When Jacob and Esau finally meet in this week’s sedra the Torah describes;
“Esau ran to meet him and hug him, and he fell on his neck, and he kissed him and they cried”. (Genesis 33:4)
In a Torah scroll, there is a dot written above every letter of the word vayishakayhu, “and he kissed him”
The Midrash Rabbah (78:9) brings a dispute as to what this represents;
Rabbi Shimon Ben Elazar says; “Whenever there are more letters than dots, we expound on the letters, and when there are more dots than letters we expound on the dots. Here, where the number of letters and dots are equal we learn that at that moment Esau’s mercy was aroused and he kissed Jacob with all his heart”.
Rabbi Yannai replied; “If that is the case why are their dots at all? Rather, Esau came not to kiss Jacob, but to bite him. Jacob’s neck miraculously turned to marble, and Esau blunted his teeth on it. That is the meaning of and they wept – Jacob because of his neck and Esau because of his teeth”.
How can there be such a divergence of opinion about Esau’s intentions? The Shem MiShmuel suggests that Esau came to attack Jacob in two methods, and that rather than disputing each other Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Yannai are presenting the two different sides of Esau’s attack.
Before the meeting with Esau, Jacob prepares himself in three ways; by sending gifts of appeasement, by practically preparing for war, and through prayer. In Jacob’s prayer he makes a strange request:
“Save me please from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau” (Genesis 32:12)
Jacob has only one brother, and furthermore, why does he describe Esau first as a brother and then state his name? The Ohr HaChaim (1696-1743) points out that Jacob was more fearful of Esau as a brother, than Esau, the physical threat. The Esau as a brother represented the spiritual threat of being befriended and influenced by Esau’s immoral outlook on life.
This explains the two opinions in the Midrash. According to Rabbi Shimon, by embracing and kissing Jacob, Esau hoped to bring Jacob down by attaching Jacob to his immoral outlook. According to Rabbi Yannai, Esau also approached Jacob as the physical threat.
In a few weeks time we will be celebrating Chanukah. Unlike Purim which celebrates the victory and the saviour of the Jewish people from the threat of physical destruction, on Chanukah we celebrate our saviour from spiritual destruction. The Greek-Assyrians didn’t want to annihilate us; rather they sought to assimilate us into Hellenistic culture. Throughout our history we have faced this two pronged attack of Esau. Today we are living at a time where Jews around the world are generally not under the fear of physical attack. Our biggest threat is being spiritually drawn away from our heritage and assimilated into the wider culture.
The Shem Mishmuel points out that the Midrash specifies that Jacob’s neck turned to marble as opposed to metal which is often used as an analogy of something that is hard. He points out that unlike metal; marble has a special halachic status that it can not contract spiritual impurity. Jacob, our spiritual fore-bearer, set a precedent of being able to face the attack of Esau’s “brotherly love-bite” and remain impervious to it.