Torah Thoughts: Parashat Vayishlach 5779
By Rabbi Rami Pavolotzky
Can People Change?
This week we read the story of the brothers Jacob and Esau’s reunion. Jacob decides it is time to go back to his home, twenty years after escaping from it because of his brother’s intention to kill him. Jacob is very afraid of what Esau’ might do when he sees him. He carefully prepares his people for the worst after he is told that Esau is coming toward him with four hundred men.
When the brothers finally meet, Jacob bows low before Esau seven times, almost as if he were asking his brother to have pity on him. What does Esau do? The Torah tells us that, “Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept” (Genesis 33:4).
Up Until this point in the Torah narrative, Esau was described as a strong, unsophisticated and rude man, always fighting with his brother and only interested in physical pleasures. Therefore, it is not surprising that the sages were puzzled by Esau’s reaction when he met Jacob. Was Esau really capable of pardoning his brother? Could he really be so moved by seeing his brother that he even cried on Jacob’s neck? Should we believe that Esau’s reaction was an honest one?
In addition, the Hebrew word for “he kissed him” that appears in the Torah Scroll (Masoretic) text has dots over its letters. This is usually interpreted as a sign that the Torah has a hidden message in these words. Maybe the Torah is trying to tell us that Esau had other intentions, ones that were not so pure?
We can find these mixed feelings among the sages in the following Midrash we find in Bereshit Rabah (78:12, my translation),
“Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept – Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar said, ‘This verse teaches us that at this precise moment Esau’s pity grew and he kissed Jacob with a whole heart.’ Rabbi Yanai told him, ‘If so, why is the Hebrew word for “he kissed him” dotted? In order for us to learn that Esau did not come to Jacob to kiss him but to bite him. However, at that moment Jacob’s neck became like marble, and Esau’s teeth began to hurt. This also explain why it is written that both brothers wept, one was weeping for his neck and the other was weeping for his teeth.’”
This Midrash colorfully describes the two positions among the sages regarding Esau’s reactions when he meets Jacob. For some sages, Esau was simply moved to see his brother Jacob after so long a time, he hugged him and kissed him. For other sages, though, it is highly unlikely that a person like Esau, who had such dark feelings about Jacob, would be able to cry with his enemy and then pardon him so easily.
I guess most of us find ourselves in the similar situations in life, when someone surprises us with a change in his feelings or attitudes. We tend to mentally classify people according to their actions and ways. If someone is usually shy, it is hard for us to believe she can be extroverted some times. If someone is usually delicate and emotional, it is hard for us to imagine he can be strong and fight back. And the list goes on and on.
The Torah presents us with stories about real people, who can surprise us when their feelings and actions suddenly change. It is a lesson about human nature: We all have the potential to leave our comfort zone and change. We should not expect people to always behave in the same “predictable” ways. And we should not even expect ourselves to always behave in the same ways. We are all able to change, to surprise those around us and ourselves. If you wonder, can people really change? I believe these stories from the Torah bring us a clear answer: Yes, of course they can!