Esau’s Kiss – D’var Torah

D’var Torah – Dorshei Tzedek, West Newton, MA – Dec 6, 2014

Parashat Vayishlach – “Esau’s Kiss”

Rabbi Maurice Harris

We’ve been reading in our recent parashahs the saga of the life of Jacob. I’m sure folks here are pretty familiar with it, but it never hurts to start with a quick plot summary. I hope you won’t mind if I quickly recap what’s happened prior to and including this week’s portion. Abraham and Sarah’s son, Isaac, had married a woman named Rebecca, and Rebecca became pregnant with twin boys who struggled physically with each other in her womb. In fact they struggled so much that Rebecca at one point cried out in anguish and asked what the point of her existence was. Finally, she gave birth to the two brothers. Esau, the first born by just seconds, had reddish features and grew to be a strapping, muscular, and quite hairy hunter. Jacob, who the text tells us emerged from the birth canal grabbing on to Esau’s heel, is of slighter stature and, according to later rabbinic midrash, he is bookish and studious.

The rabbis who gave us midrash would sometimes retroject images of themselves back onto the heroes of the Bible, such as picturing Jacob as a skinny and introverted Torah scholar. In fact, we even have examples of midrash that depict God studying the Torah and weighing the merits of different rabbis’ interpretations of each word! I guess we tend to see what we’re looking for much of the time – let’s hold on to that thought.

Anyway, getting back to the twins, Esau and Jacob. As you may remember, they end up in bitter conflict over issues of inheritance, first-born status, and pride. Families can just be awful, right? We know from the text that it turns out Rebecca and Isaac don’t see their kids in the same way. Rebecca sees Jacob as destined to carry on God’s covenant with Abraham and Isaac, whereas Isaac tends to favor Esau, who is good with a bow and provides delicious meals of venison. The Torah uses sight as an important symbol in this story, hinting that Isaac can’t see the big picture by telling us that he has become blind in his later years.

When Isaac realizes he is dying, he summons Esau to hunt some game and bring him a tasty meal, so that he can confer a special father’s blessing upon him that will establish his place as the patriarch of the family clan in the next generation. In what is probably one of the most famous biblical stories of crafty manipulation and deception, while Esau is off hunting the game for Isaac’s meal, Rebecca persuades Jacob to disguise himself as Esau and appear before blind Isaac with a bowl of hot stew so that Jacob can receive the blessing meant for Esau. The ploy works, and long story short, Esau ends up so embittered that he vows to kill Jacob, and Rebecca sends Jacob sneaking off to her kinsman, Laban’s, clan, to hide from Esau’s wrath.

The way Genesis tells the next part of Jacob’s life story is really fantastic mythic craft. Jacob ends up getting a taste of what it’s like to be deceived by a relative, as his new host and protector, Laban, tricks him into marrying a different daughter than the one Jacob thought he was marrying. Laban also uses his cunning to squeeze 20 years of sun-scorching shepherding labor from Jacob. When Jacob finally can’t take it anymore, he gathers his wives and concubines, children and flocks, and sneaks out of Laban’s camp hoping to return to the land of Canaan.

By this time Esau has become a wealthy clan leader with a large personal army at his disposal, and as we move into this week’s parashah, we are told that Esau has learned that his long lost and hated brother, Jacob, is on the move heading in his direction. The tension grows as messengers inform Jacob that Esau is coming to meet him with 400 armed men.

Jacob prays, and then decides stoically to meet his fate. He sends several rounds of messengers ahead of him bearing lavish gifts to Esau, and then he divides the family members and servants he is responsible for into several groups, hoping that if Esau comes to slaughter them, some remnant might escape. Then comes perhaps the most famous episode in the entire Jacob saga. During the night before Jacob is due to meet Esau and all Esau’s men, Jacob has a strange experience in which a strange man – or possibly some aspect of God – grabs hold of him and the two men wrestle through the night. When dawn arrives, the mysterious being who has struggled with him on the ground begs to Jacob to let him go. Jacob agrees to on condition that the being bless him. The being not only blesses him but also changes his name from Ya’akov – meaning something like “heel-grabber” – to yisrael – meaning something like “God-wrestler.”

Finally, we get to the moment of truth when Jacob and Esau meet.

Genesis 33: 1-10 reads:

“Jacob looked up and there was Esau, coming with his four hundred men; so he divided the children among Leah, Rachel, and the two maidservants. He put the maidservants and their children in front, Leah and her children next, and Rachel and Joseph in the rear. He himself went on ahead and bowed down to the ground seven times as he approached his brother. But Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept.

Then Esau looked up and saw the women and children. “Who are these with you?” he asked.

Jacob answered, “They are the children God has graciously given your servant.” Then the maidservants and their children approached and bowed down. Next, Leah and her children came and bowed down. Last of all Joseph and Rachel, and they too bowed down.

Esau asked, “What do you mean by all these [many gifts you sent in advance of our meeting]?”

“To find favor in your eyes, my lord,” [Jacob] said.

But Esau said, “I already have plenty, my brother. Keep what you have for yourself.”

“No please!” said Jacob. “If I have found favor in your eyes, accept this gift from me. For to see your face is like seeing the face of God, now that you have received me favorably.”[1]

*          *          *

For many centuries, rabbis have offered competing interpretations of the meanings of the Bible’s words. Judaism, in the hands of the rabbis, developed into a religion of multiple interpretations, and the commentaries and stories that hundreds of rabbis embroidered on to the Hebrew Bible include re-readings of biblical texts that sometimes appear to go directly against the plain meaning of the text. Often, these rabbinic re-tellings seem to reflect the challenges and contexts facing the rabbis who authored them. In particular, during the first couple centuries following the Roman destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the Roman exile of the Jews from their land in the year 70 C.E., we find a lot of examples of rabbinic writings that reinterpret Torah stories as encoded texts speaking to the traumas that the Jewish people had gone through at the hands of the Romans.

This is what happened to the story of the poignant reconciliation between Jacob and Esau. In midrash, a number of ancient rabbis claimed that this moment of apparent reconciliation between these estranged brothers was actually a moment of betrayal by Esau. The rabbis who make this case pointed to an odd visual feature preserved for millenia in the hand-copied Hebrew manuscripts of the Torah.

It so happens that in the Torah there are 10 places in which a word appears with little dots above the letters. Ancient rabbis debated the meaning of these anomalous visual features, but they had developed a theology that viewed every letter – and every crown and calligraphic oddity – as divinely ordained and filled with layers of encoded meanings. And, it so happened, that, in the reconciliation scene between these two brothers, the Hebrew word that means “and he kissed him,” va-yi-sha-kay-hu, has the mysterious dots.


In midrash, the rabbis had looked closely at the Torah’s claim that Esau would become the founding ancestor of a rival nation called Edom – the Edomites. The Israelites and the Edomites fought many times, and during the end of the Second Temple period, the Edomites continued to be a deeply resented nation among many Jews. Rabbinic traditions came to view the Edomites as the spiritual ancestors of the hated Romans.

In the rabbinic imagination, Esau became not only the mythic father of the Edomites, but also the mythic father of Rome, and even the mythic father of the nation that the Bible describes as the perpetual enemy of the Jews, the Amalakites. Many rabbinic tales emerged describing Esau’s terrible character traits, his ruthlessness and depravity. Rebecca’s decision to have Jacob disguise himself and deceive Isaac into giving him Esau’s blessing gets presented as a justifiable act given the violent and dangerous evil that Esau had displayed his whole life. Over and over again in midrash, Esau becomes the repository of the early rabbis’ newly developing theology of trauma. The Roman destruction of the year 70 C.E. was such a horror, such a shattering national calamity, that the rabbis of the next several generations ended up rereading their Scriptures looking for clues, for prophecies of the great exile they faced, and for ways to re-narrate their meaning and purpose as Jews. So instead of a passage in Genesis that appears to be describing the poignant catharsis of forgiveness and reconciliation, we learn instead from midrash that the enemy who appears to be offering reconciliation may actually be plotting our destruction. Instead of a text in which Jacob says the extraordinary words to his brother, “seeing your face is like seeing the face of God,” the midrash gives us mystery dots over the Hebrew word “kiss” that recast Esau’s kissing Jacob as a kind of Judas-kiss – if I’m allowed to mix religious metaphors without getting into too much trouble. This interpretation runs the risk of becoming the beginning of a world view that says, “watch out for the powerful enemy who appears to be stretching his hand out in peace, and don’t be a sucker.”

Now, we should keep in mind that even though there are multiple midrashim offering variations on the claim that the mystery dots above the word meaning “and [Esau] kissed him,” there are also midrashim and later medieval rabbinic commentaries that give different interpretations about our mystery dots. I tend to think these different Jewish interpretations of what the dots mean tells us more about the people who created them than they do about the actual original meaning of the dots. The rabbis who argued that the dots were there to warn us off from thinking Esau was sincere in his kiss at this climactic moment between the brothers were defeated, powerless, and scared. Many of them were still trying to grapple with the inconceivable burning of the Temple and feelings of doubt and abandonment by God. The rabbinic literature of this period is full of surprisingly candid expressions of doubt in God’s presence or caring for the people of Israel.

For example, in the Talmud, there is a famous debate among the rabbis about the efficacy of prayer. Some argue that God hears our prayers and, if they are meritorious, God will eventually answer them, though we must be patient. But others disagree. One sage says, “From the time that the Temple was destroyed, the Gates of Prayer have been closed,” though he goes on to assert that the Gates of Tears remain open, meaning that God still hears our weeping if not our prayers. Another writes, “Since the day that the Temple was destroyed, a wall of iron has been established between Israel and their Father in Heaven.” And another says that if one prays long and looks for the fulfillment of prayer, in the end what comes back is an anguished heart, and then he quotes a verse from the Book of Proverbs to prove his point. Prov 13:12 reads, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick.”

So it is possible that a traumatized and disoriented, exiled group of early rabbis read the story of Jacob and Esau’s reconciliation and simply couldn’t believe in that kind of happy ending between the Jewish people, as represented by Jacob, and the Empire they lived in, as represented by Esau.

Luckily, when you have a religious tradition that values different interpretations of texts and that sees debates among sages as a sacred, positive act, sooner or later you’ll find some rabbis who disagree with even the most well-established midrashic tradition. One rabbi taught that the dots were there to tell us that this kiss was the one time Esau was actually sincere, but that every other time he was not in his dealings with Jacob. About a thousand years ago, one of the great rabbis of the Medieval period, Abraham ibn Ezra, wrote that the midrashic interpretation connecting Esau to Rome was mistaken – even foolish.

There’s also another midrash that disputes the idea that the mystery dots have anything to do with hidden additional meanings that are revealed by midrash. In the midrash collection known as Avot d’Rabbi Natan, we read about the biblical figure, Ezra the Scribe. Ezra was credited with being responsible for the correct scribal copying of the Torah. This particular midrash says that dots were placed above certain words in the Torah because the scribes were not certain whether or not those words were supposed to be there or whether they were errors. The midrash adds that Ezra put the dots above these uncertain words with the knowledge that, at the End of Days in messianic times, when Elijah returns, if Elijah were to ask him why he had wrongly added these words to the Torah, he would be able to defend himself by saying “but I put these dots over them to indicate that you might instruct us one day to remove them.” Alternatively, the midrash says, Ezra figured that if Elijah returned and said to him, “Great job with the copying of the Torah – you got every single word right!” – then he would be able to just erase the dots. This is one of the things I love about the rabbis – they can be intensely polemical sometimes, wonderfully profound other times, and still other times they can up and say that biblical figures like Ezra were engaging in cover-your-tuches maneuvers.

Concluding idea: like those who have come before us, we have the opportunity to draw on our historical situation, the collective wisdom of our time, and our text study skills to discover and articulate what we see in these dots. Because in the end what we have in front of us is a story that, on its surface, appears to be one of two estranged brothers being moved to forgive and let go of their hatred. We have that, and we have the strange dots. And the tools of the midrashic imagination, which we can choose to use in a way that makes sense in our own time. I’d like to close by reading one contemporary rabbi’s example of doing just that.

Rabbi Rachel Barenblatt, gives us this take (her words follow):

In the classical rabbinic imagination, Esau and his descendants are seen in a negative light. . . . [But] I lean toward a more psychological reading of the text. As twins, Esau and Jacob are a literary externalization of the paired impulses inside each of us. Esau represents ego and appetite, while Jacob represents control and restraint. Esau represents foraging for sustenance; Jacob represents farming. Esau represents the wild and the woods; Jacob represents the orderly camp. Esau represents the needs of the body, and Jacob the needs of the mind. For a variety of reasons, we’ve historically identified with Jacob… but what would happen if we tried to integrate these two sides of ourselves, instead of inevitably privileging one over the other?

When Jacob and Esau meet again, they fall upon each other and embrace. Jacob offers Esau a generous gift of livestock, and at first Esau demurs, saying that he has been fortunate and doesn’t need anything. But Jacob says, “No, please — do me a favor, take this gift, because seeing your face is like seeing the face of God.” That’s a pretty remarkable statement, especially given that this might be the first time in their lives that the two men have really faced one another. They fought in the womb; they had nothing in common during their childhood and adolescence; and then there was that whole . . . dispute about the birthright, which ended in Jacob sneaking away before Esau could kick his ass.

But I see in this text reason to hope that people are capable of change. This is an I-Thou moment! Jacob’s experiences with [his deceptive father-in-law,] Laban, his marriages, and his experience of fatherhood have shaped him into someone who’s capable of seeing his brother in a new light.

Granted, the change doesn’t seem to come naturally to him. Earlier in the portion we read about the extensive preparations he took because he feared that Esau would attack him. Clearly their old baggage has a powerful pull, even on this new mature adult Jacob. But evidently Esau has had some maturing adventures of his own, because when they finally cross paths he pulls Jacob into a tight hug and doesn’t want to let go. One way or another, these twins are able — finally — to recognize that they can interact in a new way. They don’t have to play out the old family dynamics of favoritism and bitterness and angst.

When Jacob learns to see Esau not as his rival but simply as kin, he becomes aware that he’s encountering the face of God. How many of the struggles we face could be transformed if we were able to take a step back and become aware of the presence of holiness even in those we’ve always believed would be out to get us if we let down our guard? If we take both of these twins as our role models for a change, can we turn these six dots into a reminder of how enriched our world can be when we let go of our fears and truly meet?[2]

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth:

Isaac says to Esau, “Your brother came deceitfully and took your blessing.” Centuries later the prophet Hosea said, “The Lord has a charge to bring against Judah; he will punish Jacob according to his ways and repay him according to his deeds. In the womb he grasped his brother’s heel; as a man he struggled with God” (Hos. 12: 3-4). Jeremiah uses the name Jacob to mean someone who practices deception: “Beware of your friends; do not trust anyone in your clan; for every one of them is a deceiver [akov Yaakov], and every friend a slanderer” (Jer. 9: 3).

[1] Translation adapted from NIV.

[2] From Rabbi Rachel Barenblat’s blog, The Velveteen Rabbi.

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