Leah and her children next, and Rachel and Joseph last. He 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.
1. Why does Esau travel with four hundred men? How does that affect Jacob's expectations for the encounter?
2. Why does Jacob place his children and their mother in the order that he does? What does it tell us about his feelings for his children and each of their mothers?
3. The word for "kiss" vayishakehu is written in the Torah scroll with dots above each letter. What is the significance of this word and why would the Torah scribes emphasize it in such a manner.
Esau's descendents are associated with the Romans, who become for the rabbis the ultimate symbol of secular authority. It is not surprising, therefore, that in different eras, we might find different interpretations of the meaning of Esau's kiss.
Tanchuma Vayishlach 4
Esau sought to bite him, but his neck turned to marble. This is the reason for the points, indicating that his kiss was not a sincere one. Why did they both weep? To what may this be compared? To a wolf which came to snatch a ram. Whereupon the ram began butting it with his horns, the wolf's teeth becoming entangled in them. Both of them wept; the wolf on account of his impotence and the ram for fear its enemy might try again to kill him. So too here with Esau and Jacob. Esau wept because Jacob's neck had turned to marble and Jacob, for fear that Esau might return to bite him. Regarding Jacob we have the text: "They neck is as a tower of marble" (Song of Songs, 4:5); regarding Esau: "Thou hast broken the teeth of the wicked." (Psalm 3:8)
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch
The allusion to weeping is a sure sign that what we have here is a revelation of genuine humanity. A kiss can be superficial, but an outburst of tears is a strong presumption in favor of sincerity. Esau betrays his Abrahamic origins and shows himself as not merely a cruel hunger. Otherwise, he could never have reached such a leading position in the development of mankind. The sword alone, brute force, cannot accomplish this. Even Esau gradually relinquishes his sword and begins to feel the chords of human love. It is Jacob who usually provides him with the opportunity for showing his innate humanity. When the strong respects the strong, this is discretion. But when the strong, i.e. Esau, falls on the neck of the weak, of Jacob, and casts his sword away, then we know that humanity and justice have prevailed.
These two commentaries surely reflect two very different world-views, with the relationship between Jacob and Esau as an allegory for the relationship between Jews and outside secular world. It is not surprising that Midrash Tanchuma would presume that any attempts by the outside authorities to reach out to the Jewish community should be regarded with suspicion and concern. These texts were written and compiled during an era in which this was an appropriate response. In the same vein, it is also not surprising, therefore, that Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the 19th Century father of modern Orthodoxy who was raised in an "Enlightened" environment and had a full secular education at a German public school, would interpret Esau's (and, by extension, secular culture's) gesture at face value and presume the sincerity.
All of us, whether consciously or unconsciously, interpret text according to our own values and world-view. Therefore, each of us must ask the question: are we likely to view a "kiss" from the secular world as a bite in disguise or as sincere expression of love? You may be amazed to discover how much your answer to this question colors the way in which you understand world events.
Prepared by Rabbi Marc Israel, director, KESHER.
Additional commentaries and text studies on Parshat Vayishlach at MyJewishLearning.com.