Esau ran to greet [Jacob]. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept. – Genesis 33:4
In the Torah scroll, the word “kissed” in this verse is always written with a dot above each letter. This is extremely unusual; words in the Torah Scroll usually have no dots or signs at all. While we don’t know exactly why the early scribes saw fit to write the word this way, from the earliest times rabbis have taken it as a sign to pay special attention to that word in the text.
When the text says that Esau embraced Jacob, falling upon his neck and kissing him, the collection of midrash called Genesis Rabbah offers two interpretations side by side:
- Rabbi Simeon ben Elazar said that Esau felt compassion for his brother and kissed him with all his heart.
- Rabbi Yannai interpreted the dots to mean that the meaning of the word “kissed” is reversed: Esau bit Jacob’s neck, and it miraculously turned hard as marble. The two men wept because Esau’s teeth and Jacob’s neck both hurt.
This is a classic example of two people reading the same text and having very different reactions to it. This happens with many of the characters in Genesis, particularly with Jacob and Joseph. I have seen students get terribly angry and seem to take someone else’s interpretation as almost a personal insult.
When I have spoken with such people outside of class, trying to understand, it began to make sense. They were identified with a character in the story, and it hurt them to hear another student say that character was a bad guy.
Perhaps Rabbi Simeon was an eldest child, and felt sympathy for Esau. Perhaps Rabbi Yannai could not forget the time that his older brother hurt him.
Torah, particularly Genesis, is a mirror. We look into it and we see ourselves. Sometimes that is conscious, and sometimes it’s a kinship we feel deep in the unconscious.
Is there any character in Torah to whom you feel particularly close? Have you ever felt hurt by someone else’s reading of a story in Torah?