Parsing the Parsha: A Kiss or a Bite?

In the parsha for this week, Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43), we see the reunion of two estranged brothers. After coercing his starving brother Esau into giving up his birthright, Jacob tricked their father Isaac into bestowing upon him the blessing intended for Esau. After many years, Esau and Jacob are reunited—Esau, still furious with Jacob, intends to harm him. But the text describes the moment of their meeting as deeply poignant:

Eisav ran to meet him and hugged him. He fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept. (Bereishis 33:4).

This seems like a tender moment. But the midrash tells us that Esau fell upon Jacob’s neck to bite him rather than to kiss him (Bereishis Rabbah 78:9). In that moment of violence, Jacob’s neck turned to marble, and Esau wept from the pain of his teeth connecting with marble rather than from joy at the reunion.

On the face of it, this is totally confusing. It seems like the parsha is describing a moment of forgiveness, where brotherly love triumphs over past cruelty. But then the midrash seem to say that Esau was unable to overcome his anger.

So while the tone of the text and the midrash seem to be contradicting each other entirely, as a sister, I’m completely on board with this confusion.

My sister and I look completely different, but even our parents have trouble telling our voices apart over the phone. We have drastically different careers, but our mannerisms and our interests are almost identical. When we’re together, we’re either falling on the floor laughing, or we’re apoplectic over some offhand remark. Even as an adult, she has the ability to enrage me more than anyone else, but she also understands me in a deeply rooted way that no one else could.

To me, this parsha speaks to the importance of that contradictory and infuriating relationship. Last week, when my sister called me early in the morning because she’d just woken up from a nightmare in which she’d watched me being murdered, the visceral fear in her voice brought me to tears (and I’m not a crier). I used to resent the scars on my arm from the time when my sister scratched me because I was singing too loudly in the car; now I laugh when I think about that obnoxious memory. This irrational and erratic behavior grants us the ability to be wildly kind and gentle with one another.

Maybe what the parsha is telling us is that despite his anger, something stopped Esau before he could do his brother true harm. I picture Esau spending years plotting the moment when he would see his brother again, imagining every violent detail. But maybe in that moment of reunion, the confusion of his emotions—enormous fury and also tenderness—overcame him, and he wept from relief at being reunited with the one person who could understand him in all his contradictions. Maybe what Esau is reminding us is that it is the struggle itself: the negotiation and the compromise and the scratch scars that also allow the moments of greatest tenderness and human connection.

Hannah is a GTJ staff member and is a graduate student. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Hannah.

3 replies
  1. Will G
    Will G says:


    Thanks for a well-written dvar Torah on the parsha!

    The Midrash you cited sounds fascinating.

    In my study of this week’s parsha I came across sources with a slightly different take.

    Apparently, Bereshis Rabbah 78:8 states that Esav was genuinely moved to compassion after seeing his brother Yaakov prostrate before him 7 times (Vayishlach 33:3).

    Also, one tradition holds that Esav didn’t kiss his brother wholeheartedly. However, “Rabbi Simeon ben Yochai said: It is a well known tradition that Esau hated Jacob, but his compassion was moved at that time, and he kissed him wholeheartedly.” (see daily study).

  2. Stephen Richer
    Stephen Richer says:

    Haven’t read this week’s portion yet — I’ve still got like 2 hours before services! So thanks for the primer. If I were Esau, I would have been more inclined to bite Jacob than embrace him… on a couple grounds:

    1) I’m partial to vampires.

    2) Jacob first exacts Esau’s birthright under duress — which in the U.S. is illegal. (Esau is “dying of hunger” and he asks Jacob for some beans which Jacob gives him in return for his birthright).

    3) Jacob cheats him out of Isaac’s blessing.

    Maybe the first offense is forgivable… but because Jacob gets the blessing, he becomes the father of the Jewish people and thereby figures heavily into “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” … Esau has never been a hit on broadway…

  3. Will
    Will says:

    Good points Steven.

    However, we have to be careful not to take an overly simplistic view of the story. Simplistic readings of the text have given rise to commonly held mistaken notions that Esav was a dull-witted, but harmless character and Yaakov was a clever, trickster with ambitions so strong that he had no moral hang-ups about deceiving his brother.

    The commentators point out that Esav was a person who was sensual and very physical. He never thought it wrong to simply live by his animalistic urges. His brother on the other hand was a man dedicated to serving G-d. The Torah calls Esav a ‘man of the field.’ The fact that he was willing to sell his heritage of being part of the creation of the Chosen nation for a bowl of stew speaks volumes about his character. He was unfit to lead a holy people. Unfortunately many of us sacrifice our own birthrights for many superficial, selfish, materialistic desires as well, but part of being a Jew is overcoming this tendency.


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