This week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43), we read, “Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept.” (33:4) Torah readers who know the special trope marks will note in this week’s reading that there is one phrase inscribed in the parchment with diacritical dots imprinted above the letters of a certain word. These dots are found infrequently in the Torah. They are signifiers which suggests that there is more to this phrase than its literal translation. What that hidden meaning might be, engaged the imagination of many interpreters of the bible. What word is it? And why is it there in this week’s reading?
Jacob escaped the wrath of his brother Esau some two decades before, as described in last week’s Torah reading, as a result of his receiving the special blessings meant originally for his older brother. Jacob is returning, now, to Canaan with his large family and much wealth. He has learned that Esau is on his way to where Jacob has encamped accompanied by a large group of soldiers. Fearing that his brother Esau still harbors anger, even hatred toward him, Jacob embarks on some practical measures. He divides his camp into three separate entities. Should one group be attacked by Esau and his soldiers, the others might escape to survive and rebuild. Jacob also sends messengers with gifts, as a diplomatic gesture to placate and perhaps mollify his brother’s resentment to assuage if not eliminate Esau’s murderous intentions.
The night before he was to meet with his brother, Jacob wrestles with a man (some say angel) till dawn, defeats the man who then, at the request of Jacob, blesses him by changing his name from Jacob to Israel—the name that will now become the permanent appellation of the future people of Israel.
The morning comes and Jacob makes his way across the plain to meet his brother. We can only guess at his anxiety. The fruits of his labors over the past decades are in jeopardy. The future blessings made by his father, Isaac and ratified by God are also in peril. As he makes his way toward his brother, Jacob bows low seven times, a sign of humility and respect. Then, quite suddenly, we read, “Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling he kissed him; and they wept.” Note, that it was Esau who ran forward to greet and embrace his brother. It was Esau who kissed his brother, and then they both wept. Above the Hebrew word “kissed” are those diacritical marks. Why are those dots there, hovering above the letters, calling attention to the word, as though the dots were a tip off to something that is hidden and whose inner meaning is concealed?
The Midrash tells us the following. Rabbi Simeon ben Elazar said [that the dots above the letters] teaches that [Esau] felt compassion in that moment and kissed [Jacob] with all his heart. Rabbi Yannai said to him: If so, why is [‘kissed’] dotted? On the contrary, it teaches that [Esau] came not to kiss [Jacob] but to bite him. . .(Genesis Rabbah 78:9) Rabbi Elazar’s and Rabbi Yannai’s different interpretations of the verse are well known and have been used by rabbis and preachers for centuries. The embrace of Esau was a dangerously ambivalent act, according to Rabbi Yannai. Esau’s motives were often questioned by the rabbis. Esau’s seemingly warm embrace of his brother Jacob is transformed into a sly and devious scheme meant to disarm Jacob and murder him. The scheme failed because as Esau was about to bite Jacob on his neck, the Midrash further tells us, “our ancestor Jacob’s neck became like marble and that wicked man’s teeth were blunted. Hence, ‘and they wept’ teaches that [Jacob] wept because of his neck and [Esau] wept because of his teeth.” The scenario reads like an SNL skit!
Rabbi Elazar, on the other hand, reads the description of Esau’s embrace and kiss as a straightforward portrayal of two brothers, both overcome by deep emotion as they see each other for the first time after many years of separation, the sight of each other erasing past grievances in the overwhelming rush of the moment.
Instead of choosing one of the rabbi’s interpretation over another, both are probably correct. The Torah with the scribal dots telegraphs a truth about the complexity of human relationships. We are all familiar with the concept of love/hate relationships where the polarity of opposite feelings plays out against the backdrop of our personal history with family members, business partners, or close friends. In our Torah portion it is Esau who acts out his feelings by rushing to greet his brother. In that rush he betrays both his love and his hate, both his compassion and resentment for a brother who, he believes, took his birth right and stripped him of their father’s blessings. Esau wanted to kill Jacob and love him all at once, an instantaneous combustion of opposing feelings, the rivalry of his innermost attitudes, first described when they were already in Rebecca’s womb. The dots above the phrase “he kissed him” might be gestures of the scribe who was sensitive to and, perhaps himself, deeply undecided and uncertain of the actual motivations of Esau.
We can identify with those opposing feelings that sometimes bubble up to the surface of our lives, disturbing the equanimity of our relationships till we find a way to calm those feelings and learn to live in peace adjacent to one another, if not locked into constant emotional turmoil. In the Esau/Jacob event, what emerges is not a rapprochement between the brothers so much as an understanding that damage done, sometimes purposely, sometimes by accident of fate, cannot always be resolved.