Parasha Vayishlach

What’s everyone crying about inthis week’s Torah portion, parashat Vayishlach?  That is the question that interests me in Genesis 33:4, “Esau ran to meet him; he embraced him, fell on his neck, he kissed him and THEY wept.”  What exactly is Esau crying for? We have had ample indication of Jacob’s emotions and his anxiety leading up to the reunion. We are told that he readies for the encounter—with prayer, bribery and the preparation for battle. But 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 two rabbis debate this point(s).  R’ Shimon b. Elazar says that Esau kissed Jacob “with all his heart”.  R’ Yanai reads that it was no kiss, but an attempted bite! He turns Esau into a vampire (maybe it was a new moon?)  If so, then why did they cry—both of them?  This 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!), 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.  Either way, these Midrashim explain the tears from Rabbi Yanai’s perspective.

But according to Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar, who sees this as a moment of brotherly love, why the tears?  It isn’t hard to give a p’shat, simple meaning.  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 want to share my favorite d’rash, interpretation, on the weeping:

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).  The way he sees it, 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 (he does not mention a theological reconciliation). Thus both brothers will weep over past hatred and live in harmony together.  The Netziv notes that the encounter awakened mercy not only in Esau but in Jacob as well.

In our day, such reconciliation seems to be natural for many of us, but a few decades ago it was not so common. 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 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 with 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 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 football.  Then comes December, a month where for all of the generic holiday spirit, distinctions arise which are too impossible to ignore. I used to make a point of differentiating Hanukkah from Christmas, saying that our Festival of Lights is specifically the counter-assimilation festival, the time to assert distinctiveness, not universal comity. This may still be the case, but the historical moment that we inhabit is one in which it is necessary to interpret our identity in a way that illuminates the lives of others, especially our Christian counterparts.

I will have more to say about Hanukah next week, but 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.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham