Yaakov Avinu is finally heading home.
Our Parsha closes the circle of the story begun at the end of Parshat Toldot when Yaakov, fleeing the wrath of his brother Esav seeks both safety and a wife in the home of his Uncle Lavan. The story continues in Parshat YaYetze with the growth of both Yaakov’s wealth and family and his ultimate separation from his father-in-law and erstwhile patron. And now Yaakov is heading home. This homecoming will ultimately entail confronting the ghosts of the past, none more daunting than his relationship with his brother Esav.
This confrontation-cum-reunion is described at great length over the course of forty eight passukim. We share Yaakov’s hopes and fears, we are privy to his plans and his actions. But perhaps one passuk best sums up the entire encounter. As Yaakov prostates himself before his brother Esav the Torah tells us:
“VaYaratz Esav l’krato, vayechabkahu, vayipol al tzavarav, vayishakehu vayibchu.”
“And Esav ran to greet him, and he hugged him and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they cried” (33:4).
From this single passuk we can understand that at best, all of Yaakov’s fears had been unfounded, and at worst he had successfully disarmed Esav’s hostility through his obsequious behavior. The latter is in fact the position staked out by Ramban (32:5) who writes that in his fear of Esav, Yaakov behaved toward his brother in a fashion which demonstrated his subservience toward his brother, a subservience which was totally appropriate for a younger brother to demonstrate towards his elder sibling. It was this “pecking order” which had been upset by Yaakov’s purchase of the bechora and theft of Yitzhak’s blessings and had prompted Esav’s murderous hatred of his brother. The message that Yaakov now sends is that neither the bechora nor the brachot are of any consequence. Yaakov recognizes Esav’s position as eldest brother and wishes to remove any hatred from Esav’s heart.
This reading of the passuk, the assumption that Esav has let go of his hatred of Yaakov and is ready to turn over a new leaf in the relationship with Yaakov is so obvious and so self evident, that Ibn Ezra (33:4) goes as far as to derisively label anyone who would interpret the passuk differently as “atikei m’shadayim”, a young child.
Ibn Ezra’s derision not withstanding, the position that there is more (or perhaps less) than meets the eye to Esav’s behavior is one which has deep roots within the Midrash, and the Midrash itself is based on the Mesorah, the tradition passed down regarding the precise way each letter and word appears in the Torah.
When we read our passuk inside, be it in a sefer Torah or just about any edition of the Chumash, we are struck by the word “VaYishakehu”, and he (Esav) kissed him (Yaakov). Over each of the six Hebrew letters a small dot can be seen. What is the nature of these dots and what is the message of the Mesorah in including them when writing the Torah?
Ralbag, when commenting on the phenomena elsewhere (Breishit 18:9), notes that when the Mesora places dots over a word the intention is to inform us that the meaning of the word has been somehow changed by the circumstances. On the one hand, the word shouldn’t be entirely erased, but on the other hand it is not fully consistent with its original meaning. In our case, says Ralbag, (33:4) the Torah wants to tell us that Esav’s kiss was not fully heartfelt, but neither was it perfunctory. Esav seems to be as ambivalent about this reunion as his brother is!
The Midrash (Breishit Rabba 74:12), on the other hand, acknowledges no such ambivalence. Rather it quotes two uncompromising, and diametrically opposed, opinions regarding the nature of these dots. Rabbi Shimon Ben Elazar teaches that anywhere that there are more letters than dots, preference is given to the written word (i.e. the simple meaning). When there are more dots than letters then the preference shifts to the dots (i.e. the “hidden message). When the two are equal, as is the case here, the dots teach that Esav’s emotions (which were triggered by the reunion), overcame his original animosity and the kiss was heartfelt. Rabbi Yanai disagrees, and instead says that Esav intended to bite Yaakov and kill him but miraculously Yaakov’s neck was hardened and all that came of Esav’s plan was a toothache on one side and a sore neck on the other. It is presumably this opinion that Ibn Ezra so summarily dismisses!
Rav Naftali Tzvi Berlin (the Netziv), endorses the more optimistic approach, but he understands the emotions driving this rapprochement as being shared by both Yaakov and Esav. The key word here is VaYibchu, and they cried. Had we only been dealing with the emotions of Esav, had Yaakov been purely passive at this moment, then the passuk should have used the singular form of the verb, and he cried. Why is it plural? Says the Netziv, Yaakov also found himself overwhelmed by the emotion of the moment. He, too, was carrying an enormous amount of emotional baggage regarding his relationship with Esav. What this encounter presages is the possibility of a lasting, positive relationship between Yaakov and Esav, based on mutual love and respect. In the words of the Netziv, when the descendents of Esav are inspired by a pure spirit to recognize the uniqueness of the descendents of Yaakov, then Yaakov’s descendents can recognize that Esav is their brother.
Rashi quotes a similar Midrash (Sifrei Bhaalotcha 69), which posits that Esav did not kiss Yaakov wholeheartedly. This is the source for Ralbag that we quoted above as well. But the Sifrei goes on to quote the opinion of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, who says that it is a Halacha that Esav hates Yaakov, but in this case his emotions overcame that predisposition and he kissed Yaakov wholeheartedly.
In his work, MiSinai Ba (pp 74-76), Rav Yehuda Shaviv explains that the concept of “Halacha” in the context of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s words is that it is a given, something which is self-understood. This is the essential nature of the relationship between Esav and Yaakov. Esav hates Yaakov. Nonetheless, the Torah tells us that what is expected, natural, a given, need not be so. Esav and Yaakov confront one another, and the purity of the emotion of the moment simply erases all preconceived notions, all expectations! What greater lesson can we expect from a kiss? And can we demand of ourselves anything less noble?