What's Bothering Rashi? Parshat Vayishlach: Esau and Jacob
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Vayishlach(Genesis 32:4-36:43)

Esau and Jacob

Our parsha tells of Jacob's reunion with his brother Esau after a 22 year interval.

Jacob had fled from Esau 22 years earlier because of Esau's threat to kill him. At this reunion Jacob feared that Esau, if he still harbored his anger, would kill Jacob and wipe out his entire family. The encounter of the two brothers produced a surprise ending.

The following Rashi comments are amazing, in light of current events and the rise of anti-Semitism in the world.

Genesis 33:4

"And Esau ran towards him (Jacob) and he embraced him and fell upon his neck and he kissed him and they cried."

 

RASHI

And he embraced him - RASHI: His (Esau's) mercy was aroused when he saw him (Jacob) bowing all these bows.

And he kissed him - RASHI: There are dots on it [this word] and there is a disagreement [among the Sages] about this matter. Some explain the dots to tell us that Esau didn't kiss him with his whole heart. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai explains it otherwise: It is a given law - it is known that Esau hates Jacob. But at this time his mercy was aroused and he kissed him with all his whole heart.

 

THE MEANING OF DOTS ON LETTERS IN THE TORAH

Dots written on letters can mean we are to disregard the letters with dots above them and read the word as if those letters weren't there. In this case since every letter in the word "and he kissed him" has a dot on it, it is as if the whole word is absent. Thus Rashi says he didn't really kiss him – for he did so without a true feeling.

 

RABBI SHIMON BAR YOCHAI'S OPINION

Rabbi Shimon has a strange comment here. What would you ask?

Your Question:

 

QUESTIONING RASHI

A Question: What does Rabbi Shimon mean when he says "It is a law that Esau hates Jacob"? What kind of "law" is this? That's a strange term to use. He could say Esau (the gentiles) hate the Jews. But to call this a law is quite unusual. And if is a "law" why is this case an exception?

 

WHAT IS BOTHERING RASHI?

It is not difficult to see what question Rashi is responding to. Esau was out to kill Jacob and all of a sudden (after 22 years) he runs to embrace and kiss him. "Methinks he doth protest too much."

It is for this reason that Rashi tries to understand Esau's motivation.

But back to our question: What did Rabbi Shimon mean when he says "It is a law"?

Your Answer:

 

UNDERSTANDING RASHI

An Answer: There are laws of countries and laws of nature. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai is saying something very profound. Esau's hatred of Israel – Gentile anti-Semitism, is akin to a law of nature. It is immutable. It is everlasting. It need not be rational to be. It just is. Each generation of Jews has experienced anti-Semitism in one form or another for over three thousand years. Each generation tries to understand why the nations of the world have an antipathy for Jews. Once it is explained as being due to the Jews being rich (as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion claimed – "Jews control the powers in the whole world"); sometimes it is because Jews are poor and always begging. Sometimes it's because they are materialistic capitalists; sometimes because they are revolutionary communists. Sometimes because they are backward and uncouth; sometimes because they are too cultured and high society. Sometimes because they are parasites in foreign lands and have no country of their own; sometimes because they do have a country of their own. On and on it goes.

We live in the midst of this situation right now.

The phenomenon of anti-Semitism defies any rational attempt to explain it. It is not rational just as any law of nature is not rational. It just is.

 

A SECOND QUESTION

But if it is an immutable law, why then did Esau kiss Jacob with all his heart this time?

Hint: See the previous Rashi comment.

Your Answer:

 

A FURTHER UNDERSTANDING

An Answer: Rashi had said before that Esau's mercy was aroused when he saw Jacob bow down to him so obsequiously. That is the explanation! When Israel prostrates itself before Esau, when he surrenders all claim to independence, all claim to self-hood, then Esau is truly a friend of Israel! That's what happened here. Jacob flowered Esau with servile prostrations. Esau then felt warm mercy, true feelings of "brotherhood" for his poor subservient sibling.

The Sages criticize Jacob for being so servile to this brother with murderous intentions.

 

A LESSON

Anti-Semitism has once again risen its ugly and poisonous head. The "law" of human nature is still with us. We must learn to perceive its actuality and not think it's a passing fad. We must learn to live with it and learn to fight it.

 

THE GOOD NEWS

The Netziv (Naftali Tzvi Berlin – late 19th century) points out that all the verbs in this verse are in the first person and refer to Esau. "He ran, he embraced him; he fell upon his neck, he kissed him and they cried." All the verbs are in the first person, except the last one "they cried." Both Jacob and Esau cried, says the Netziv, because the day will come when Esau will truly embrace his brother Jacob in honest unadulterated compassion, then both brothers will cry in happiness. That day, hopefully not too far off, is the Messianic day. May we all live to see it!

 

Shabbat Shalom,
Avigdor Bonchek


Published: November 30, 2004

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Visitor Comments: 2

(2) name, May 17, 2009 6:28 PM

So what would be the difference between (a) Jacob/Esau/22 years/falling on neck/crying (b) Jacob/Joseph/22 years/falling on neck/crying

(1) Anonymous, November 23, 2007 10:48 AM

22? or 34? or more?

What happened to the 14 years Yaakov spent in the yeshiva of Shem and Ever? I understood that he stopped there on the way to Lavan to get chizuk for facing the rasha. Then he worked for 20 years for Lavan. Then it took some time to travel both ways. Since he left the home of Yitzchak to escape Esav, he probably didn't see him for all of those years, right? At least until they met at the beginning of Vayishlach... which was on Yaakov's way home...

Wonderful series! Thanks!

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