Parshat Vayishlach: Brothers’ Reunion (Genesis 32:4-36:43)
by Marsha B. Cohen
This D’var Torah was originally written for and syndicated by the National Havurah Committee weekly D’var Torah Column for Dec. 16, 1989.
Maaseh avot siman l’vanim—“The deed of the forefathers is a sign to the children,” say the Sages.
Many commentators have noted the parallels between events in later Jewish history and the encounter of the two brothers, Jacob and Esau, exploring them for the insights they might yield. What is the most effective response to an enemy’s anger that has boiled over into violence—a show of strength and counterattack, or searching for a way to make peace?
It’s an ongoing debate that could be a front-page story in today’s Jerusalem Post or Haaretz, or the theme of a workshop on contemporary family dynamics.
Jacob has fled from Laban, with the wives, flocks and herds he has earned with his labor. Like many yordim who have left the Promised Land, intending to be gone just a short while, Jacob finds that 21 years have passed quickly, and seem like yamim achadim—a few days.
But now, having incurred Laban’s wrath, Jacob wants to return to Canaan, to Beersheba. He wants to come home. Home, however, means dealing with Esau. Esau has neither forgotten nor forgiven how he was tricked into surrendering his birthright, or how his brother took advantage of his father’s blindness to secure what should have, by custom, been Esau’s blessing.
If Jacob has any illusions about the triumph of brotherly love over Esau’s seething rage, they are quickly dispelled by the messengers he sends ahead. Esau, they inform Jacob, is on his way, accompanied by 400 men.
Jacob realizes that this is not a good beginning for a joyous family reunion, and, as Rashi notes, quickly devises a threefold strategy. First, he prepares his camp for war. Then, having done what he can to help himself, Jacob prays. Reminding God of His promise to make things go well for him if he returned to Canaan, Jacob admits, “I am unworthy of all the kindnesses and faith you have shown me.” Nevertheless, a promise is a promise, and Jacob makes God’s credibility the issue, not his own worthiness, a central theme of Jewish prayer to this day. Finally, Jacob sends generous gifts to Esau, in the hopes of securing his good will.
Jacob is alone in the camp in the middle of the night, when a stranger appears. They wrestle until dawn, and the stranger, who has wounded Jacob but cannot defeat him, begs to be released from his grip. Who is this mysterious being with whom Jacob struggles? When Jacob asks there is no answer. And why is it so important for Jacob to secure his blessing? Various theories among the commentators abound.
God or good, Esau or evil, stranger or self, Jacob’s victory in the struggle, and his blessing, are his only when he responds to the question, “Who are you?” Is he, and will he remain, Jacob, the wily “heel grabber” for whom the end always justifies the means? Or is he ready to become Israel, “he who will be great before God”? Over what spiritual force must he prevail, in order to face his brother’s anger and hatred. We find out the following day, when he confronts Esau.
As Thomas Friedman observes in his book From Beirut to Jerusalem, the timeless unwritten law of the Middle East has always been: “If I am weak, how can I compromise? If I am strong, why should I compromise?” Jacob realizes that breaking out of this trap—where neither strength nor weakness allows for the possibility of peace—is the first step in repairing their relationship.
A second barrier between the brothers is Esau’s conviction that a terrible wrong has been done to him. There has never yet been a war in which each side did not see itself as the “good guy,” an injured party redressing some great wrong of the past, while the enemy is the “bad guy” from whom justice must be extracted by force. As long as each side in a conflict sees itself as the victim, the other side as the oppressor, reconciliation is impossible.
Jacob makes it clear to Esau that he wishes to be neither. “God has been kind to me, and I have all I need” is the declaration of a man driven by neither grudge nor greed. Avoiding any reference to Isaac’s blessing, “You shall be lord over your brother” (Gen. 27:29), Jacob focuses on his prosperity as a gift from God, which he will willingly share with Esau. At the same time, by bowing to Esau and referring to him respectfully as “my lord,” Jacob doesn’t allow Esau to assume the role of victim.
Third, Jacob overcomes the temptation to demonize his enemy. “Seeing your face is like seeing the face of God,” Jacob tells Esau. The struggle of the previous night seems to have taught Jacob that there is a spark of divine spirit even in Esau. If every human being is created in God’s image, one must allow even a foe the potential for self-transcendence.
Slowly Esau allows himself to be convinced. His position shifts from attacker to reluctant recipient of Jacob’s largesse (“Let what is yours remain yours”). Eventually he accepts Jacob’s offering. “Let’s get going and move on,” Esau says, as he prepares to travel along with Jacob.
But Jacob understands that the reconciliation of the two brothers does not mean that they, or the tribes that descend from them, can live together peacefully in the same land. For Esau too received a blessing from his father Isaac: “You shall live by your sword. You may have to serve your brother, but when your complaints mount up, you will throw his yoke off your neck” (Gen. 27:40). They go their separate ways.
“The deed of the forefathers is a sign to the children.”
Copyright 1989, National Havurah Committee. All rights are the author’s.