An Infinity of Interpretation

Vayishlah By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Nov 27, 1993 / 5754 | Torah Commentary

There are ten passages in the Torah where dots appear above the letters of one or more words. The technique derives from the rabbis, who borrowed it from the early grammarians in Alexandria, and is intended to arrest the reader’s attention. In this week’s parasha, we meet an especially interesting example.

The narrative finally reaches the point where Jacob and Esau, after a separation of some twenty years, meet again. “Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept (Genesis 33:4).” If you look closely at your Hebrew text, you will notice that the rabbis chose to place six dots above the letters of the word “vayishakehu – and he kissed him.” But for what purpose?

Such dots were usually used to flag a word whose meaning was unclear, which might have been corrupted in transmission. Not in this case, however. Rashi makes reference to a rabbinic dispute over the sincerity of Esau’s kiss. Some rabbis felt the dots conveyed a measure of insincerity: Esau failed to kiss Jacob with a full heart. Could he ever forget completely the injustice and hurt that his brother had inflicted on him?

But Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai disagreed in a novel way. “It is well-known that Esau hates Jacob. In this instance, however, his love was truly stirred and he kissed him with all his heart.”

The difference of opinion is really nominal. Both interpretive traditions seem to share the view that the hatred of Esau for Jacob is a constant. Only in this episode do these interpretations part company, with some rabbis insisting that here, too, there was no love lost, while Rabbi Shimon counters that this episode is indeed an exception. The dots, then, warn us not to accept the text so readily at face value.

But does the narrative warrant such blatant rabbinic intrusion? Why not allow the reader to draw his or her own conclusions? In fact, I do not think the text is at all ambiguous at this point. Despite the artistry with which the Torah deepens our suspense, there is little evidence that Esau came in an unforgiving mood. The verbs used — “ran,” “embraced,” “kissed” and “wept” — convey rather a flush of genuine joy.At issue here is not the surface meaning of the text, but what the rabbis did to the figures of Esau and Jacob in their ceaseless exegetical reworking of the text. They transformed Esau into Rome, the archenemy of Israel, the personification of the wicked kingdom, and read the sibling rivalry of Isaac’s sons as foreshadowing the worldwide confrontation of Judaism with the Roman empire in their own day. The rabbis consistently failed to muster any sympathy for Esau, even though the Torah does, as in chapter 27, because for them his image and individuality always blurred with that of Rome. In the midrash, Esau can do no right and Jacob no wrong. Thus, when Isaac, blind and bewildered, runs his hands over a disguised Jacob and muses, “The voice is the voice of Jacob, yet the hands are the hands of Esau (Gen. 27:22),” the midrash brings the interpretive comment of a rabbi who lived in the generation immediately after the Bar Kochba rebellion that “the voice of Jacob screams because of what the hands of Esau do to him.”

Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai, whom we quoted above, lived in the same generation, and when he declares unequivocally that Esau always hates Jacob, his comment illuminates his own state of mind, rather than that of Esau.

The hostility toward Rome is also what prompted the rabbis to select the one and only chapter of the prophet Obadiah as the haphtara for our parasha. Obadiah excoriates Edom (i.e. Esau) for his betrayal of Jacob. “How could you gaze with glee on your brother that day, on his day of calamity! How could you gloat over the people of Judah on that day of ruin (v. 12)!” The prophet promises divine retribution, closing with a messianic finale which the rabbis attached to the end of the daily recitation of Moses’ song (Az yashir Moshe) in the morning service: “For liberators shall march up on Mount Zion to wreak judgment on Mount Esau; and dominion shall be the Lord’s (v. 21).”

There can be no doubt that the rabbis, given how they read Esau, understood this comforting prophecy as directed against his ruthless and triumphant progeny ensconced in Rome, the mortal enemy of Israel. The two nations sprung from Rebekah’s womb would continue to battle through the ages till God saw fit to repair the travesties of human history.

What the rabbis did to Esau is a striking instance of misreading born of love and need. As a sacred text, the Torah could bear an infinity of interpretations. Midrash kept the canon from ever closing. Each generation plumbed the Torah for the answers to its own plight. The history of biblical exegesis (parshanut) is the record of that unbroken dialogue and no less fascinating than the study of Scripture itself. It is the very substance of Jewish intellectual and religious history.

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Va-yishlah are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.