Table for Five: Vayishlach
In partnership with the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept.
– Gen. 33:4
David Porush, Student, teacher, writer
What kind of a kiss is this? What kind of tears? After all Jacob’s prostrations, after all Esau’s saber rattling, do they really fall on each other’s necks as loving long-lost twins? Are we to believe they truly reconciled here?
Rashi says Esau’s kiss is half-hearted.
Rabbeinu Bachya quotes Proverbs: “Many are the kisses of an enemy.”
Rav Hirsh says “you can fake a kiss, but tears drop from the innermost part of the human soul.”
Radak says they’re sincere, but R’ Yannai claims that Esau meant to bite Jacob’s neck!
The Targum of Jerusalem totally waves off any sentiment: Esau wept because of (metaphysical?) pain in his teeth, and Jacob cries because of pain in his neck.
Luzzatto, citing the analogy of Jacob’s other heartrending reunion – with Joseph in Egypt – says if Esau and Jacob were sincere, they would be too overwhelmed to kiss. i.e., it was all just Middle Eastern kabuki.
Kabbalah says poetically, “There are kisses that hate…Like a crocodile, they watered and wept.” Crocodile tears.
I choose to follow the warmhearted Netziv, R’ Berlin: “They wept with sincere passion… Love for Esau awakened in Yaakov.” He sees their reunion as prophetic. “Whenever Esau’s descendants genuinely acknowledge Yisrael’s greatness, Yisrael reciprocates with feelings of brotherhood.”
Rabbanit Alissa Thomas-Newborn, New York-Presbyterian Columbia University Irving Medical Center and Netivot Shalom Congregation
While many question whether Esav’s intentions are genuine, the Ibn Ezra emphasizes that Esav never intended Yaakov harm. He bases this on the verse’s ending, which mirrors the tearful reunion between Yosef and his brothers when Yosef reveals his identity. Since Yosef had pure intentions in embracing, kissing, and crying together with his brothers, the parallel language here suggests that Esav did too.
In each case, there is emotional baggage that justifies suspicion (Yosef having been thrown in a pit and sold, and Esav having his blessing stolen)! The unifying theme is the potential for emotional walls to come down through vulnerability. After much has been lost, including time together, the brothers in each story embrace and cry together. Their tears mourn all that has happened and express gratitude for the time they have left together.
When someone who hurt us expresses remorse, we can be surprised by our reaction. This is because when we are met with an open heart, even amidst the baggage, we are inspired to let go of our pain and receive love and relief in its place. God put this into our spiritual DNA. Let’s reflect on why this is such a central theme in our Torah’s wisdom. Perhaps it gets at one of our most profound spiritual responsibilities: To recognize hurt and distance (between each other and between ourselves and God) and to have the courage and humility to cultivate reunion and forgiveness. What tearful embrace are you in need of right now?
Rabbi Scott N. Bolton, Congregation Or Zarua, New York, NY
Why run? Towards whom? When his brother came running at him, I imagine Jacob felt like the man on the bridge in the famous Kafka short story.
Multiple possibilities arise in that three-paragraph tale. When the man sees the runner, inner fears and stories start to flow: “He’s running at me to kill me!” Questions rise: “Is he running from a crime? Maybe he and his friend are trying to outrun a pursuer? Is this just for amusement?”
As Esau ran towards Jacob we remember that Jacob ran away from his belligerent, begrudged brother years earlier. “Kum, b’rakh lekha!” (rise and flee!) Rebecca commanded and Isaac barked “kum, lekh!” (get up and go!). Now Esau Va-YArotz (he ran) towards Ya’akov.
Forget the kisses; stop to fix focus on the running. This is holy running! A running of t’shuvah, reconciliation and reunion. Holy running. Before this in Torah the verb “and he ran, va’YArotz” was associated with Abraham meeting three angels at his tent and Eliezer running towards Rebecca at the well to affirm she would be the next matriarch. Rashi notes that Esau found compassion and mercy at the moment of his reconnecting with his brother. It was not just in the embrace and kisses that Torah expresses his true feelings. His deep desire to reunite was evidenced by his running towards his estranged brother. It makes me think, as we stand on that proverbial bridge, what kind of holy running and towards whom is in our futures?
Rabbi Nolan Lebovitz, Senior Rabbi, Valley Beth Shalom, Encino, CA
From Cain’s murder of Abel, to Ishmael’s inappropriate behavior with Isaac, to Esau’s vow of violence against Jacob, the depiction of sibling relationships in Genesis reflects a sombre reality.
Yet, after years of anxiety, years of heartache, years of separation, we finally see that reconciliation between Esau and Jacob is possible. In this moment, the Torah teaches us that the choices within deep-seated struggles do not have to be restricted to violence or separation. There is another path forward: the journey to reconciliation, resolution, and perhaps even return to love, is within reach.
For many of us, our closest relationships remain our most complex.
Perhaps, it is from this moment that Esau and Jacob embrace that the Jewish People learns to include our Wicked Child at our Passover Seders. Perhaps, it is here that we begin to ignore the significance of birth order and love equally.
The Torah’s portrayal of siblings evolves from violence in Genesis to support in Exodus. Long ago, the Psalmist expressed a degree of hope in saying, “How good and how pleasant it is when siblings can dwell together.” (Ps. 133) While that goal remains, the artist Bob Dylan cautioned that relational development takes time, “As the present now will later be past, the order is rapidly fadin’, And the first one now will later be last, For the times they are a-changin’.”
Do not let too much time pass before connecting (or reconnecting) with your siblings. How good and pleasant it will be!
Sarah Pachter, Author and Speaker
Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer 37:8 states, “Do not read vayishakêhu (and he kissed him), but (read) vayishkêhu (and he bit him).”
The commentaries disagree regarding Eisav’s true intention regarding Yaakov. Was he coming to Yaakov with love and willingness to move forward? Or was he holding a grudge?
Some state that because Eisav wept during the reunion it showed that he truly had feelings of love towards his brother, because tears are an expression of the soul.
No definitive answer is given. Perhaps, this is to suggest that a person can hold two opposite feelings in their heart simultaneously. The human heart can contain tremendous joy and sadness, all at once. Under the chuppah, when we have extreme joy, we simultaneously break the glass while we express our sadness and commemorate the destruction of the temple.
Similarly, we can feel disappointment in a child and love that child all at once. One can also be hurt by one’s parents and simultaneously express gratitude towards them. We have the capacity to forgive someone, while still feeling sadness and pain over the lost opportunity for connection.
Like Eisav and Yaakov, we too can weep tears of genuine happiness to see one another and simultaneously weep over the loss of a potential relationship with a sibling.
May we all have the courage and strength to peel away the outer layer of anger and choose the deeper, more hidden layer of forgiveness and enjoy the inner peace that comes along with that brave choice.
Image: Reconciliation of Esau and Jacob by Peter Paul Rubens (1624)
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