Torah Reading for Week of December 8-14, 2019
“Reconciliation: Our Personal Jacob and Esau “
By Rabbi Cheryl Weiner, PhD, BCC, ’07
The views expressed in this drash are those of the author. We welcome Torah insights and teachings from all viewpoints, and encourage dialogue to strengthen the diversity of our academy.
As a hospice chaplain, many times I am called upon to reconcile families and in our spiritual assessments of patients, we are asked if people need to reconcile themselves with God. As I read the portion this week, I was struck by the way that Esau and Jacob were reconciled. Jacob is returning to his homeland with his wives and his material wealth accumulated over 14 years and he is about to encounter Esau his brother, whose last words were that he wanted to kill Jacob for stealing his birthright and blessing from their father Isaac. Jacob divides up his camp into two, so that if Esau comes after one, the other will survive. He goes out alone to contemplate what will come, falls asleep, dreams and engages in a battle with an angel/ messenger who wounds him and gives him a new name, Yisrael, the God wrestler.
I envision this engagement as a mussar session, where Jacob has to confront what he has done to his brother and what might now result from that deception. What happens can be interpreted in at least two ways. Esau meets him, kissing him on the neck. The rabbis interpret that as both a genuine embrace and alternatively as a duplicitous embrace. Esau invites Jacob to return with him. Jacob says another time, thanks. And that is the last we hear of them together.
What actually happens in families when they try to reconcile? I think that Esau has been maligned in our tradition. He loved his dad and tried to do the right thing, but kept making mistakes that kept him at a distance. Yet, he was the one who stayed with his parents, took care of them in their old age, and built a family which was in turn successful. There is no mention of him directly hurting anyone, but his descendants who lived in Edom, a land named after Esau were not kind to the Israelites when they returned from Egypt, which is presented in our Haftarah in the Book of Obadiah.
Perhaps, this is a lesson about reconciliation. When someone is truly sorry about something, they need to say so. They need to let go of the guilt of what they have done and truly embrace the person they have harmed. Perhaps, that is what the angel or messenger came to wrestle with Jacob about. AND perhaps, the recognition of the harm that was done resulted in a wound that would stay with Jacob. AND perhaps, we learn from this that Jacob did not really reconcile himself to what it is that he had done, because he did not fully embrace Esau. He didn’t go back to visit with Esau or introduce him to his family. He didn’t join with Esau as family to bury Jacob, like Ishmael and Isaac did when they buried Abraham together.
In turn, someone who has been harmed has to reassure the person who harmed them, that they do not hold a grudge any longer. Those words were not spoken by Esau. In order for there to be a reconciliation that lasts, Jacob and Esau need to rebuild their relationship. They need to reestablish trust. They need to develop new bonds. They need to go into their discomfort and dissolve it, creating comfort in their future relationship. Jacob was unable to do that; he ignored the invitation to visit Esau. My sense is that the subsequent animosity between Edom and the Israelites comes from this inability to truly reconcile. The past comes back to bite you.
In my work with families, I sometimes see one sibling reaching out to another; but more often, I see irreconcilable differences and a lack of willingness to connect. People allow the feelings from the past relationship to linger, making a future relationship impossible.
One lesson that we can learn from this parsha is that reconciliation needs to be fully manifested. Otherwise, the ramifications in future generations can be vindictive and lead to violence. Our narrative regarding Edom vilifies Esau. Our narrative follows Jacob/ Yisrael. However, we can wonder what might have happened historically or in the narrative if Yisrael had truly reconciled with Esau. Further, what might have happened when Jacob wrestled with the angel if he had surrendered and acknowledged the pain that he had caused Esau and himself as well. Would he have been whole as a result without his woundedness? As we move forward with Jacob into his narrative arc, we learn that he still has fatal flaws that result in Dina being left as a wounded woman, that result in Joseph being abducted, and that render Jacob isolated in his sorrow when his children betray him.
We are left with our own woundedness and our need to reconcile ourselves with our past, so that we can creatively construct a future. While we cannot change how Edom behaves in the Biblical accounts, we can redeem our Jacob, by fully reconciling with our Esau in our personal narrative.