"Jacob Sees Esau Coming to Meet Him," James Tissot, ca. 1900
"Jacob Sees Esau Coming to Meet Him," James Tissot, ca. 1900

Self-preservation and compassion collide in competing readings of this week’s Torah portion

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Genesis 32:4-36:43

I have long loved the core passage in this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach: the dramatic climax of the drama of Jacob and Esau. To me, its meaning is obvious and deeply resonant with my most treasured values.

Jacob had left home 20 years before, fleeing Esau’s murderous rage after Jacob had cheated Esau out of the birthright and the paternal blessing that were rightly his as the firstborn son. After two tumultuous decades in his uncle Lavan’s house, it becomes clear to Jacob that it is time for him to come home. But he is terrified that his brother will still wish him harm, and so Jacob makes elaborate preparations to defend himself and his household should Esau attack.

When the brothers encounter one another, Esau seems to have become a different person. To Jacob’s utter amazement, “Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept” (Genesis 33:4). Esau asks about Jacob’s family and flocks, regarding Jacob with respect, curiosity and love. Jacob expresses his profound relief and gratitude, saying, “to see your face is like seeing the face of God, and you have received me favorably” (Genesis 33:10).

This encounter illustrates the profound blessing of reconciliation after prolonged estrangement. Especially with family, our expectations of our loved ones can be based on outdated and essentialist memories of who they were long ago. But with the gifts of time and maturity, Jacob’s fears turn out to be unfounded. Esau, too, has grown past the volatility of his youth, and has found it in his heart to embrace his brother again. It is what we pray for in all of our personal conflicts and in the world.

But there is a completely different view of the story. For several of the classical commentators (including Ramban and Abarbanel), and for many Jews today, the story I have told above is hopelessly naïve, dangerous and simply false. After all, the Torah itself identifies Esau with Edom, and the Edomite nation became an enemy of the Israelites. In rabbinic literature, Esau comes to be equated with Rome (the power that destroyed the Second Temple and oppressed the Jewish people). Later, Esau and Edom come to be identified with Christianity as well. Esau becomes the paradigm for those who have hated and persecuted the Jewish people.

Reading our text with all of those associations to Esau in mind, it would seem ridiculous to understand the story as a beautiful scene of reconciliation. Rather, from this perspective, a minor feature of the biblical text becomes salient. Oddly, dots appear in the text of the Torah over the word vayishakeihu (he kissed him). Some rabbinic commentaries suggest that the dots call attention to the fact that the written text is wrong, and that the correct reading of the word is vayishacheihu (he bit him). Bringing a hermeneutic of suspicion to the text, as Jews suffering under Christian rule might well have done, this reading makes more sense than mine.

In the circles in which I move, the positive reading of the text, as an exquisite scene of reconciliation, is self-evidently true, and the negative reading is xenophobic and even paranoid. But to Jews living under oppression or in fear of anti-Semitic violence, the reading that is so obviously true to me is patently ridiculous.

Which reading is correct?

I might say that both readings are equally valid. The text gives rise to multiple interpretations, and which is most salient is in the eye of the beholder. We view every text from the context of our own lives, and so different perspectives naturally arise from different life circumstances.

Yet, I will not stop advocating for my reading of the text. I fiercely want for this sacred story of reconciliation to show the way toward a vision of transformation of entrenched conflicts. I will argue for it to serve as a paradigm for our people’s profound commitment to peace, even when it seems difficult or impossible.

Still, this exercise in multiple readings of a single text can lead us to loosen our certainty about the truth of our own points of view. Only God has access to absolute truth. We discern truth as best we can — and if we want to live with other people, we must practice the art of honoring the possibility that the other side may also be right.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg
Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Amy Eilberg serves as a spiritual director, peace educator and justice activist, and teacher of Mussar. More information on her work can be found at rabbiamyeilberg.com.