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 their 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 to Jacob 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 deceptive 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 does 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 and allowed his forgiveness to ascend over his desire for retribution?
For the rabbis of the classical rabbinic period, Esau was a symbolic personification of the oppressors and enemies of the Jewish people, specifically the Roman rulers of Judea and the Roman empire. When rabbinic tradition teaches that “Esau hates Jacob,” it is a shorthand for “they” hate “us.”
Jewish tradition of the Talmudic period read the figures of Jacob and Esau as symbolic paradigms of Jews and gentiles in their own time. The political experience of Jews under Roman rule was oppressive, and, as the Roman invasion of Judea in the year 70 of the Common Era shows, an often violent and destructive experience as well. Despite the plain sense of the Torah text, that Esau and Jacob embraced in some form of apology and forgiveness, the rabbis suspect and impugn Esau, presumably as an indirect way of criticizing the Roman empire.
As a story of sibling relationships, family conflict, and complex emotions, the Torah version of 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
But in the rabbinic reading of the same story, the ambiguity and imprecision are sacrificed for the sake of a polemic, rendering into stark black-and-white terms what earlier generations had been content to present as shades of gray.
In our polarized cultural climate, similar generalized portrayals of the “other” are ascendant. Caricatures stand in for actual people, and often baseless binary distinctions between “us” and “them” are deployed to isolate, criticize, and condemn entire communities, nations, religions, and ethnic groups. Social media only accelerates the dissemination of
In such an environment, perhaps we can recover the complexity that the biblical writers brought to characters and communities whose stories they narrate. Rather than suspicion and mistrust, our Torah portion suggests that we engage the “other” with a degree of openness. It is fine and often prudent to be wary — Jacob rightfully was anxious and uncertain about what the encounter with Jacob would yield. But it is also important to be open to experiences different from those we have been taught to anticipate.