“Esau and Jacob Embrace and Kiss: Sincere or Insincere?”

By Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayishlach, Jacob and Esau are reunited after twenty years (according to conventional counting methods), of bitter estrangement.

The parasha comes to a dramatic crescendo when the two brothers meet without knowing whether this meeting will be a true reconciliation or will result in an ongoing battle for the ages.

The Torah, in Genesis 33:4 describes their encounter, וַיָּרָץ עֵשָׂו לִקְרָאתוֹ וַיְחַבְּקֵהוּ, וַיִּפֹּל עַל צַוָּארָו וַיִּשָּׁקֵהוּ, וַיִּבְכּוּ, And Esau ran to meet him [Jacob] and embraced him, and fell upon his neck and kissed him, and they wept.

From the further descriptions in the Torah, the encounter seems to have resulted in a rather successful reconciliation. Esau is impressed by the great retinue with which Jacob is traveling. Things seem to be going smoothly as Esau is introduced to Jacob’s large family. Jacob then implores Esau to keep the gift of flocks that he had sent Esau prior to their meeting, saying, Genesis 33:10,כִּי עַל כֵּן רָאִיתִי פָנֶיךָ, כִּרְאֹת פְּנֵי אֱ־לֹקִים וַתִּרְצֵנִי, “In as much as I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of a Divine being, and you were appeased by me.”

Although Esau takes the gift, the reconciliation, apparently, is not entirely complete. Consequently, when Esau offers to travel with Jacob, Jacob declines, giving, what seems to be, a lame excuse that he has too many flocks and too many children to travel at the pace that Esau needs to travel. Esau then makes his way to Seir and Jacob goes to Succot, eventually returning to the land of Canaan.

The Biblical commentators offer diverse interpretations regarding the dramatic reunion between Esau and Jacob. Was the embrace, a true embrace? Was the kiss, a genuine kiss and why did they both weep?

Jewish tradition has a rather unflattering perception of Jacob’s older brother. Throughout much of classical Biblical commentary and Talmudic interpretation, as well as within Jewish history, Esau has a rather loathsome reputation. Esau, who is the progenitor of the nation of Edom, is often regarded as the archenemy of Israel. In fact, a famous statement of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, found in the Sifre on parashat B’ha’ah’lot’cha, states: הֲלָכָה הִיא בְּיָדוּעַ שֶׁעֵשָׂו שׂוֹנֵא לְיַעֲקֹב, It is a well-known tradition that Esau hates Jacob! The centuries of Roman oppression of Jews and the millennia of hostilities of the Catholic Church, are often seen as extensions of the innate hatred of Esau for Jacob. Therefore, it is not at all surprising to find Rabbi Yanai quoted in Bereshit Rabba 78:12 saying, that Esau’s true intention was not to kiss Jacob, לְנַשְּׁקוֹ (“l’nash’ko”) but to bite him לְנַשְּׁכוֹ (“l’nash’choh”). However, at that moment, Jacob’s neck turned to marble, breaking the wicked man’s teeth. Both Jacob and Esau wept, because Jacob was discomforted when his neck turned to marble and Esau was crying over his broken teeth.

Although Rashi cites both the favorable and negative opinions regarding Esau’s intentions, he notes that despite Esau’s negative disposition toward Jacob, at that moment, Esau’s mercy was aroused and he kissed Jacob with all his heart. Rashi maintains that when Esau saw his brother Jacob bowing down to him so profusely, his anger was softened and his compassion was aroused.

The RaLBag suggests that Esau was so moved by the many kind gestures of Jacob, his gifts and his prostrations, that he flung himself upon Jacob’s neck, in warm embrace, as is usual for brothers who had not seen one another for many years.

The Ha’amek Davar suggests, quite remarkably, that when the Torah says that they both wept, it implies that Jacob’s love, as well, was aroused toward Esau. This, says the Netziv, is a pattern that repeats throughout the ages. Whenever the seed of Esau is prompted by sincere motives to acknowledge and respect the seed of Israel, then Israel too is moved to acknowledge Esau, for he is our brother.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch goes even further and explains that the fact that both brothers wept, illustrates that even a notoriously wicked person can, at times, be overcome by pure human feelings. Kisses can be false, but not tears. One cannot cry unless one is genuinely moved, for tears flow from the innermost feelings. Esau’s kiss, accompanied by tears, proved that he, too, was a descendant of Abraham. Rabbi Hirsch proclaims that weeping is a sure sign that what we have in this case, reveals a genuine humanity that is found in Esau.

The Jewish people today, who are constantly tormented by truly bitter and brutal enemies, need to remember that these enemies too have human hearts beating within their breasts. Hopefully, it will not be long before they show that they too harbor feelings of love, compassion and forgiveness.

May you be blessed.