What are our expectations of Esau, Jacob’s older brother and a much maligned biblical character?
Dr. Gila Vachman, Director of Torah Lishma Tel Aviv and lecturer in midrash and aggadah at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, discusses several midrashim that allow us to possibly see Esau in a different light.
Read the full article here and watch the video below:
Two brothers are about to meet each other after twenty years of separation. The last time they saw each other there was a great hatred between them since one of them cheated on his brother and the other one wished to kill him. What will happen when they meet? Can twenty years change the way they feel towards each other? Can an enemy become a friend?
It is precisely this question that the Midrash seeks to answer, and it does so by focusing on one word that appears in this week’s portion, Parashat Vayishlach. The Parasha opens with Jacob’s preparations for his encounter with his brother, Esau: “Jacob sent messengers before him unto Esau his brother unto the land of Seir, the country of Edom.” The message that Jacob sends is a message of reconciliation and peace, he seeks to please his brother, calls himself ‘your servant’ and calls Esau ‘my lord’. But the messengers return and report that Esau is heading towards him followed by a group of 400 people.
We remember well that the last time we met Esau, five chapters ago, he sought to kill Jacob, so Jacob’s fear of meeting him is quite understandable. Yet, after all the preparations, after the generous gift that Jacob sends to his brother, after the night struggle with the mysterious person, the moment arrives.
The moment of the meeting between the two brothers is described in a rather moving way:
וַיָּרָץ עֵשָׂו לִקְרָאתוֹ וַיְחַבְּקֵהוּ וַיִּפֹּל עַל צַוָּארָו וַיִּשָּׁקֵהוּ וַיִּבְכּוּ
“Esau ran to towards him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him, and they wept.”
If we look closely at the Torah scroll, the Bible or the Humash, we can see that the word ‘Vayishakahu’ is written in a special way – each letter is marked with a dot above. There are several such marked words in the Torah. These are actually common erasure marks among ancient scribes. However, the sages see these dots, this unique form of writing, as a sign that asks us to pay special attention to the marked word, to fully understand its meaning. But what does it mean? The Midrash brings two opposing opinions to interpret the word:
One opinion says that Esau’s kiss was not sincere, ‘that he did not kiss him with all his heart’. The Midrash even adds and details: “[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.” If so, the Midrash asks, why is it written “and wept”? Jacob wept because of his neck and Esau wept because of his teeth. This interpretation identifies Esau as ‘evil’, and does not allow him to change his ways or become a different person. The situation that was established twenty years ago will stay the same forever, Esau will always hate Jacob.
But there is also the opposite opinion in the Midrash, which sees the dots above the word וישקהו not as signs of erasure but as signs of emphasis: “It teaches us that Esau’s mercy was awoken at that time and his arms were wholeheartedly.” Esau did not change his skin and did not change his identity, he is still the angry brother, but at the moment of the encounter something happened, his pity awoke for his brother, whom he had not seen for so many years and for one moment he felt great closeness and kissed him with all his heart.
In Jewish thought throughout the ages, the first interpretation was usually accepted. Esau, the Edomite, became a figure identified with the evil Roman Empire, and later with Christianity. Many years of persecution and hostility have turned the phrase ‘it is known that Esau hates Jacob’ into a kind of common mantra, which does not leave room for any other view of reality. But it is worth remembering that this sentence also has a second part, and it asks us to examine the actions of the enemy not only in the light of the bloody history, but also according to his intention at the time – perhaps a change had occurred? Maybe, even for a moment, love can arise between the two rival brothers. It seems to me that this is what this midrash, enunciating these two voices, seeks to teach us: it is possible to stick to old positions and determine that an enemy always remains an enemy, but one can also see in him a person, and perhaps even a brother, and from that try and bring about change, and to turn the enemy into a friend.
Dr. Gila Vachman studied at the Hebrew University where she received a BA (cum laude) in Talmud and Hebrew literature, an MA (cum laude) in Midrash and Aggadah as well as a PhD. She is a lecturer in Midrash and Aggadah at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies and the Hebrew University. Born in Kibbutz Yavne, married, the mother of three children, and lives in Jerusalem.