Rabbi Dr Jeffrey M Cohen
“How sincere was Esau’s embrace?”
17 December 2005

At first glance, one of the strangest aspects of the reunion of Jacob and Esau was the fact that, on meeting, neither of them so much as alludes to the event that had first created the enmity between them. Esau’s murderous intention had forced Jacob to flee Canaan and remain an exile, estranged from his parents, for years. Esau had remained so fixated with his sense of grievance and hatred of his brother that, on hearing of Jacob’s impending return to Canaan, he raced towards his brother with a small army of men, as single-minded as he had been some twenty years earlier, to carry out his murderous intent.

Granted that Jacob prepares for this confrontation thoroughly. He divides his camp into two, so that if one camp is being overwhelmed, the other camp can make good its escape. Then he sends waves of messengers with gifts and conciliatory messages, yet messages which are clearly not formulae of capitulation, but rather ‘don’t mess with me!’ signals. Im Lavan garti va’eichar ad attah – ‘I have been living with Laban, and managed to survive there until now.’ I have had an excellent tutor in the art of deception. I have honed my survival skills. I have become a man of substance. I have two camps, with men trained in battle at my disposal. I am ready for any violent confrontation you may wish to initiate.

The brothers meet, and the account of their meeting is astonishing. Had the Torah omitted the description of Jacob’s great fear of the forthcoming encounter, and his thorough-going military and diplomatic preparations, we would have read the account of their meeting as a most touching reunion of two beloved brothers:

Vayyarotz Esav likrato vayyechabkehu, vayyipol al tzavarav vayyishakehu – ‘And Esau ran to meet him and embraced him, and he fell on his neck and kissed him.’

Not a single threat is expressed by Esau, and their ensuing dialogue betrays not a hint of any residual antipathy on his part. And yet, for all that, the later Talmudic sages largely remained ambivalent regarding Esau’s intentions; and this was highlighted in the masoretic tradition’s endowment of dots in the Sefer Torah, placed over the word Vayyishakehu, ‘And he kissed him’ (33:4). These dots were meant to draw our attention to a possible alternative reading, namely vayyishkhehu, ‘and he bit him.’

Rashi quotes those two, diametrically opposite Midrashic views, as found in Bereishit Rabba. The first, that the dots alert us to the fact that Esau merely went through the motions of a conventional and formal embrace and kiss, but that it was totally without any inner feeling. The second approach quoted by Rashi is that of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. He begins with a devastating, albeit awkward, denunciation of Esau: Halakhah hiy: beyadu’a she’Esav son’ei leYaakov, ‘It is a Jewish law that it is axiomatic that Esau hates Jacob.’ (This maxim presents the obvious difficulty that the attribution of an antipathetic emotion is either an axiom or a law, but hardly both! One may suspect that the Talmudic text has become corrupt, and that our version, the one before Rashi, represents a conflation of two variant readings. One version would have read, ‘It is a law (perhaps, of the gentiles) that Esau hates Jacob.’ The second version read, ‘It is axiomatic that Esau hates Jacob.’)

R.Shimon continues that, notwithstanding that in-grained antipathy of Esau towards Jacob, yet, at that fateful moment, Esau had a wholly uncharacteristic and totally unexpected change of heart, and embraced his brother sincerely. We may assume that this was occasioned by the conciliatory signals Jacob had sent him in advance of their meeting, and the warm way Jacob had welcomed him.

Such conflicting assessments of biblical personalities are not unknown, and we have a precedence for this in the conflicting rabbinic assessments of Noah’s righteousness, and what his spiritual status would have been had he lived in the generation of Abraham, with the stimulus of such saintly confreres.

We recall that that debate hinged on the phrase, ‘Noah was righteous man, perfect – bedorotav - in his generation.’ This somewhat vague emphasis was responsible for the two opposing views of Noah. The first, that if he was able to maintain righteousness ‘in his (totally degenerate) generation’ how much more righteous would he have been in a religiously encouraging environment. The second inference from ‘in his generation’ was that it was meant relatively, namely, that, when measured against ‘his generation,’ he appeared perfectly righteous, but had he lived among true spiritual giants, like Abraham, he would hardly have been rated.

But how do we explain the view of those sages who interpret Esau’s embrace uncharitably?

I believe that it may be explained on the basis that the Talmudic sages inherited a tradition that equated Esau (Edom) with Rome, the loathed invader and occupier of Judea. Indeed, both names serve as code-words in the Talmudic-Midrashic tradition for Rome, and enabled the sages who lived under its heel and tight censorship to get away with anti-Roman sentiments which otherwise would have been regarded as seditious. It was a pressure valve, enabling them to verbalise all their pent-up frustrations and fury at the bitterness of their daily lives and their deprivation of freedom and human rights at the hands of the Romans. In their sermons, lectures and addresses, the Talmudic sages could express all that repressed anger and outrage by laying at the door of the biblical Esau all the licentiousness, murder and rapine that the Romans were perpetrating against the Jews of their day. Their communities knew exactly to whom they were referring. With such anti-Esau polemic as daily fare, it is not surprising that the sages’ first instinct would be to interpret the classical Esau’s motives uncharitably.

That being the case, we may regard it as remarkable that there were any sages at all prepared to give Esau the benefit of the doubt, and interpret Esau’s embrace charitably!

I believe that a basis for this particular view may be derived from the sudden interruption of the biblical account of the reunion (Genesis 32:4 -33:17) to tell us of the encounter between Jacob and “the man” who wrestled with him all night long and finally maimed him. We are not told the identity of Jacob’s adversary, but the sages’ explanation that it was the Saro shel Esav,‘the heavenly representative of Esau,’ points us in the obvious direction. If this was not a dream, but a real, violent encounter, then we may assume that it was one of Esau’s strong men, sent to kill Jacob in advance of any reunion. The precise nature of the blessing Jacob extracts from him is unclear. It was not identical with the bestowal of the change of name from Jacob to Israel, since it clearly followed that name change (see 32:29/30). We may assume, however, that it was a confirmation of that blessing of the firstborn that Jacob had long ago succeeded in extracting from his father.

Esau’s aggression may well have been soothed by the fact that Jacob had now been maimed, and that, although Esau’s representative had just capitulated and confirmed Jacob as rightful recipient of his father’s blessing, Jacob would nevertheless be forever haunted by his actions. Yes, Esau’s was a pyrrhic victory, but his brother had nevertheless been punished for his deception, and, literally with every footstep that he subsequently took in life, Jacob would be reminded painfully of the cost of that deception.

Esau felt vindicated. He could now embrace and kiss his brother sincerely.

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But let us return to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s comment, for it encapsulates a whole philosophy of anti-Semitism: ‘It is a halakhah that it is axiomatic that Esau hates Jacob.’

Some may regard this as typical Jewish paranoia. But that 2nd century disciple of Rabbi Akivah, who survived the failure of the Bar Kochba and the cruel martyrdom of his teachers could be forgiven for noting that Roman hatred of Jews was endemic, and that our way-of-life could never enable us to assimilate and be accepted into the family of nations, descendants of Esau and Ishmael, and that we were destined forever to be a pariah people. No wonder he was known for his hatred of gentiles.

We may well ask, however, whether Rabbi Shimon being paranoiac or prophetic? Perhaps a touch of both. It can not be denied however that he accurately forecasts here the millennial hatred that has characterised the relationship between the other great cultures and religions and the Jewish people and its faith. It has, indeed, taken on the character of ‘a halakhah,’ a way-of-life, which has certainly shaped our thinking and our mode of reacting to the outside world. It has made us suspicious, sensitive and separatist, which, in turn, has engendered a counter-reaction in kind, and an intensification of anti-Semitism and de-humanisation that led inexorably to the ovens of the crematoria.

The propaganda of de-humanisation, perfected by the Nazis, is still being enthusiastically promoted and disseminated by the Palestinians. Those of us who get daily reports on the Palestinian propaganda machine find it incredible, if not obscene, that Israel would wish to sit down and speak of peace and accommodation with those who, notwithstanding their public utterances, are doing their utmost to isolate, de-humanise and destroy us.

Let me give you just a few examples from the events of the last couple of weeks:

First, Carol Gold’s report on the Islamic ‘Peace and Unity Conference,’ held in London on December 4th.

I went to the 'Peace and Unity (sic) Conference' yesterday and last night in London.

It was shocking and terrifying. It had been advertised as a celebration of the Middle Eastern/Asian community in music and culture, but was a disgraceful Jihadists' rally.

25,000 angry young Muslims were whipped up to cries of 'Allahu Akhbar' by the likes of Yvonne Ridley, Imran Khan, various crazed Israel-loathing sheikhs and, of course, George Galloway.

One thing that shocked me most was Imran's comment that poor Germany was so humiliated by Versailles that they could not be blamed for their rage, hence how can we condemn the 9/11 bombers? Even the organisers said into the mike after he had finished that they distanced themselves from his remark that '9/11 was a neo conspiracy to have an excuse to start a new Crusade.'

A sheikh said that the greatest atrocity of the 20th century was 'Jews from eighty countries being brought in 1947 to Palestine to drive Muslim brothers and sisters from their homes and to kill and torture them.' He added that he can barely say the word 'Israel,' as such a country does not exist. All of this to ecstatic cries from the audience of mostly British-born young Muslims.

Gallloway exhorted the crowd to 'riot on every street of Britain' and Ridley defamed our fine British police force in 'jackboot Britain.'

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The second example is from the Palestinian Media Watch Bulletin, which reports that the Palestinian Authority, not, I stress, any terrorist organisation, has revealed a new law that allocates a monthly allowance to family members of shahids, or ‘martyrs,’ an honorific title conferred by the PA on suicide bombers. This money is paid from the general budget of the PA, which receives vast sums from the United Nations and other bodies. A high proportion of cultural and sports events, organised by the PA, are specifically named in honour of terrorist murderers, thereby glorifying their dastardly deeds and holding them up as examples to be emulated by the younger generations. That money is coming from the PA's general budget, which is funded by Britain and the EU! The total EU contribution to the PA is around £165m with our own Government providing £30m (18%)

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And finally, and most degenerate of all, I was sent a video, produced by the PA, of an ‘interview’ with a 3½ year old little girl who had been brainwashed into memorising a script that she, quite obviously, had no idea of its meaning. She was asked, tenderly, by a female interviewer what she thought of Jews and she replied that she hated them. Asked why she felt like that, by the interviewer, feigning a very slightly surprised voice, the child replied, ‘because they are pigs and monkeys.’

I ask you: Given such evil brainwashing of an entire younger generation of Palestinians, is there really any hope of peace? Is there really any point in further territorial concessions that can only weaken Israel’s strategic military capability? I think not.

I now understand that Midrashic view a little clearer: Halakhah hiy: Beyadua sheEisav son’ei leYaakov ...It is a halakhah, a Palestinian halakhah, way-of-life - as it was a German, a Christian, a Muslim, a Roman and a Greek halakhah before them in history, to hate Jacob.

It is a Jewish halakhah, on the other hand, to love, to extend the hand of peace whenever it will be grasped, and, above all, to survive and to flourish.