Parashat Vayishlah

The courage to say “I’m sorry.”
By Irwin Huberman

There are two short phrases which are among the most powerful in our tradition.

They are “I’m sorry,” and “I forgive you,” and they both come into play in this week’s parashah, Vayishlah, as our forefather Jacob comes to grips with two enemies who have haunted him since his departure from Isaac and Rebecca’s household.

They are Esau, and himself.

The story of how Jacob tricked Isaac into receiving the family birthright is one of the most famous in our tradition. In the weekly Torah portion that we read two weeks ago, Jacob disguises himself as his gruff brother Esau, and accepts the “blessing of the firstborn” from his confused father. Aside from some token signs of remorse, Jacob, prompted by his mother, coolly executes the plan of deceit.

To this point, Jacob is less than what we could consider a model forefather. In some ways he is a scoundrel. Not only is he a master of trickery, but he is also a negotiator; a wheeler and dealer. Even his relationship with the Almighty is worded in language of “give and take.” In Genesis 28:20, Jacob promises that:

If God remains with me, if He protects me on this journey that I am making, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear and if I return safely to my father’s house – the Lord shall be my God.

The wording of this vow and Jacob’s lack of absolute faith at the start of his journey of escape from Esau is one of the first examples of someone promising something in return for God’s blessings. Indeed, this is hardly the sign of pure and complete faith.

And now, in this week’s Torah portion, Jacob’s life on the run, the moral weight of the act he committed, and his conscience all converge near Seir, in the land of Edom, Esau’s home turf, as the brothers prepare to reunite.

It is Jacob who initiates the reunion. After years of living with the deceit he committed, it is time to approach the person he had wronged and make things right.

What should Jacob say and do at the moment of reunion? And how will Esau respond?

There are examples in all of our lives where we have wronged someone, or where past personal conflicts continue to haunt us. Perhaps it is a family member, a friend or former business associate. If only we could take back our actions or words, or at minimum assume responsibility for what we have done.

In Genesis 32:25, the Torah describes a wrestling match between Jacob and a mysterious man, and this struggle lasts all night. The battle is far removed from those matches which we observe while changing television channels. This is neither a Royal Rumble nor a Summer Slam.

Indeed, Jacob’s wrestling match is against a more formidable foe. The opponent is the enemy within. And with the coming of dawn, Jacob emerges from his internal struggle with a sense of truth, inner strength and a new name, Yisrael, wrestler with God. But before the mysterious man departs, he pulls out Jacob’s hip socket, and this will cause Jacob to limp for the rest of his life.

Indeed, Jacob does not emerge from his past pain-free.

Often in life, we blame our life situation on external factors. But it is too easy to blame our parents, our upbringing, or actions committed by others. In this week’s Torah portion, Jacob emerges from his introspection by admitting, “I am the culprit.”

And in the famous scene of reunification, Jacob offers Esau flocks and herds of sheep and cattle, throws himself on the ground, and expresses the joy of being with family, “to see your face,” says Jacob of Esau, “is like seeing the face of God.” (Genesis 33:10)

By confronting and overcoming the enemy within, by assuming responsibly for his actions, and by performing Teshuvah, the act of repentance, Jacob’s relationship with God, his family and the world around him enters a new phase.

In essence, Jacob says to his brother, “I am sorry, and I accept responsibility.” And in return, by not punishing Jacob, in essence Esau, a person of physical force, replies, “I forgive you.”

In life it takes great courage to admit the wrongs we have committed. But it only becomes possible to complete this when a wronged party has the equal courage to accept the apology.

The Torah demonstrates that in spite of repeated examples of dysfunction, disharmony and dishonesty, in the end, it is our ability to deal with the past and embrace family which is so very important.

This week’s account of apology and forgiveness provides lessons which we can carry with us into life, as we strive to heal a broken world.

Indeed, Tikkun Olam, the repairing of the world, takes on increasing power when we acknowledge that our important life mission of healing begins with our families, our homes and our own lives.