Frederick L. Klein

VaYishlach: Does Esau Have to Hate Jacob?

How many times have in the past two months have we bemoaned the desertion of perceived ‘allies’?  How many times have we experienced a decided lack of compassion and sympathy for our suffering?  How many times have we seen that we are the objects of hatred, as we become the foil of the raging cultural debates which have nothing to do with the actual context of what is happening in Israel?  Most disturbingly, how many times have we muttered the disconcerting words, “To hell with the world. Whatever we do ‘they’ are going to hate us.” Is there room for hope, or will there ‘never be peace’? This ambivalence we are experiencing is projected into a critical debate in this week’s parashah.

Anyone who opens a Torah scroll knows the text lacks punctuation or vowels.  For this reason, the actual tradition of how to read the words, the cantillation, and division of the text is preserved in what are called Masoretic notes which accompany all the major codices of the Hebrew bible.  However, there is a noticeable exception to this rule which appears in our week’s parashah.  In a number of places in the Torah, diacritic dots appear above the Hebrew letters of the Torah scroll.  The meaning of these dots are a subject of academic debate, but for most of history these dots have indicated that these words may have not been part of the Biblical text. [1]

Our parashah describes the grand reunion between Esau and Jacob.  After vowing to kill Jacob for tricking him of the blessings of his father, Jacob has needed to flee for twenty years to the home of Laban.  He now returns, and hears that Esau is coming to greet him with four hundred men.  While Esau’s motivations are unclear but seem to be military in nature, it is clear that Jacob assumes the worse.  He divides his family into camps in order that if one part of his family is wiped out, the others will remain.  He provides tribute to his brother in order to appease him and finally prays for Divine intervention.  When the two finally come face to face, Esau runs to him, falls on his shoulders, kisses him, and begins to cry.

On the face of it the episode seems like one of reconciliation.  All the fears of Jacob are unfounded. Emotionally, that is the way I believe many would want to read the text.  Finally- after so many years, all the pain and resentment is released. Brothers embrace and all  the fear and pain evaporates.  Jacob and Esau, twins struggling from the womb, finally express the filial love we would expect of brothers. Yet, atop the word VaYashkeihu, ‘and he [Esau] kissed Jacob,’ diacritic dots appear above the words.  Whether the word was properly part of the original Biblical text or not, the dots direct us to pay attention to the meaning of that kiss.  Was the kiss authentic or not?

The midrashim run the gamut of approaches.   One opinion in the midrash states that in fact the kiss was perfunctory and symbolic, but not earnest.  It was not ‘with all his heart’. In another midrash, there was no ambivalence whatsoever. The dots indicate the kiss was a kiss of death, a subversive act of pretending to be a ‘peacemaker’ and then plunging the knife into the heart of Jacob.  Playing on the etymological similarity between the words for ‘kiss’ and ‘bite’, Rabbi Yannai says the dots indicate that his intention was not to kiss (nashak) but to bite him on the neck (nashach). Esau cried not because he was overwhelmed with filial love, but rather because God performed a miracle, turning Jacob’s neck into a pillar of marble.  Jacob cried because he was bit and Esau cried because he broke his teeth. Then we have Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai who states that it is a known halakha (halakha yaduah) that Esau will always hate Jacob, but at this moment the kiss was sincere. Even enemies can have moments in which love overcomes hate.  Similarly, Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar indicates that at that moment he had a transformation, as he swelled with mercy and kissed him with all his heart. Finally, some medieval commentors including Ibn Ezra see the diacritic notes indicating that Esau’s love for his brother was completely sincere.  In essence, how one sees the kiss is as much about what one reads into the text as it is about one reads out of the text.

In the end of the narrative there seems to be genuine love between the two brothers.  They celebrate one another’s family and Esau wants to travel with his brother back to the land.  Yet, Jacob tells Esau that the pace of travel will be two grueling for the young children.  Esau should go ahead to Seir, and Jacob will meet him.  He refuses Esau’s generous offer to provide messengers to accompany him, and most tellingly, Jacob never journeys to the land of Seir at all, but decidedly goes another way, to Sukkot.  Thus, whatever the true motivations of Esau, Jacob ultimately does not completely trust his brother.  Even the way Jacob addresses his brother remains formal and not truly heartfelt.  If there is some rapprochement between the two parties, it is not complete.  The wounds and mistrust may be too great, even if one argues there are moments of sincerity and love.

One of the great gifts of the book of Genesis is its capacity to engage us in the narrative, to ask us to consider the conflicting motivations of the various characters.  Genesis does not present characters as good or bad, but complex. However, the story of Jacob and Esau is not simply about two brothers, for Esau is the father of Edom, which in later rabbinic Judaism is associated with the Roman Empire and Christendom, just as Ishmael is associated with Islam.  Thus, to talk about the relationship between these two brothers represents a larger conversation about the relationship between Jews and the world.  Given the history of Jewish suffering, mistrust and competition, the ambivalence of Jews to the rest of the world is sometimes not surprising.  Indeed, while Jacob will prevail and under King David even dominate the Edomites, the Second Temple will be destroyed and the Jewish people will be exiled by the Romans.  The suppression of any Jewish expression of independence was violent and brutal.  In rabbinic thought, the utter brutality of Rome is remembered in the execution of the rabbinic elite in the second century, the ‘ten martyrs’.  One can find many texts testifying to the ongoing enmity between Jacob and Esau, as well as their respective descendants.  These texts inform the past and present moment. How could they not?

Nonetheless, in spite of this violence between Jacob and Esau, Jersualem and Rome, the rabbis indicate in other texts that the relationship is dynamic and fluid. Commenting on the two struggling twins in the womb of Rebecca, who will become Jacob and Esau, the Talmud comments on the oracle Rebecca received.  She was told shnei goyim be’bitnech, two nations are in your womb.  However, playing on the word goyim/ nation, the Talmud states the verse should read ge’im/ princes.  The verse alludes to two future princes, descendants of Jacob and Esau, Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, the compiler of the Mishna, and the Roman Caesar Antoninus, emperor from 138-161 CE.  In this fantastic midrash, the leader of Jerwy and the leader of Rome, like Jacob and Esau are siblings![2]  However, their relationship is decidedly different than Jacob and Esau.

What is interesting is the stories that are told between these two figures, and the close relationship they had.  While the extensive Talmudic stories are not historical and reflective of the rabbinic imagination, they are remarkable given the fact that this is soon after the vicious Hadrianic persecution of Jews.  The two struggle against one another, but more in the realms of philosophy.  Together they consider questions of whether the body or the soul is the source of sin, how often should one pray in a day, does the soul enter the body at the point of conception or later, and why the Sun rises in the east and sets in the west.  Together they pursue knowledge.[3]  In other situations the two meet secretly and Rabbi Yehudah gives Antoninus secret advice as to how to deal with the Imperial Senate in Rome and overcome his political enemies.[4]  In one legend, Antoninus wants assurance from Rabbi Yehudah that he has a place in the next world, and some texts imply that he wanted to convert to Judaism.[5]  Upon the death of Antoninus, Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi is purported to exclaim, “Our mutual bundle has been torn asunder.”[6]

None of these stories are historical, but the very fact that they exist are fascinating, especially given the animosity between Judea and Rome and extreme persecution Jews had suffered.  Here the two leaders seem to leap out of their respective contexts, and together engage in the practical and existential questions of life.  Why would the rabbis tell such a story? 

In all honesty, I do not know, but for me it points to an imaginary world in which things might be different than the present moment.  The rabbis did not succumb to a fatalism about the capacity of the world to change.  Rome and Judea may indeed be at odds, but leaders see beyond the present moment and look into the future.  This dream is projected upon two leaders.

Our parashah makes it clear that Jacob is not ready to fully embrace his brother, and the motivations of an impetuous person like Esau are unpredictable.   In our present situation, there is certainly  no reconciliation with a Hamas; there is an Esau trying to kill us!

Many rabbis will speak this shabbat about Esau, and quote halakha hu, it is a rule that Esau hates Jacob, and this moment proves it. Yet, interestingly, this phrase is not found elsewhere in Rabbinic texts.   Many manuscripts do not read halakha yadua (it is a law that Esau hates Jacob)  but rather halo yadua (is it not known that Esau hated Jacob); the former version was picked up by Rashi and therefore popularized.  The former is a metaphysical statement about the relationship between Jacob and Esau and by extension Israel and the nations of the world.  The latter is an exclamatory statement of an oppressed people which makes no metaphysical claims, or it may just have to do with the actual relationship between the Biblical Jacob and Esau.[7]

At this moment, perhaps the message that antisemitism is the longest hatred, going back to the Bible is the correct message.  It expresses some of the trauma we have experienced as a people and continue tragically to experience.  However, the rabbinic midrashim of Esau’s kiss, and certainly the stories of Rabbi Yehudah and Antoninus, teach us that leaders also look beyond the present moment and imagine other realities.   We cannot be naïve to the vicious and barbaric hatred we face, but we must simultaneously hold out for a future day when brothers embrace.   Who those brothers will be and when that will happen no one knows, but as Jews who plant seeds of hope and life, we continue to dream for that day.   We will need to fight the murderous Esau if that need be, but we need to also prepare for the day when brothers can embrace and  become brothers again.

Shabbat shalom

[1] See indication of this theory in Bamidbar Rabba 3:13.

[2] Various scholars have associated the Caesar mentioned in the Talmud with various second century Caesars.

[3] See E, g, T.B. Sanhedrin 91a

[4] T.B. Avodah Zarah 10a-b

[5] Yeshualmi Megilah 1:10

[6] T.B. Avodah Zarah 10b

[7] See Rabbi Yitzchak Etzshalom podcast from KMTT- The Torah Podcast, Nov. 20, 2023.  See also the essay by Prof. Rabbi Marty Lockshin, “Esau Hates Jacob” – But Is Antisemitism a Halakha? –

About the Author
Fred Klein is Director of Mishkan Miami: The Jewish Connection for Spiritual Support, and serves as Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami. In this capacity he oversees Jewish pastoral care support for Miami’s Jewish Community, train volunteers in friendly visiting and bikkur cholim, consult with area synagogues in creating caring community, and organize conferences on spirituality, illness and aging. As director of the interdenominational Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami, Fred provides local spiritual leadership with a voice in communal affairs. He has taught at and been involved with the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, Hebrew College of Boston, the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, CLAL– The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and the Shalom Hartman Institute. He is Vice President for the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America, former Chair of the Interfaith Clergy Dialogue of the Miami Coalition of Christians and Jews, and formerly served on the Board of the Neshama: the Association of Jewish Chaplains.
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