Friday, December 04, 2009

The derash on Esav's kiss -- does Ibn Ezra insult Chazal?

Summary: Esav and Yaakov meet, and he kisses him. But there are dots over the word. Rashi cites a midrash, and Ibn Ezra disagrees, in a pretty dismissive manner, stating that the midrash is good for just-weaned children! What are we to make of this? Does Ibn Ezra not say in his introduction that none of Chazal's words fall to the ground? See also my earlier post about the dots over vayishakeihu.

Post: When Yaakov and Esav meet, it seems pretty emotional. Bereishit 33:

ד  וַיָּרָץ עֵשָׂו לִקְרָאתוֹ וַיְחַבְּקֵהוּ, וַיִּפֹּל עַל-צַוָּארָו וַיִּשָּׁקֵהוּ; וַיִּבְכּוּ.
4 And Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him; and they wept.
But there are dots over the word vayishakeihu. As I discussed in my earlier post, these dots might mean that there is a question whether the word should be present. (This according to a midrash.) And as Shadal notes, Origin doesn't find the word in his books.

But the question of whether these words really belong can occur on the midrashic plane as well. As Rashi writes:

and kissed him: Heb. וֹיֹשֹקֹהֹוּ. There are dots over the word. There is controversy concerning this matter in a Baraitha of Sifrei (Beha’alothecha 69). Some interpret the dots to mean that he did not kiss him wholeheartedly. Rabbi Simeon ben Yochai said: It is a well known tradition that Esau hated Jacob, but his compassion was moved at that time, and he kissed him wholeheartedly.

וישקהו: נקוד עליו, ויש חולקין בדבר הזה בברייתא דספרי (בהעלותך סט), יש שדרשו נקודה זו לומר שלא נשקו בכל לבו. אמר ר' שמעון בן יוחאי הלכה היא בידוע שעשו שונא ליעקב, אלא שנכמרו רחמיו באותה שעה ונשקו בכל לבו:

In Sifrei, it is placed along with a whole bunch of other examples, where the nikkud above works to show that it is not really, entirely, so. Thus, as an excerpt from Sifrei on Behaalotecha:

כיוצא בו(שם יט) ולא ידע בשכבה ובקומת
נקוד על ובקומה לומר (ס)(בשכבה לא ידע ובקומה ידע) • כיוצא בו(שם לג)(י) וישקהו,שלא
נשקו בכל לבו • ר׳ שמעון בן יוחאי אומר הלכה בידוע שעשו שונא ליעקב אלא נהפך רחמיו
באותה שעה ונשקו בכל לבו • כיוצא בו (שם לז) וילכו אחיו לרעות את צאן אביהם נקוד
עליו שלא הלכו אלא לרעות את עצמם

We find a similar midrash in Bereishit Rabba, but with differences.
וירץ עשו לקראתו וישקהו
נקוד עליו.

אמר ר' שמעון בן אלעזר:
בכל מקום שאתה מוצא:
הכתב רבה על הנקודה, אתה דורש את הכתב.
הנקודה רבה על הכתב, אתה דורש את הנקודה.
כאן לא כתב רבה על הנקודה, ולא נקודה רבה על הכתב.
אלא מלמד, שנכמרו רחמיו באותה השעה, ונשקו בכל לבו.

אמר לו ר' ינאי:
אם כן, למה נקוד עליו?
אלא מלמד, שלא בא לנשקו אלא לנשכו, ונעשה צוארו של אבינו יעקב של שיש, וקהו שיניו של אותו רשע.

ומה ת"ל ויבכו?
אלא זה בוכה על צוארו וזה בוכה על שיניו.

ר' אבהו בשם ר' יוחנן,
מייתי לה מן הכא (שיר ז)צוארך כמגדל השן וגו'. 

Thus, Rabbi Shimon ben Eleazar seems to see some irregularity with the dots over the letters, since they are precisely equal, and so it means that Esav's compassion overwhelmed him at that time, such that he kissed him wholeheartedly. But Rabbi Yannai points out that there are dots there, and it should tell us something. And thus he didn't kiss him, but bit him. Yaakov's neck turned to marble, Esav's teeth were blunted, and both wept -- Yaakov for his smarting neck, and Esav for his aching teeth. And Rabbi Abahu cites Rabbi Yochanan, who brings a pasuk from a distant source, Shir Hashirim, with the same idea.

Ibn Ezra begs to differ. He writes:
לג, ד]
הדרש על נקודות וישקהו, טוב הוא לעתיקי משדים, כי על דרך הפשט לא חשב עשו לעשות רע לאחיו, והעד:ויבכו כאשר עשה יוסף עם אחיו.

If I had to guess, Ibn Ezra is not necessarily arguing on the midrash from the Sifrei that Rashi cited. Rather, by stating לא חשב עשו לעשות רע לאחיו, his target it the biting midrash in Bereshit Rabba. (Although we could force it otherwise, that it is going on the "halacha" of Esav hating Yaakov...)

Now, Atikei mishadayim refers to those who have just been weaned. So he dismisses the derash as good for young kids -- kindergarteners? -- for the peshat is otherwise. And he is not merely saying that the peshat is ambiguous, or silent, on the matter. He feels that the peshat is the precise opposite of what is being proposed in the derash. (And I could add, if ain mikra yotzei midei peshuto, he would not be OK with the true meaning being the derash and overwhelming the peshat.)

This is obviously troubling. What is Ibn Ezra, a Karaite?! How could he argue on derash? Well, that is not such a problem, because he does it all the time. But how could he be so dismissive in his language of Chazal? Even if he is siding in this with Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai and Rabbi Shimon ben Eleazar, this is quite the insult! (Except perhaps he writes in this strong manner as his style of learning and teaching Torah, and teaching peshat.)

And people grapple with this. I saw the following suggestion, in which the author considers this to be one of Ibn Ezra's riddles:

וזוהי בלי״ס אחת החידות מתירות הראב״ע, שכתב
הוא ז״ל בספרו הנכבד המלא חידות ופליאות, כי
איך אפשר לקבל את דברי הראב״ע כפשוטם, ולהעלות
על הדעת שהראב״ע ז״ל יטיח בדברים כאלה גגד
חז״ל? והרי הוא בעצמו כתב (בראשית א׳ אות ל״ב,)ש
כי לא יפילו מדברי רבותינו ז״ל ארצה, וחלילה לו
להטיל דופי בדברי חזל.

He continues to explain the "riddle" that so long as children are dependent upon their father's table, they are called yonkei shadayim. And when they go out into the big world and do business, they need to be able to discern between those who would do them harm or the opposite. And those people are called atikei mishadayim. Thus, Ibn Ezra is saying that this derash about telling the difference between those biting you and those kissing you is good for those people.

This is still somewhat difficult, because it does not really flow. Why continue after this that this is so "because" al derech hapeshat it doesn't mean that? (And Tzofnas Paneach among others understands Ibn Ezra as arguing on the midrash and holding like Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai.)

I have a few suggestions. The first is that he is indeed really arguing on this position found in midrash. And certainly when Chazal say something allegorically, they mean it allegorically and not as peshat. But where Chazal mean it as peshat, he will argue with them, and perhaps even use such strong language. And Ibn Ezra might even be arguing with those, post-Chazal, who are taking this midrash literally, while the midrash only intended it allegorically. After all, the relationship and meeting of Esav and Yaakov are taken elsewhere in midrash to refer to the future relationship between Edom and Israel. And so they might be discussing whether Roman attitudes towards Israel at that time were genuine. Indeed, at the time of Rashbi,
When Anthony Pius ascended the throne of Rome, the evil decrees against the Jews became less severe and Rabbi Simeon ben Yochai together with other Torah scholars were able to pursue the study of the Torah openly in Eretz Yisroel. The great Tanna Rabbi Judah ben Bavah gave them Semicha (Rabbinical Ordination) and the Torah Academies in Eretz Yisroel started to bloom again.
Though Rashbi made statements against Rome, and got into trouble for it. The Rabbonim discussing this matter are all of Eretz Yisrael, and so there may readily be a deeper meaning to their discussion. And Ibn Ezra might be lashing out at contemporaries who take the farfetched midrash absolutely literally and historically, in the Biblical narrative. And there is this danger, since the dots over the letters are indeed a textual feature.

Another thing we could try to do is reinterpret the strange atikei mishadayim in another, more positive way. Elsewhere, he refers to Chazal giving the traditional interpretation as maatikim. And they do this out of tradition. They received it with their mother's milk. Thus, this derash is good for them. For if not, we would have thought otherwise, based on other peshat cues. Now we know the truth. While I suggest this, I don't think it too likely; and it also has problems flowing. The text of Ibn Ezra as it stands reads straightforwardly as insulting the derash or those who maintain this derash.

(I've heard another, more positive explanation, I think from Rabbi Dr. Mordechai Cohen, that this is inspirational, and that midrash can sometimes fulfill this positive goal, even if ultimately untrue. But don't rely on my presentation of this idea.)

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