“Confronting Ourselves: Face to Face”
By Rabbi Cheryl Weiner, PhD, ’07
Vayishlach is the story of Jacob’s return home – a saga of reconciliation and redemption. The back-story. While pregnant, G-d tells Rebecca that the struggling twins in her womb will reverse the natural order; the younger shall inherit and rule over the older. Thus, Jacob manipulates Esau, the first-born to give up his birthright foolishly for some soup. Later, Rebecca helps Jacob manipulate Isaac into giving him the inheritance blessing instead of Esau. The entire family conspires to play out their roles in fulfilling this prophecy and become fragmented as a result. Jacob has to flee Esau who has sworn to kill him. Isaac and Rebecca lose Jacob and the family ties. Esau has to live out his life at home, knowing that his family has betrayed him.
How does this family become whole again? Only through the power of wrestling with the angels or demons that tore them apart. At the beginning of the parashah, Jacob notifies Esau that he is returning and prepares for a confrontation with the brother who he wronged. In the middle of the night, Jacob is accosted by a man, who commentators make into an angel, Jacob’s higher consciousness, or Esau in the flesh. Metaphorically, Jacob wrestles with all three entities, manifestations of the soul’s struggle to reconcile with its fragmented parts to become whole. He receives both a blessing and a wound in his thigh. Jacob names the place he is in, Peniel, for he says, “I saw the face of G-d and my soul was saved.” (Genesis 32:31)
Later, when Jacob finally meets up with Esau, the Torah states “Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept.” (Genesis 33:4) Jacob begs Esau to reconcile. “If indeed I have found favor in your eyes, then you shall take my gift from my hand, because I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of G-d, and you have accepted me.” (Genesis 33:10)
Throughout the commentaries, Esau is maligned as the child and brother who is unworthy of the birthright. He is later equated with Rome as the persecutor. Nowhere in the text does it seem to justify this assessment of Esau. Rather, it seems that the commentators had to find a way to support Jacob becoming the patriarch. Elsewhere, I have written a midrash on Esau where I present the son who stayed home, nurtured his parents, made good with his life, and who goes out to meet Jacob with forgiveness. Jacob, in turn, has to face up to his part in making the prophesy come true by wrestling with his inner self and the wounds that it produced. While Jacob does not return home with Esau, the past has been bridged. In the end, Jacob and Esau join together to bury their father Isaac.
How does this relate to how we live our lives? Perhaps, we have to rewrite the interpretations that we have given to our personal narrative. We have to reconstruct Esau and redeem Jacob. We need to confront those who we have wronged and those who have wronged us and acknowledge the repercussions that have resulted. In wrestling within ourselves to find the path to forgiveness and reconciliation, we can acknowledge our wounds and find redemption. We can receive the gifts of finding favor in someone’s eyes – perhaps our own. We can look into the eyes of all those with whom we struggle and see within the face of G-d.