A sibling reconciliation

Rabbi Jim Bennett is Senior Rabbi of Congregation Shaare Emeth and a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.

By Rabbi Jim Bennett

When I was growing up, one of my younger brothers and I shared a bedroom.  Only two years apart, our relationship was typically fraught with arguments, both verbal and physical. I recall tricking him, knocking him off the top of the bunk bed and him kicking a hole in our door in anger at me for locking him out of the room and otherwise treating him with disdain. Normal brotherly-love-type stuff!  

Little surprise that these many years later our relationship is still somewhat strained.  


Our Torah portion this week, Vayishlach, recounts the even more tormented relationship between Jacob and Esau, and yet, in one profound moment, offers reconciliation of the two brothers long alienated from one another:

“Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept.”  (Genesis 33:4)

Our Jewish tradition struggles to understand what truly took place at this moment of meeting.  In Torah scrolls, the scribal tradition marks the word for “he kissed him” with dots that have been interpreted as the teeth one of the brothers or the other on the neck of his sibling. For example, the Tanchuma, a midrashic voice, suggests:

Esau sought to bite him but his neck turned to marble. This is the reason for the dots, indicating that his kiss was not a sincere one. Why did they both weep? …Esau wept because Jacobs neck had turned to marble and Jacob, for fear that Esau might return to bite him.”

The mistrust of these two brothers, ancestors of the Jewish and Palestinian peoples, stands as a paradigm for the potential that always stands before us, for healing and reconciliation.  It is easy to hate, but even easier to love.  As we learned from the lyrics of Rodgers and Hammerstein in South Pacific, “You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear. You’ve got to be taught from year to year. It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear. You’ve got to be carefully taught.”

Another midrash, Ha’emek Davar, suggests that both Esau and Jacob wept, implying that Jacob’s love, too, was aroused towards Esau. 

“And so it is in all ages. Whenever the seed of Esau is prompted by sincere motives to acknowledge and respect the seed of Israel, then we too, are moved to acknowledge Esau: for he is our brother.”

Esau and Jacob are brothers.  The Israeli and Palestinian peoples living side by side are faced with the very choice that has stood before us since the days of these forbears of ours.  Shall we continue to believe that the other can only bite us?  If so, then our necks will indeed be turned to marble and we will continue to resist making peace, fighting aggression with aggression, refusing to see the other as our partner in potential mutual respect and peace.  

When, and only when, we are each prompted by sincerity to approach the other — with hesitation perhaps, but nonetheless with hope and confidence and respect — then we can finally embrace without fear, and we shall know true shalom.  

May this shalom come speedily, in our day.