VaYishlach is one of my favorite Torah portions. It’s probably the most action-packed par’shah in Genesis thus far; so much so that focusing on its entirety could take more than a week of writing. There’s a dream (Jacob’s second to be documented in TaNaKh); a wrestling match; a name change; a rape; mass circumcision, mutilation, and slaughter; a mini-exodus involving petty theft and lies (remember: no Ten Commandments yet); and finally, a reunion of brothers after 21 years. This year I focus on the latter, but not for the reason you might hope.
When last we saw the twins Jacob and Esau, two weeks ago [in Torah study time], they were seriously on the outs. God’s prophecy to Rebekah in Genesis 25:23: “Two nations are within you; two peoples will descend from your womb; one people will be stronger than the other; and the elder shall serve the younger,” ripened in earnest. Jacob bought Esau’s birthright for a bowl of red lentils. Esau was a party to this exchange, but he didn’t bank on having his blessing stolen out from under him with Rebekah’s ruse to disguise Jacob as his twin in order to fool their sightless father, Isaac; himself an active party in the scenario. Upon learning that Esau intended capital revenge, Jacob fled to Paran and the relative safety of his uncle Laban.
Two decades, four wives and thirteen children later, Jacob and Esau stand ready to reunite; each with all their host and household as backup. In Genesis 33:4 “Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him; and they wept.” The Hebrew in the following insert, “Va-Yi-sha-KEH-hu” means, “they kissed.”
The text is beautiful. And as as always, there is more to the story than meets the eye… literally. The illustration shows a modern rendition of what actually appears in a Hebrew Bible, AND in a non-vocallized kosher Sefer Torah: several strategically inscribed ink drops around “Va-yi-sha-KEH-hu.” We could interpret these ink drops as kisses. Long before seeing the colorized inference above, I inferred that the markings are drops of blood.
In Pietro Mascagni’s verismo opera Cavalleria Rusticana (Rustic Chivalry), the title comes to light as the audience observes the 19th-century Sicilian tradition of one man’s challenge to another for a duel. As the two men join together before the assembled villagers in a full-body embrace, the challenger bites the other man on the ear; hard enough to break the skin and shed blood.
Back to Jacob and Esau: In typical Jewish fashion, my questions flow a river more savory than any answer.
1. Kisses, or bites?
2. Who bit whom?
3. Did the bite go as an unfulfilled challenge?
4. Did the bite result from an overpowering urge to experience the reunion with all physical sense and emotion?