Vayishlach – Brothers in Tears
The meeting between the two brothers, Jacob and Esau, promised to be dramatic. It could go either way, and Jacob hoped that it would end well. He prepared with conciliatory measures, sending lavish gifts of wealth ahead of him in the hopes of appeasing Esau’s hostility toward him. He offered a sincere prayer beseeching God to come to his aid. Not to be caught off guard Jacob also prepared for battle, dividing his camp and training his family in defensive manoeuvers.
The Torah’s narrative indicates a reconciliation between the brothers. Jacob’s show of humility before Esau turned Esau’s heart, which was already softened by the parade of gifts he had encountered earlier. Away from their parents, who no doubt triggered some of their rivalry for attention and approval, outside the environment of their upbringing which served as a constant reminders of the past, they could finally build a relationship free of the tension that dominated their earlier years together. The story at hand shows only friendship. Esau ran to Jacob, embraced him, kissed him, and they both wept. Furthermore, when Esau subsequently tried to wave off Jacob’s gifts Jacob urged him to keep the gifts. “And Jacob said, No, please, if I’ve found favor in your eyes, take this gift from my hands for I have seen your face and it is like seeing the Divine being and you have accepted me.” (Genesis 33:10) Jacob expressed pleasure over this reconciliation and it is hard to say that this was disingenuous.
Yet there remain hints of distrust. When Esau offered to accompany him Jacob dismissed the gesture with an excuse. He had many young lambs in his flocks and the slow pace they were restricted to would surely frustrate Esau. Jacob diplomatically proposed that Esau should go on ahead and he would proceed slowly, eventually joining Easu at their destination. Esau either bought the excuse or he recognized what had prompted Jacob to decline his offer. In any event he left Jacob for Se’ir while Jacob proceeded to the camp of Sukkot.
Rashi’s commentary rejects the notion of complete reconciliation. He cites a Midrashic dispute from the Sifri concerning the meeting. There are dots inscribed in the Torah over the word “and he kissed him.” One position asserts that the “kiss” was not wholehearted. The second position, attributed to Rabi Shimon bar Yochai, maintains that the “halacha,” the way of the world, is that Esau hates Jacob. But at that meeting Esau’s heart was won over and he kissed Jacob wholeheartedly.
The Netzi”v in Ha’amek Davar suggests that the feelings of love between the brothers were genuine. It was Esau who ran to Jacob and it was Esau who embraced and kissed Jacob. But they both cried. While a kiss can mask one’s true feelings only genuine compassion can rouse weeping. When Esau wept it expressed genuine remorse for the past and it moved Jacob to tears. It showed that Esau was still a descendant of Abraham, still capable of feeling compassion and love to Jacob even if that was not his default.
This also gives us insight into the relationship between the descendants of Jacob and the descendants of Esau. Edom is the offspring of Esau and our tradition depicts the 2000 year exile in which we are languishing as the exile of Edom, beginning with the Roman Empire and continuing with Western Civilization. The descendants of Jacob have many bitter memories of their treatment by the hand of Esau’s heirs. Hostility remains a challenge for us today. But the tears and remorse occasionally expressed by the heirs of Esau have an effect on his descendants similar to the effect Esau’s tears had on Jacob. Jacob was moved to feel and reciprocate love to Esau at that occasion and the people of Israel tend also to feel love and forgiveness when kindness is extended to them by society around them. The spark of brotherhood ever exists in the hearts of mankind and when the wind is right that spark is fanned into a flame of love.