What's everyone crying about in this week's Torah portion, Vayishlach? In 33:4, "Esau ran to meet him; he embraced him, fell on his neck, he kissed him and THEY wept." We are told that Jacob readies for the encounter-with prayer, bribery, and the preparation for battle. What is Esau feeling? Has he nurtured his anger for twenty years or, given his apparent prosperity and might, decided to let it go? The five verbs in this sentence maintain the ambiguity to the end-is Esau running to hug or to hit? Is he embracing in love or in hatred? Is he falling on Jacob's neck to kiss or to kill? The first four verbs are expressed in the singular-Esau owns all the initial action-but the weeping is mutual. Why?
In the Midrash Bereshit Rabbah, Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar says that Esau kissed Jacob "with all his heart." Rabbi Yanai reads that it was no kiss but an attempted bite! He turns Esau into a vampire (maybe it was a full moon?) If so, then why did they cry-both of them? The Midrash cryptically explains-this one wept for his neck, and that one wept for his teeth. Later Midrashim expand on this, claiming that Jacob's neck turned briefly to marble (talk about a stiff neck, and you can imagine what biting marble does to your teeth!), thus hurting both brothers (Esau weeps with frustration at the foiled attack; Jacob in fear of a second strike). Other versions have Esau's teeth turning to wax.
Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar, offers a p'shat, a simple meaning. He sees this as a moment of brotherly love and explains that after all the anxiety of the encounter, and perhaps even out of love, they wept at the encounter. This somewhat sappy reading works for me, but I believe there is more to it.
Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, known by the acronym, the Netziv (1816-1893), explains this incident in his Torah commentary, Ha'ameik Davar, as predictive of a future reconciliation between Jacob (=Israel=the Jews) and Esau (=Edom=Rome=Christians). Specifically there will come a time when Christians will recognize that Jews are their brothers and have their own relationship with God. And, remarkably, he says that Jews will also recognize their brotherhood with Christians and appreciate them (without mention of a theological reconciliation). The Netziv notes that the encounter awakened mercy not only in Esau but Jacob as well.
In our day, such reconciliation seems to be natural. Great efforts have been made to advance ecumenical appreciation for other faiths. In some ways Christians and Jews have a good head start-we share much sacred scripture and have interacted intensively since the very emergence of Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity. Yet, the force of differentiation in those early years and the weight of many violent and hateful centuries thereafter have marred the kinship. We have made great strides with many Catholics and mainline Protestants, but some estrangement remains. This passage reminds us of the need to reclaim our relationships even with those with whom we may disagree.
The recent festival of Thanksgiving is the most ecumenical of seasons-Americans of all faiths seem drawn together by the spirit of gratitude and the commonality of giving thanks (and of watching football). Then comes December, a month where for all of the generic holiday spirit, distinctions arise which are too impossible to ignore.
As we enter this Shabbat, let us think about ways to embrace the other, to share the light and overcome estrangement and emulate Jacob and Esau.
Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham