A Painful Embrace

Vayishlah By :  Andrew Shugerman Posted On Dec 10, 2011 / 5772 | Midrash: Between the Lines | Interreligious
Genesis Rabbah 78:9

וירץ עשו לקראתו וישקהו נקוד עליו אר”ש בן אלעזר מלמד שנכמרו רחמיו באותה השעה ונשקו בכל לבו, אמר לו ר’ ינאי אם כן למה נקוד עליו אלא מלמד שלא בא לנשקו אלא לנשכו ונעשה צוארו של אבינו יעקב של שיש וקהו שיניו של אותו רשע ומה ת”ל ויבכו אלא זה בוכה על צוארו וזה בוכה על שיניו

Esau ran to greet him. [He embraced Jacob and, falling on his neck,] he kissed him; [and they wept.](Gen. 33:4). [The word] ‘kissed’ is dotted [above each letter in the Torah’s writing]. Rabbi Simeon ben Elazar said . . . it teaches that [Esau] felt compassion in that moment and kissed [Jacob] with all his heart.
Rabbi Yannai said to him: If so, why is [‘kissed’] dotted? On the contrary, it teaches that [Esau] came not to kiss [Jacob] but to bite him, but our ancestor Jacob’s neck became like marble and that wicked man’s teeth were blunted. Hence, ‘and they wept’ teaches that [Jacob] wept because of his neck and [Esau] wept because of his teeth.

Rarely do I find a midrash like the one above that reflects love and hate, admiration and anger, in a single passage about how Jews relate to Christians. While the two rabbis quoted here agree that a peculiar scribal feature is crucial to understanding Jacob and Esau’s reunion, they fundamentally disagree about what that detail signifies.

After noting that dots appear above each letter of “kissed” in this week’s Torah portion, the text presents Rabbi Simeon ben Elazar’s teaching that this scribal embellishment adds emphasis to the literal meaning of the kiss, indicating Esau’s authentic affection toward his estranged brother. Until this point, the midrash focuses less on the conflict between the twins than on their reconciliation.

Rabbi Yannai, however, employs an ironic and biased appraisal of Genesis 33:4, which betrays his hostility toward Esau as the ancestor of Israel’s adversaries the Edomites, who many Sages equated with their own enemies, the Romans. That historical reading of Rabbi Yannai’s interpretation may help us grasp why he demonizes Esau (“that wicked man”) and how this midrashic tradition helped to concretize anti-Christian sentiments among Jews experiencing pervasive Christian anti-Semitism.

In reading this midrash today, it behooves us to challenge Rabbi Yannai’s radical rereading of this event by considering how the text first teaches us about the way in which Esau forgives and reunites with Jacob. We find a similar example of sympathetic commentary in the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 16b) regarding Ishmael, whom God saved from dying of thirst because “a person is only judged according to his actions until that moment.” This statement may offer insight into how Rabbi Simeon ben Elazar contradicts Rabbi Yannai by resisting the impulse to blame Esau for the actions of his offspring. We ought to emulate this approach in pursuing partnerships with our Christian and Muslim neighbors in America and abroad: people of faith with whom we might write a new chapter in the history of Abraham’s descendants.