Just a Kiss
The Torah portion begins with the buildup to and eventual meeting between Yaakov and Eisav, the two long-estranged brothers. At the moment of their actual meeting, the Torah tells us:
Eisav ran to meet him and hugged him. He fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept. (Bereishis 33:4)
The word for "and he kissed him," vayishakeihu, is written in the Torah with a dot above each letter.
The Midrash comments:
Said Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar, "Whenever there is more text than dots, one expounds on the text. Whenever there are more dots than text, one expounds on the dots. But here, there is an equal number of letters and dots. From this we learn that at that moment Eisav's mercy was aroused, and he kissed Yaakov with all his heart." Rabbi Yannai replied to him, "If that's the case, then why are there dots at all? Rather, Eisav came, not to kiss Yaakov, but to bite him. Miraculously, Yaakov's neck turned to marble, and the wicked one blunted his teeth on it. Indeed, that is the meaning of they wept - Yaakov cried because of his neck; Eisav because of his teeth." (Bereishis Rabbah 78:9)
It is curious that the midrash indicates that Yaakov's neck turned to marble. The basic purpose is clearly to show how his neck hardened, preventing Eisav from biting Yaakov's flesh. If so, the usual Biblical examples of hard substances, iron or brass, should have been used here, as in:
The heavens above your head shall be [as hard as] brass and the earth under you, iron. (Devarim 28:23)
[As hard as] iron and brass shall be your strongholds... (Ibid. 33:25)
Why, then, does the midrash choose marble, a hard stone, to describe Yaakov's neck at the moment when Eisav tried to bite him?
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"MY BROTHER, EISAV"
Let us look at the content of the midrash more closely. There appears to be a dispute as to the sincerity of Eisav's love when he met his brother. But with careful examination, we may propose that there is actually no dispute; rather, Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar and Rabbi Yannai are each discussing a different aspect of the meeting and in fact are not in dispute.
Before he met his brother, Yaakov exclaimed:
Save me, please, from the hand of my brother, from Eisav... (Bereishis 32:12)
The formulation of this verse is interesting. Why does Yaakov describe Eisav first as "my brother" and only then use his name? The commentators explain that Yaakov was more frightened of Eisav as a brother and friend than as Eisav. For Yaakov was concerned lest Eisav become close to him and, in so doing, defile him with his vile life philosophy and twisted ways. This was potentially far more dangerous to Yaakov and his family than a mere physical attack from his brother. Drawing near to Eisav and his wickedness could spell the end for the mission to which Yaakov had committed his life. Hence we are told that Yaakov primarily feared his brother and only then Eisav.
As Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar claimed, Eisav's mercy was aroused at the moment when he met Yaakov. This, however, is only relevant to the previously stated aim of Eisav to kill Yaakov. For whatever reason, when Eisav saw his brother, his mercy was aroused, and he decided not to kill him. But as for Eisav's inherent and unchangeable desire to contaminate and influence Yaakov, this, of course, had not altered in the slightest. Indeed, the fact that Eisav's mercy had been aroused by the meeting actually made it more likely that he would pursue this secondary aim, for he now wished not to eliminate him, but instead to unite with him.
Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar was referring only to the physical aspect of Eisav's attack, which was indeed called off when the brothers met. We have no reason to assume that Rabbi Yannai disputes this. On the other hand, Rabbi Yannai, when discussing the vicious aims of Eisav, was referring only to the spiritual dimension of the meeting. Eisav's attack in this context remained as strong as ever. We have no reason to assume that Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar disputes this. Indeed, Rabbi Yannai's comment about the relationship between the dots and the lettering in the verse can be understood to mean that he appreciated that both the letters (the simple meaning) and the dots (a slightly different meaning) were valid. Eisav wanted both to make peace and attack, albeit at different levels.
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A MARBLE NECK
Eisav wanted to inject his poisonous philosophy into Yaakov, to draw him toward the evil life that Eisav personified. At this moment, Yaakov's neck miraculously turned to marble. Vessels made from stone (of which marble is an example) are not subject to the laws of tumah and taharah (ritual purity and impurity). Given this, we can understand why the midrash chose to use the symbolism of marble, rather than the more usual hard materials of iron or brass. Yaakov's neck was unable to contract any impurity from Eisav's malicious advances! He was completely impervious to Eisav's designs, and marble, which is unable to receive tumah, is a perfect metaphor for this.
We may suggest that Yaakov was able to resist Eisav's attack in the way described purely because of his attitude toward the meeting. The very fact that he was more concerned for his spiritual rather than his physical well-being, as we saw above, protected him when the moment of truth arose. Indeed, we can be sure that Yaakov would rather have submitted to physical death than lose his integrity by associating with his vile brother.
This episode teaches us a great lesson. We must try to emulate Yaakov and ensure that our priorities are correct at all times. Spiritual life is always preeminent. One should try to feel that one would rather die than knowingly transgress with the intention of angering God. If we would be able to think in this way, we would merit, as did Yaakov, to have the possibility of sin removed from our purview.