Wednesday, December 3, 2014

A Dotted Kiss

Jacob left the land of Canaan to avoid the murderous rage of his brother Esau. According to the Midrash, he remained away for 22 years. Although he left alone, he returned with a procession of great wealth and a large family. 

From the text of the Torah, it is apparent that Jacob was greatly concerned about meeting his brother again. Upon hearing that Esau was coming to greet him with 400 men, Jacob divided his camp into two. As a means of preparing for the encounter, Jacob readied himself for battle, he prayed and sent lavish gifts to Esau ahead of the caravan. 

The actual reunion described in the Torah, however, seems highly amicable: “And Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him; and they wept” (Genesis 33:4). On first read, this seems like a sincere attempt at reconciliation. However the Hebrew word “and he kissed him,”  in the Torah, is adorned with dots above the letters. 

The most commonly cited understanding of these strange dots is that of Rabbi Jannai, who states that Esau wished to bite Jacob. The Midrash continues to explain that Esau did not succeed, because Jacob’s neck had miraculously hardened. This is contrary to the opinion of Rabbi Simon ben Elazar, who believed that the dots indicate that Esau kissed Jacob sincerely with all his heart (Genesis Rabbah 78:9).

Those who interpret Esau as continually hostile, perceive Esau’s subsequent activities as threatening as well. They see the false face of Esau continue in subtlety when he suggested that he and Jacob travel on together. But, when Jacob politely declines, stating that his young family and his large flocks require him to travel slowly, Esau tries to press his soldiers upon Jacob (Genesis 33:15). After Jacob refused again, Esau could push no further without revealing his true feelings of hostility.

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