In this week’s Torah reading, the reunion of the estranged siblings Jacob and Esau finally occurs. Having supplanted his twin brother many years earlier by snaring the birthright and later by obtaining father Isaac’s blessing through deceit and disguise, Jacob appropriately fears that on his return to the homeland he will be confronted by an angry Esau.
Jacob (and the reader) are relieved when Esau’s approach turns to reconciliation rather than revenge: “And Esau ran to meet [Jacob] and embraced him, falling on his neck and kissing him, and they wept.” (Genesis 33:4) The Hebrew word for “and he kissed him” appears in the Torah with a series of unexplained dots over the consonants, opening an avenue of imagination in which rabbinic tradition sees Esau’s apparent affection as duplicitous and insincere. Punning on the Hebrew, Rabbi Yannai teaches that “he came not to kiss him but to bite him.” (Midrash Rabbah to Genesis, 78:12)
Why do some voices of the rabbinic tradition reject the plain sense of the Torah text, which clearly suggests that Esau rose to the occasion and allowed his compassion to triumph over his anger, his forgiveness over his desire for retribution?
Esau in the Torah is both complex and innocent. His actions on the face of them are more or less innocent, perhaps naive, hardly malicious. True, he exchanges his birthright for a bowl of lentils, but this makes him foolish and perhaps impulsive — hardly wicked.
When informed by his father that Jacob has stolen the blessing, Esau howls in pain, the pain of one who has been taken advantage of, not necessarily the pain of one who has acted with evil intent. (Genesis 27:38)
To understand the rabbinic imperative of isolating Esau and reading his actions and motives in the most negative light, it helps to know that for many of the rabbis of the talmudic period, Esau was a symbolic personification of the oppressors and enemies of the Jewish people, specifically the Roman rulers of Judea and of the Roman empire. Jacob (aka “Israel”), of course, is the personification of the Jewish people.
When rabbinic tradition teaches that “Esau hates Jacob,” it is shorthand for the “us vs. them” political-religious perspective of a good part of ancient rabbinic tradition (and certain strident voices in our contemporary community). Esau cannot be merely an intellectual or spiritual light-weight who surrenders the birthright out of naivete or lack of understanding. He must instead be someone who actively understands the sacred value of the birthright and arrogantly tosses it aside in order to satisfy his gluttony.
Conversely, Jacob (with the help of his mother Rebecca) cannot be what he clearly appears to be: a partner in deceit who tricks Isaac and cheats Esau. He must, by many rabbinic interpretations, be someone who understands the sacred responsibility of the birthright, who does what he does for a higher purpose, whose actions receive implicit divine endorsement. After all, when Jacob flees his home to escape Esau’s anger, he immediately has a vision of God in which God makes a series of promises that celebrate Jacob’s inheritance of the line of Isaac and Abraham. (Genesis 28:10-22)
Because later Jewish tradition read the figures of Jacob and Esau as paradigms, respectively, of Jews and gentiles, and because the political experience of Jews under Roman rule was generally negative, it is not unusual to see the rabbis using Esau as a subtle — and presumably to Roman eyes and ears, well-disguised — representation of the oppressors.
But in so doing, the rabbis — and the generations of Jews who study their insights — often absorb their interpretations and retroject them into a text whose narrative is less clear. As a story of sibling relationships, family conflict, and complex emotions, the reunion of Jacob and Esau artfully leaves the reader to ponder just who was wrong and who was right, just who showed cunning and ruthlessness, and who demonstrated simple trust and perhaps bad judgment.
When Esau puts aside the intervening years and embraces his brother, in the words of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, “what we have here is a revelation of genuine humanity…when the strong respects the strong, this is discretion. But when the strong falls on the neck of the weak and casts away his sword, then we know that humanity and justice have prevailed.”