Sermon: Shabbat Va-Yishlah (Rabbi Professor Marc Saperstein)

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 27 November 2018

I would like to talk to you today not only about Jacob, but about Esau: how he is depicted in the Torah, the rabbinic literature, and later Jewish thought. Let’s begin with the verse that we heard read a few moments ago, “And Esau ran to meet him [Jacob], and embraced him, and fell upon his neck, and kissed him, and they wept” (Gen. 33:4). This seems clearly to be a narrative of total, sincere reconciliation between the two brothers. But there is a bit of a problem here, in that the Hebrew word that is translated “and kissed him,”  va-yishakehu, has a dot over each letter in all Torah scrolls, and in our Ḥumashim. Because of this there is a rabbinic tradition—not universal but genuinely preserved—that the true word here should be va-yishakhehu, “he bit him”. Here is the interpretation given by R. Yannai in Genesis Rabbah:[1] “It teaches that he did not want to kiss him but to bite him, but his teeth turned into wax, and Jacob’s neck turned into ivory; ‘and they wept’: one wept because of his neck, the other because of his teeth.”

Now this is not an interpretation that pre-dominated; most of the commentators seem to accept the apparently simple meaning of the words: Esau kissed Jacob’s neck as an expression of love, and both of them wept tears of joy in their reconciliation. But this seems to be such an obvious reading of the passage that it is worth asking how the other interpretation made it into the rabbinic literature without condemnation. The answer seems to be formulated in a statement attributed to Simeon bar Yohai (Sifrei) and quoted by Rashi on this verse: yadu’a she-Esav sonei et Ya’akov,  “It is a well-known fact that Esau hates Jacob.” That is the given, the established fact, and any biblical words that seem to conflict with this premise have to be twisted and distorted to make them consistent.

How are we to explain this rather disturbing approach to Esau?

The simple answer is that Jewish commentators in the first centuries of the Christian era and in the Middle Ages were not thinking of Esau as a human being but rather as a typological prefiguration of something else. The key comes in a verse from the parasha of two weeks ago, when Esau comes home from his hunting famished, and Jacob is cooking some pottage or stew. Esau says, hal’iteni na  min-ha-adom adom ha-zeh, “Give me some of this red stuff to gulp down” (Gen. 25:30), and the verse continues, al ken kara shemo Edom, that is why he was named “Edom.” It is a play on words as frequently occurs in Genesis: adom meaning red (as in Magen David Adom), and Edom, the name of an ethnic group in the region. Esau is presented in Genesis chapter 36 as “the ancestor of the Edomites” (36:1, 9). And the Edomites in the Bible are not presented as friends or allies of the people of Israel, but often as rivals; both Saul and David are said to have led victorious battles against them. The most dramatic example is the penultimate verse of the well-known Psalm 137, beginning “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat and wept…” and continuing “If I forget you O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither….” Usually we stop with that verse and do not continue with the seventh verse of the Psalm: “Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem’s fall; how they cried, ‘Strip her, strip her to her very foundations.’”

These negative memories of Edom continued through the centuries. And then an ideological transformation occurs that has never been fully explained but is extremely important for understanding the rabbinic interpretations. By some point in the second century, “Edom” is no longer the name of a relatively small tribe analogous to Ammon or Moab; it becomes a code-word for Rome and the Roman Empire.[2] All biblical references to Edom, especially about its ultimate downfall (e.g. Obadiah 8ff) begin to be interpreted as pertaining to Rome.

The next step is that after the conversion of Constantine in the early 4th century, and the transformation of the Roman Empire into a Christian Empire, the negative, hostile biblical language about Esau and Edom and the Edomites becomes applicable to Christians and Christianity. Our verse, with “bite” substituted for “kiss,” could therefore be interpreted to express a contemporary lesson: don’t be fooled by any acts of reconciliation by Christian leaders—whether political or religious—toward the Jews. It is not genuine; it is like Esau pretending to kiss Jacob’s neck, when he really sought to bite him.

The fascinating aspect of this application of biblical narrative to contemporary realities of late antiquity and the middle ages is that the Christians had their own interpretation of the accounts of Jacob and Esau. Let’s go back again two weeks to the beginning of the Jacob/Esau narrative. The Jewish understanding was of course that Jacob represented the Jews and Esau the Christians. Since Esau was born first, God’s message to the pregnant Rebekah—“the elder shall serve the younger” (Gen. 25:22)—pertains to the messianic age when the Jewish people will be restored to full sovereignty, with Christians submissive to the Jews. But Christian scholars took the same verse and applied it to their own transformation from a persecuted minority into the dominant world power: Jews were the elder people, Christians were the younger, and after Constantine the Jews were indeed fulfilling God’s promise—“the elder shall serve the younger”—by serving submissively the Christians who would tolerate them.

Here is St. Augustine in a sermon on Jacob and Esau that he delivered around the year 400: “Jacob, whom you have just heard about in the reading, stands for the Christian people. He is the younger son you see, because Esau is the Jewish people. It’s true, the Jewish nation sprang from Jacob but figuratively the Jews are rather to be understood as Esau, because the elder people [the Jews] was rejected, while the younger people [the Christians] took the first place.” Given this kind of replacement theology transforming the biblical narrative, it is clear why some of the rabbis would read the story based on the axiomatic premise, “Esav sonei et Ya’akov,” Esau hates Jacob, and interpret every statement about Esau in a negative way, denying that he kissed Jacob’s neck, insisting that he tried to bite his brother’s neck.

And yet that is not the whole story of Jewish interpretation. There are some who recognize what seems to me to be clearly the simple, straightforward meaning of the extended narrative: that Esau was genuinely hurt by Jacob’s behavior, but that he sincerely sought reconciliation and expressed his love with a kiss and with tears.

Indeed there is a striking passage in the Midrash that presents the tears of Esau as having a power recognized by God.  “Israel said before the Holy One, Blessed be He, Master of the Universe, by the merit of three [times that] tears fell from the eyes of Esau, You gave him authority from one end of the earth to the other, and You bestowed upon him peace in the world. Should You not all the more be filled with mercy for us, whose tears flow day and night?”[3] The message here is that the power of Rome is at least in part a reward for Esau’s pain and suffering, expressed through his tears, caused by the behavior of Jacob. But since Jewish suffering is far greater than that experienced by Esau, there is a message of hope for the future.

What then were the three times that tears fell from the eyes of Esau? Rabbi Saul Levi Morteira of Amsterdam explained this in a powerful sermon delivered in the 1640s. Here he describes various modes of Esau’s weeping, inspired by different circumstances. First there was the “weeping of supplication” (taḥanun), when Esau realized that the blessing his father intended for him had already been given to his brother: “Esau raised his voice and wept” (Gen. 27:38), requesting that at least his father should provide a blessing for him as well.

The second occurrence is the one from our parashah; Morteira calls it the “weeping of compassion.” In this reading—so very different from the rabbinic reading cited above that is based on the assumption that “Esau hates Israel” and will always try to harm him— Esau took pity on his brother when he saw Jacob humiliate himself by bowing seven times to the ground; it was then that he ran to Jacob, embraced him and kissed him, and wept (Gen. 33: 3-4)

The third instance of tears shed by Esau is called the “weeping of anguish and pain”: tears at the death of his father. This is actually not stated explicitly in the Torah’ all it says it that Isaac “was buried by his sons Esau and Jacob” (Gen. 35:29).  But Morteira insists that Esau loved and honored Isaac so deeply that he must have wept in grief at his burial.

Despite Jacob’s promises at the end of our reading that he would soon join Esau, he actually goes to a different location, and there is no reference any further contact between the brothers except at the burial of their father. Jacob apparently has still not fully learned the lessons that broken promises can be hurtful, deception can be cruel, that favoring one brother over the other can lead to painful results. He will certainly learn this lesson as his own children grow to maturity. But that is a story we will begin to hear next week.

[1]  BR 78:8, Midrash on Psalms 103:13,  quoted in Radak

[2] See Gerson Cohen, “Esau as Symbol.”

[3] [That is why the Psalmist said, ‘You have fed them tears as their daily bread’.: (Midrash Tehilim, Toledot, 24; Rashi on Ps. 80:6).]