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.