Daniel Pinner
Daniel PinnerCourtesy

Parashat Vayishlach opens with Jacob returning to the Land of Israel after his 20-year exile with his uncle Lavan in Aram Naharayim. After 20 years of exploitation by his devious and mendacious uncle and father-in-law, he returned home to be confronted and potentially threatened by his murderous twin brother, Esau.

And Parashat Vayishlach concludes with Jacob, renamed Israel by an angel (Genesis 32:28-29) and his new name ratified by G-d (35:9-10), a wealthy and respected patriarch, well on the way to becoming a nation.

As Jacob was entering the Land of Israel, he saw his estranged brother approaching from the distance, “and Esau ran towards him and hugged him, and he fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept” (Genesis 33:4).

This meeting is highly ambiguous.

The word וַיִּשָּׁקֵהוּ (“and kissed him”) appears in every Sefer Torah and every printed edition of the Torah with a dot above each letter of the word: וׄיׄשׄקׄהׄוׄ. Typically, dots above letters in the Tanach indicate exclusion or limitation, and there are different explanations as to what the six dots above these six letters connote.

The Talmud says that “each letter is dotted to teach that [Esau] did not kiss [Jacob] sincerely; Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar says: This kiss was sincere, but all the others were insincere” (Avot de-Rabbi Natan 34:5).

The Midrash gives more detail:

“Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar says: Whenever you find more letters than dots, then you expound upon the letters; when there are more dots than letters, then you expound upon the dots. Here there are neither more letters than dots nor more dots than letters [i.e. there is one dot per letter], which teaches that [Esau’s] compassion was aroused at that moment and he kissed [Jacob] with all his heart. Rabbi Yannai said to him: If so, why are there dots on this word? – This teaches that [Esau] came not לְנַשְּׁקוֹ (to kiss him) but rather לְנַשְּׁכוֹ (to bite him) – but our father Jacob’s neck became marble, and that evil man’s teeth were blunted. And what does the phrase ‘and they wept’ mean? – The one wept for his neck, and the other wept for his teeth” (Bereishit Rabbah 78:9, and compare Shir ha-Shirim Rabbah 7:5 [1] and Targum Yonatan and Targum Yerushalmi ad loc.).

Another Midrash records a similar difference of opinion: “There is a dot above each letter because [Esau] did not kiss [Jacob] wholeheartedly. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochay says: It a known rule that Esau hates Jacob – but at that moment [his hatred] was changed into love, and he kissed him with all his heart” (Sifrei Bamidbar, Beha’alotcha 69).

All agree that Esau hated his brother and wished him evil. Some opine that this hatred remained at this moment, but that Esau was forcibly prevented from harming his brother; Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochay opine that on this specific occasion Esau’s habitual hatred was turned to genuine brotherly love.

In any event, Jacob knew only too well that he could not rely on Esau’s continued goodwill. And so, when Esau suggested that he and his entourage accompany Jacob and his (Genesis 33:12), Jacob declined the offer:

“My lord knows that the children are tender, and the flock and the herd are suckling. If they will be driven hard for one day, all the flocks will die. So let my lord pass on ahead of his servant, and I will make my slow way at the walking pace of the herd before me and the pace of the children, until I will come to my lord, to Seir” (vs. 13-14).

Now Jacob’s response here is puzzling. His overriding characteristic was truth: “Grant truth to Jacob...which is what You swore to our fathers in ancient days” (Micah 7:20), yet as the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 25a) makes clear, though Jacob told his brother Esau that he would meet him in Seir, he never intended to go to there.

Their meeting happened near the River Jabbok, a tributary of the River Jordan which flows into the east bank of the Jordan about half-way between the Kinneret and the Dead Sea. Seir is some 200 km (125 miles) south and slightly east of the River Jabbok (in southern trans-Jordanian Israel, the region currently occupied by the Kingdom of Jordan).

And though “Esau settled in Mount Seir” (Genesis 36:80), Jacob headed just a few kilometres south of the River Jabbok to Succoth (Genesis 33:17) where he dwelt for a year and a half (Megillah 17a, Bereishit Rabbah 78:16), then moved to Shechem (Genesis 33:18) about 30 km (19 miles) west and slightly north of the Jabbok, then southwards from there to Beit El (35:1-7), and finally southwards via Ephrath and Bet Lehem to Hebron, there to be re-united with his father Isaac (35:16-27).

When he finally left Hebron decades later, it was to go down to Egypt to escape the famine and to join his son Joseph who was viceroy of Egypt.

So why the apparent subterfuge? Why did Jacob appear to lie to his brother here, promising to meet him in Seir?

In fact, Jacob was speaking absolute truth when he told Esau that “I will come to my lord, to Seir”.

The Midrash quotes Rabbi Abahu: “We can search the entire Tanach, and we will never find that Jacob our father went to Esau in Mount Seir throughout his life… When, then, will he come to come to him? – In the future time yet to come, which is the meaning of ‘saviours will ascend Mount Zion, to judge Mount Esau’ (Obadiah 1:21)” (Bereishit Rabbah 78:14 and Sechel Tov, Vayishlach 14).

Yes, Jacob was telling Esau the truth when he told him that he would one day meet him – indeed, confront him – in Mount Seir. Not in Jacob’s physical lifetime – but one day, Israel will yet confront Esau in Mount Seir.

The Book of Obadiah, the shortest book in the Tanach (just one chapter, consisting of 21 verses, 291 words, 1,120 letters), in which this verse – “saviours will ascend Mount Zion, to judge Mount Esau” – appears, constitutes the Haftarah for Parashat Vayishlach.

The prophet Obadiah (“the Servant of G-d”) was an Edomite who converted to Judaism (Sanhedrin 39b, Vayikra Rabbah 18:2, and Tanhuma, Tazria 8), which is why G-d chose him as the prophet who castigated Edom – Esau – and foretold his ultimate downfall.

After warning Edom – the descendant of Esau – of his impending doom and castigating him for his abuse of his twin brother Israel, the prophet proceeds to prophesy Israel’s eventual redemption, the ingathering of the exiles from the furthest corners of the world.

This is singularly appropriate: it was, after all, Esau, in his later guise of the Roman Empire, who conquered Israel and flung us into the longest exile in our history – the Edomite/Roman exile, which only in these generations is drawing to its close.

“On Mount Zion there will be a remnant, and it will be holy, and the House of Jacob will inherit its heritage. And the House of Jacob will be fire, and the House of Joseph a flame – and the House of Esau like straw, they will set them on fire and devour them, and there will be no survivor of the House of Esau, for Hashem has spoken!

“And they will inherit the Negev [the south of Israel], the Mountain of Esau, the lowlands, the Philistines...” (Obadiah 1:17-19).

And the prophet continues with his depiction of the exiled Children of Israel returning from afar to inherit their ancestral homeland:

“The exiled legions of the Children of Israel who were exiled with the Canaanites as far away as Tzarefat, and the exile of Jerusalem which is in Sefarad, will inherit the cities of the Negev; then saviours will ascend Mount Zion, to judge Mount Esau – and the Kingship will be Hashem’s” (vs. 20-21, the final words of this Book).

Where are Tzarefat and Sefarad?

– Tzarefat appears in the Tanach (1 Kings 17:9-10) as a city in Tzidon (Sidon), in what today is Lebanon. Sefarad appears nowhere else in the Tanach.

Writing almost 1,000 years ago, Rashi commented: “The interpreters say that Tzarefat is the kingdom called France, and [Targum] Yonatan translated Sefarad as Spain” (commentary to Obadiah 1:20)

The Ibn Ezra (commentary ibid.) concurs, and adds an extra insight: “We have heard from the great Torah-authorities that the land of Germany are the Canaanites who fled from the Children of Israel when they came to the Land; similarly Tzarefat is France, and Yonatan ben Uzziel translated Sefarad as Spain. This is the exile of Titus [i.e. the Roman exile], and this is a prophecy of the future time”.

And the Radak (commentary ibid.) adds something extra yet: “‘The exiled legions’ refers to the exile of Titus, those who were exiled to many countries, and these are the nations in the countries of Germany and Ashkelonia; Tzarefat is what we call France; and Sefarad is what we call Spain”.

It is not clear which country the Radak refers to by “Ashkelonia”. The name somehow suggests a combination of Ashkelon (a Canaanite city which was conquered by the Philistines who drove the Canaanites out, before becoming a Jewish city) and a typical central European euphony (along the lines of Slovenia, Slovakia, Estonia, etc.). Maybe the Radak links the Canaanites who, as the prophet says, were exiled with the Children of Israel, with the European countries in which the Children of Israel settled in their exile.

It is intriguing indeed to see history and prophecy unfolding.

In this generation, as Israel once again returns to his ancestral Land and as the final confrontation begins, we have experienced the kisses of Esau – Edom – European Christian (or post-Christian) civilisation. As with Esau’s kiss for Jacob, it is still unclear if modern-day Esau, European Christian (or post-Christian) civilisation, has genuinely stopped hating Israel, or if Esau is, once again, prevented by force majeure from harming Israel.

And as Israel returns to his Land, preparing to ascend Mount Zion, the exiles as far apart as Tzarefat, Sefarad, and Ashkelonia – France, Spain, and central Europe – once again find themselves accompanied by the so-called Canaanites (that is, the Palestinian Arabs, those who falsely claim descendancy from the Canaanites).

As the popular expression goes, מַעֲשֵׂה אָבוֹת סִימָן לַבָּנִים – the deeds of the forefathers are a portent for their children.

In memory of my cousin Priscilla (Privveh Devorah) Tropp, who passed away in London two years ago this Sunday, 20th Kislev 5779 (27th November 2018), aged 76. Yehi zichrah baruch.

Daniel Pinner is a veteran immigrant from England, a teacher by profession and a Torah scholar who has been active in causes promoting Eretz Israel and Torat Israel.