The drama of Jacob and Esau is not over yet. In the previous episode involving the two brothers, Jacob stole Esau's birthright and blessing by tricking their father, Isaac. Intent on revenge, Esau threatened to kill Jacob for having wronged him. Seeking to protect Jacob from his brother's wrath, their mother, Rebecca, sent Jacob to live with her brother Laban. Jacob had inflicted a wound on his brother that may never heal.
After having spent twenty years in Laban's home, Jacob is commanded by God to return to the land of his ancestors, the land of Canaan. In order to do so, Jacob has to pass through Edom, the territory of his brother, Esau.
The prospect of meeting Esau after their twenty-year estrangement is indeed daunting. How will Jacob face Esau after having usurped the latter's inheritance and blessing? Will Esau carry out his threat to kill Jacob? Will the bitterness remain, or has it subsided? Will the wound opened by Jacob still be as fresh as the day on which it was inflicted?
The two men prepare for their meeting like warriors about to enter into battle. Jacob sends men to spy on Esau, as well as gifts meant to appease him. Esau surrounds himself with a 400-man army. Each is tense and apprehensive at the prospect of seeing his brother again.
At last the moment of truth arrives. Esau makes the first overture: He embraces Jacob, falls on his neck, and kisses him. The tension has been broken.
But what does Esau's kiss mean? In the Hebrew text, the words for "he kissed him" have dots over them, raising a question about their meaning. Rashi points out an argument in the midrash regarding whether the kiss was a sincere act or an empty gesture, a social convention used to fill an awkward moment. We might also ask, What was Esau thinking? Was he kissing Jacob with his lips while still plotting revenge in his heart?
In Judaism, we usually put more emphasis on actions than on intentions, on the acts we perform rather than on the emotions we feel. Looked at in this way, Esau's kiss can simply be taken at face value as a sign of reconciliation. Do Esau's feelings really matter at this moment? His overt behavior indicates peace: Do we need to be concerned whether he is feeling vengeful inwardly?
Judging Esau by this one action alone, we can view him as a leader. Although he has been deprived of his role as the patriarch of an entire nation, Esau, nonetheless, is shown in this situation to be a leader, a leader of one, as he takes the first step in this poignant act of reunion with his brother. Although Esau was not chosen by God, perhaps the Torah is giving him credit for the leadership qualities he does possess, as reflected in his ability to bring a moment of healing to the siblings' deep-seated personal crisis. Thus his role in this episode has a profound significance all its own.
Questions for Discussion
- What do you think led Esau to take the initiative in his meeting with Jacob? How did Esau have to change during the siblings' years apart to enable him to embrace Jacob?
- Have you experienced moments of healing in your life? How did you prepare for them? What did you feel just before and after such moments?
- Which member(s) in your family is a healer in the way Esau is? What role have such people played in your family's history or in your personal history?
Rabbi Loraine Heller has worked in the field of geriatric care in New York City.