Not all siblings get along, but some take it to real extremes. Esau was angry with his younger twin brother, Jacob, (for deceiving him out of a blessing) and decided he was going to kill him when the opportune time arose.1 Upon hearing of Esau’s intentions, Jacob’s parents, Isaac and Rebecca, encouraged Jacob to travel to his uncle Laban “until such time that your brother’s anger calms down.”2 Decades later, and now married with a family, Jacob decided to return home.

Jacob sent messengers to tell his brother Esau that he will be heading in his direction, in order to get a sense of how Esau felt about him. The report was menacing:

The messengers returned to Jacob, saying, “We came to your brother, to Esau, and he is also coming toward you, and four hundred men are with him.”3

Naturally, “Jacob became very frightened and was distressed”4 by this marching horde.

Who needs 400 men to attend a congenial family reunion?! It seemed trouble was brewing.

Hugs From the Heart

Fortunately, in the end, matters turned out quite well, perhaps helped by the generous gifts Jacob had sent to Esau. No doubt, Jacob’s prayers didn’t hurt either.

“Esau ran toward him and embraced him, and he fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.”5

So what happened here? Esau all of a sudden turned into a nice guy?

Rashi comments on the words “embraced him”:

“Esau was overcome with compassion when he saw Jacob bow down to him so many times.”

So, it would seem that the warm embrace Esau gave to Jacob was real.

The Questionable Kiss

Then Rashi notes that there are dots above the word “he kissed him” (in Hebrew it is a single word), something extremely unusual that has a diminishing effect, similar to how we sometimes put quotation marks around words that are not to be taken too seriously.

Rashi then offers two opinions as to the meaning of Esau’s kiss:

Some interpret the dots to mean that he did not kiss him wholeheartedly. However, Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai said: It is an established fact that Esau hated Jacob, but his compassion was moved at that time, and he kissed him wholeheartedly.

So Rashi is undecided as to whether Esau was sincere in his affection towards Jacob. In fact, the first opinion he brings – which normally implies he gives it greater weight – is that the kiss was merely for show.

But when it came to Esau’s hug, Rashi just said that he did feel compassion for Jacob and that it was sincere! Rashi did not sit on the fence about whether it was a real hug. He did not bring two competing views, but gave only a single opinion, namely that it was a genuine embrace. So, is there one opinion or competing opinions about Esau’s intentions? Does Rashi think it is clear that Esau was sincere, or does he regard this as a matter of dispute?

What Was Esau Thinking?

It may seem to the reader that Rashi’s comment on Esau’s kiss was an attempt to explain the unusual dots that appear above the word. However, the Rebbe explains, this is not the case. Indeed, Rashi often gives no explanation for such deviations, considering the matter unessential to the simple study of the Torah.

Rather, Rashi aimed to address a fundamental problem in the story: We know that Esau resented Jacob and hated him to such an extent that he had actually planned to murder him. In case there was any question about whether Esau was any less angry over the ensuing decades, his march towards Jacob with 400 men made his feelings clear enough. No one shows up to a meet and greet with a small army! Jacob was rightly terrified.

Knowing Esau’s hostility towards Jacob, Rashi felt compelled to address the apparent dramatic change of heart. He therefore explained that, as surprising at it seems, the extraordinarily gracious manner of Jacob’s greeting caused a meaningful change in Esau. His hug was real.

When it comes to Esau’s kiss, however, it stretches credulity to imagine that Esau would be transformed from wanting to strike a fatal blow to giving a kiss. Is it not too much to believe that Esau would feel so warmly towards Jacob that he would start kissing him?

Therefore, Rashi acknowledged that the dots above the word do imply that (unlike the hug) the kiss was not heartfelt. The only question is in which way was it lacking – for which he offers two possibilities: The first explanation was that he did not kiss him with all his heart. In other words, according to this view, the embrace may have been real, but the kiss was a fake.

The other explanation is that Esau was momentarily overcome with affection, but it was nothing more than a passing feeling. Indeed, Esau had not changed to such a degree that he loved his brother; he just got caught up in the moment. According to both explanations the hug was fulsome but the kiss was impoverished, whether because it was half-hearted or because it was fleeting.

Piercing the Shell of Hatred

There is an important lesson that emerges from Esau’s reaction to meeting Jacob. Esau was hardly a sentimental man. The Torah describes him as a hunter and a man who lived by the sword. The rabbis viewed Esau as a sustained hypocrite and a repeat liar. He led a life of violence, and was more than willing to kill his own brother.

Yet this aggressive murderer had his emotions stirred by Jacob’s gentle manner. His hostility melted away because he was shown the beauty of Jacob’s family and the kindness of a good-hearted person. His intention to commit violence was replaced by a desire to show affection. We should never underestimate the power of our good behavior on others, even someone with a long history of belligerence like Esau.

Adapted from Likutei Sichot, vol. 20, Parshat Vayishlach I.