וַיָּ֨רָץ עֵשָׂ֤ו לִקְרָאתוֹ֙ וַֽיְחַבְּקֵ֔הוּ וַיִּפֹּ֥ל עַל־צַוָּארָ֖ו [צַוָּארָ֖יו] וַיִּשָּׁקֵ֑הוּ וַיִּבְכּֽוּ:
“And Esau ran to meet him and he embraced him and he fell upon his neck and he kissed him and they wept.”
In the Torah scroll, the word “vayisha’kei’hu” – “And he kissed him” has a scribal marking – six dots carefully placed over it, drawing our attention and demanding we question the text. But what is the question being asked? Is it that there is an extra word that should not be there? Is the word to be read differently – not “Vayisha’kei’hu וישקיהו and he kissed him” ,but “Vayisha’kei’hu וישכיהו and he bit him”. Same sound, but one root letter difference changes everything – from the kiss of reconciliation after years of estrangement, to the betrayal of vulnerability and friendship instead. The midrash plays on this to say that Esau had attempted to bite Jacob’s neck but at the last minute it was turned hard as marble and so his evil intention to destroy his brother was foiled.
Jacob and Esau had struggled even before they were born, causing their mother Rebecca enough pain that she went to enquire of God about what was happening within her body. Each of them was favoured by a different parent, each of them had their own distinct personality: Esau a hunter and a man of the field, Jacob a man who liked to stay at home. If we look at the biblical texts about Esau without the lenses of rabbinic tradition and storytelling, we see a simple uncomplicated man who follows his powerful appetites, his huge physicality determining his behaviour. We see a man who loves his father and is admired by him. We see a man who stays local to his parents, marrying two Canaanite women, and who, when he realises that his parents are not happy with him marrying out of the family, marries the daughter of his uncle Ishmael, mistakenly believing that this is a choice which will please them.
After his brother Jacob had run away from his furious anger having cheated him of their blind father’s covenant blessing, Esau stays near home, becomes wealthy, and settles with his large and prosperous household in Seir. When their father eventually dies Jacob has also come closer to home, having left Shechem and entered Canaan, finally coming home to Hebron. The two brothers buried their father together, the text telling us “and they buried him, Esau and Jacob his sons” (Gen 35:29). It seems as if the reconciliation is complete.
And then we are told (Genesis 36:6) וַיִּקַּ֣ח עֵשָׂ֡ו אֶת־נָ֠שָׁ֠יו וְאֶת־בָּנָ֣יו וְאֶת־בְּנֹתָיו֘ וְאֶת־כָּל־נַפְשׁ֣וֹת בֵּיתוֹ֒ וְאֶת־מִקְנֵ֣הוּ וְאֶת־כָּל־בְּהֶמְתּ֗וֹ וְאֵת֙ כָּל־קִנְיָנ֔וֹ אֲשֶׁ֥ר רָכַ֖שׁ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ כְּנָ֑עַן וַיֵּ֣לֶךְ אֶל־אֶ֔רֶץ מִפְּנֵ֖י יַֽעֲקֹ֥ב אָחִֽיו
And Esau took his wives and his sons and his daughters, and all the souls of his household, and all his flocks and his beasts and all he had acquired, which he had gathered in the land of Canaan, and he went to a land because of/ away from Jacob his brother. The bible goes on to tell us that the two brothers had too many animals between them to be sustained on the land together, and so Esau went to Mt Seir, the same is Edom. Rather as Abraham and Lot had separated earlier, in order to keep the tensions of their flocks and shepherds down, so here the twin sons of Isaac separate, and the one who leaves walks out of history. But it reads differently than the story between Abraham and his nephew – there is no recorded tension, no struggles between the shepherds, just the realisation that they each need to find their own space for their burgeoning families.
So why is Esau turned into Edom, into the paradigm for the enemy of the Jewish people when he seems to have overcome his ravening appetites, made something of his life, and made his peace with his twin brother sufficient for the two to mourn their father together? Why the need to draw attention to the kiss of reconciliation and by implication to suggest that not everything was as it seemed?
In rabbinic tradition Esau becomes the code name for the oppressor – Rome.
Rabbi Akiva (c50-135) first glosses the ambiguous statement of the blind Isaac at the time of the blessing of the firstborn son (when he says “The voice is the voice of Jacob but the hands are the hands of Esau”) as being a description of the anguished voice of the Jews/Jacob crying out against oppression perpetrated against them by Rome/ the hands of Esau. And in the middle of the second century Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai famously commented that “it is a Halachah/well established tradition that Esau hates Jacob” (Sifre Numbers 69).
It was a fairly clumsy cipher but it did the trick of being able to discuss their oppression and ways to counter it without the oppressors being too easily aware – at least for a time. By the time of Akiva’s student Shimon bar Yochai the Roman oppression was all consuming and he had to go into hiding to survive. No wonder then his belief that the implacable hatred of Rome for the Jews was somehow primal, a Halachah from Sinai, unquestionable and for ever.
But time moves on and we move with it. The power of Rome has long gone and what stays with us is the Biblical text and our obligation to encounter it and understand it in our generation. And in the biblical text Esau is not the figure of evil and hatred that he becomes in later tradition – indeed he is portrayed as running towards his brother to embrace him, they weep together (although this may be relief in the case of Jacob), Esau refuses the gifts Jacob offers to him in tribute. Essentially one might say that Esau has got over his anger. His personality of appetites and passions is sated with his own achievements, wealth and family. For him the fight over the birthright blessing is old news, finished business, dead and gone. The issue now is pragmatic- how do the two wealthy brothers with their large households and flocks and herds live on the land and support their needs? By separating of course, but coming together for the family rite of burial of their father. Esau walks out of history of his own volition, content with what he has.
So isn’t it time to stop the belief that there is a visceral and unquestionable hatred of us by the powers that line up to destroy us, and recognise that for sure there is anti-Semitism in the world, but that is not pre-ordained nor something we are powerless to engage with or combat. It is not primal truth that Esau hates Jacob; that Jacob has to duck and dive to survive. This is a model that has outlived its usefulness, a story that hampers us from proceeding with our lives. We will almost certainly encounter anti-Semitism, just as many of us will encounter other prejudices – against our gender or height or skin colour or sexuality. But this must be faced firmly and responsibly, engaged with, shown for what it is, protested against and other behaviour demanded. If Esau really kissed Jacob on his vulnerable smooth neck, (the part of him so unlike Esau Jacob had queried whether his father would know him by it) and if they had then parted on relatively reasonable terms and been able to come together to bury their father, then maybe we too can create a living peace, one that does not have to be passionate or entangled together, but respectful and honourable. And then maybe we can take those scribal marks off the scroll, and believe that reconciliation really is possible.
image of reconciliation of Jacob and Esau by Francesco Hayez