It’s been 20+ years since Ya’akov and Esav have last seen each other. Now, they are on a collision course, and given how they felt about each other when they parted, the upcoming scene is fraught with tension.
All that tension seems to melt away when Esav approaches his estranged twin: “Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept” (Genesis 33:4). A surface reading of the text indicates a full and complete reconciliation. Esav, who had every right to be angry over losing his blessing by treachery, shows unbridled enthusiasm for the encounter.
Not so fast, say the Rabbis. There are diacritical marks, dots, on the letters of the word “vayishakehu–he kissed him.” Midrashic and medieval commentaries express serious doubt about Esav’s sincerity; in one midrash, the kiss was actually a Dracula-like bite, only Ya’akov’s neck turned to alabaster, leaving Esav with a nasty toothache!
Why, if the Torah’s version eliminates fraternal enmity, do the rabbis resuscitate their hatred? For the Rabbis, Esav as a Biblical symbol was more than just the Edomite nation, Israel’s not-always-friendly neighbor. Esav was the ancestor of Rome in midrashic times, and of Christianity in the Middle Ages. As Professor Ismar Schorsch wrote in the very first email dvar Torah on this week’s parshah back in 1993, “What the rabbis did to Esau is a striking instance of misreading born of love and need.”
What did Dr. Schorsch mean by that? And how do today’s needs inform the way we read the Esav story and character? We’ll explore this on Shabbat morning; as food for thought, consider this recent essay by Menachem Rosensaft of the World Jewish Congress.
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi David Wise