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Parashat Vayishlah, 5778

November 28, 2017


Not as Bad as We Expected
A D’var Torah for Vayishlah
by Rabbi Heidi Hoover

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlah, Jacob and his family return to his homeland, and Jacob anticipates his reunion with his brother Esau. It’s been more than 20 years since Jacob ran away from his brother’s anger, after having stolen their father’s blessing. He is afraid to meet Esau again, afraid that Esau will still be angry. When they do meet, the text says, “Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept” (Genesis 33:4).

The Hebrew word for the phrase, “he kissed him” has dots in the text over each letter. The rabbis interpret this as having meaning. In Midrash Rabba, Rabbi Shimon ben Eleazar says this “teaches that he kissed him with all his heart.” Rabbi Yannai disagrees, saying, “It teaches however, that he wished to bite him.” This is a play on the word for kiss, nashak, which is similar to the word for “bite,” nashakh. These are obviously two very different readings of the text; one that sees reconciliation, and one that sees Esau as still violent, attacking Jacob.

The rabbis aren’t the only ones who tell stories to fill in missing information. Jacob does it within the text. As he approaches the land where Esau lives, he is anxious and afraid when his messengers tell him that Esau is coming to meet him with 400 men. That’s all the information he has. In response, Jacob tells himself a story that he and his family are in danger from Esau. This story is a frightening one, and Jacob is frightened. He separates his wives and children into two camps, thinking that if one is attacked, the other might get away.

The story he tells himself, that Esau is coming to meet him in order to attack him, is based on his earlier relationship with Esau, for sure, but there is a gap of more than 20 years, and he does turn out to be incorrect. I don’t accept what the Midrash says about the biting.  I prefer to think that Esau does not attack Jacob.

We too, tell ourselves stories about the events of our lives, because we are frequently missing information. Have you ever sent an email to someone and not gotten a response? Have you ever reacted by thinking, “That person doesn’t care enough to respond; or, that person must be angry with me”? And then later it turned out that the email went into the person’s spam folder and they never saw it, or over time you learn that that person is just a flake about responding to email? The only information in that situation was that the email wasn’t responded to—everything else, which was about the person’s reason for not responding, was a story about it that you made up.

It can be difficult for us to notice that we are telling ourselves a story about something that’s happened, because it comes so naturally and we do it all the time. It’s worthwhile to try to pay attention and be aware of when we are adding to the facts we have about a situation with assumptions we are making as we try to understand what has happened. And if we can discern what our pattern is, that could be helpful.

How often do we have an impression of a situation that turns out to be incorrect? How often do the assumptions we make lead us to think negatively about someone else? How often do we assume someone lied, rather than that they made a mistake? How often do we give the benefit of the doubt?

And how often have we been on the other side? How often have people assumed we didn’t care when we didn’t know they were expecting something from us? How many times have our mistakes been called intentional?

When we are missing information from a situation, as we very frequently are, it is usually to our benefit to tell ourselves a story that doesn’t assume the worst. Not only does it make our lives a little happier when we aren’t assuming that people are trying to hurt us, it is my experience that usually people aren’t trying to hurt us.

More often than not, there was a mistake, or an oversight, or thoughtlessness. That doesn’t mean it isn’t hurtful or wrong. But it makes a difference in how we feel and how we react if we can fill in the gaps in our experiences more benevolently and with compassion, than if we do so by expecting the worst.

May our reunions with our “Esaus”—all the confrontations we dread, all the negative stories we tell ourselves—be like Jacob’s reunion with his Esau. Which is to say, may they not be as bad as we expect. And may we learn that we do not need to expect the worst from others, and may we find more often the goodness in those around us.


Heidi Hoover (AJR ’11) is the rabbi of Temple Beth Emeth v’Ohr Progressive Shaari Zedek and Progressive Temple Beth Ahavath Sholom in Brooklyn, NY.