Ambiguous Kiss

Ambiguous Kiss
Cheetah brothers washing each other after a meal by licking each others face and neck. Photo by Arturo de Frias Marques.

The Ambiguous Kiss (2009/5770)

Brothers Jacob and Esau parted in conflict. Then, after years of separation, they met again. Torah says: “Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him; and they wept.” (Gen. 33:4)

Sounds beautiful, doesn’t it? But scribal tradition suggests otherwise. The kiss might not be so pure. In a traditional Torah scroll, six dots sit above the word vayishakehu, “kissed him.” The Masoretes, scholars who fixed the final form of the Torah, added them. Clearly, they found the passage problematic. But why?

One answer is historical. Early midrash developed as Judaism and Christianity split into two distinct traditions. Christianity became Rome’s state religion (313 CE). So, early Christians distanced themselves from their Jewish origins. And from their associations with Judea, the rebellious province. So, early church fathers criticized Jews in sermons. Early rabbis criticized Christians. Both used Biblical metaphors.

In the lexicon of rabbinic midrash, Esau often represented Christian Rome. He was a hunter, a landowner, and jealous of Jacob’s blessing. When they met, he brought an army. Then, he claimed he was so rich, he didn’t need Jacob at all.

Gradually, in the rabbinic imagination, Esau merged with Rome. So, nothing good could come of their reunion. Any overture would just be a trick. Thus, they warned, Jews must be suspicious of any “kiss” that comes from Rome. After all, the Hebrew words for “kiss” and “weapon” are related.

But maybe there’s psychological answer, too. Most readers resonate with the Torah’s stories of family rupture and healing. So, we know how complex the dynamics are. What really happened when Esau and Jacob met? The Hebrew word for “kiss” is related to the Hebrew word for “drink.” Maybe the brothers hugged, had a drink, and cried. And, for just a moment, over that drink, their painful feelings faded. But, when they sobered up, they both knew. It takes more than a beer and a promise to undo years of hurt.

Want more on the midrashic view of Esau? Check out Jay Eidelman’s chapter in Encountering the Other. Thanks to Claire Cohen for the insight into “kiss” and “drink.”

Image: Cheetah brothers by Arturo de Frias Marques

For more reflections on Parshat Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43), click here.

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