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Parashat Vayishlah

December 7, 2011

By Miriam Herscher


“I am Jacob. I am going home, and I am anxious and scared.

“I have been away for twenty years. I have not spoken to nor seen my brother or parents in all that time. We parted under horrendous circumstances. I cheated my brother, with the help of my mother, and stole his birthright blessing from our father. It should have been his. But he did actually say once that I could have it; one day he came home from hunting and wanted the food that I had cooked. In exchange for it I asked him to sell me his birthright, and he did.

“Now, I know my father is still alive, and I want to try to reconcile with my brother. But I am terrified of his anger. Maybe he still wants to kill me. Is reconciliation possible after all these years? Will he forgive me? Can there even be forgiveness after betrayal? I am not convinced that reconciliation is possible.”

We, too, may ask how two people who tricked and threatened to kill each other can reconcile.

During their boyhood, Esau and Jacob were in fierce competition. Each was beloved by one parent, but felt the other was the favored child. Each wanted what the other had. Esau, skilled in providing himself with game, wanted Jacob’s stew. Jacob, called a simple man, wanted the greatness promised by birthright and blessing. Nothing was worthwhile unless it belonged to the other. They are children competing for their parents’ attention and gifts. Each is too needy to acknowledge the other’s needs.

It appears that Esau has found his inner courage and strength to reach out to his brother. Is the scene of reconciliation real? “The commentators are divided as to whether Esau’s hugs and kisses are genuine. (The Masoretic text has dots over the words ‘he kissed him,’ indicating there is something unusual about them). Some are reluctant to credit Esau with any decent motives (Gen R. 78:9). One midrash says ‘everything Esau ever did was motivated by hatred except for this one occasion that was motivated by love (ARN 34)’ ” (Etz Hayim, p. 203).

Rashi interprets these dots to mean he did not kiss wholeheartedly.

But perhaps the fierce Esau turns out to be loving and emotional. He runs to embrace Jacob who bowed low to the ground seven times and declared, “When I see your face, it is like seeing the face of God” (Genesis 33:10).

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin in his book Biblical Literacy, p. 63, also questions if Jacob’s words to Esau are sincere; he believes Jacob will say anything to mollify Esau. But, on the other hand, he posits that Jacob may be sincere. Perhaps in the intervening years he may have experienced some guilt and came to understand the pain Esau suffered. Jacob may offer gifts to produce a real peace.

Chap 32:4: has the words im Lavan garti. The word garti can be translated as “lived,” meaning as part of the household and part of the culture, or merely “stayed/sojourned.” Rashi interprets these words to mean that Jacob is telling Esau that he is not a prince or person of importance but only a sojourner, and there is no cause to hate him because he took their father’s blessing.

Rabbi Elie Munk, a 20th century commentator, in The Call of the Torah, p.435, translates garti also as “I have sojourned” to mean that he was a visitor, not under any spell from Lavan (who was known as a master sorcerer) and that he left with his own earned riches which he now offers to Esau to win his sympathy.

It appears that Esau and Jacob have overcome their neediness. Each has a family and possessions acquired through his own efforts. Jacob, who has always gained at Esau’s expense, offers him gifts. Esau refuses, saying, “I have enough, my brother; let what you have remain yours” (Genesis 33:9). Jacob insists, claiming, “God has favored me and I have plenty” (33:11). Each of the brothers is now able to recognize how much he has.

They will never be the closest of brothers. Still, for the first time each can accept the other as he is; each can see the other’s wealth without coveting it.  Regardless of the interpretation we ascribe to this event, the brothers do not live together happily ever after. Almost immediately after their reunion, they separate again–Esau goes to Seir, Jacob heads to Sukkot. They come together only once more, to bury their father Isaac.

An agonizing family drama and one, sadly, to which I can personally relate: my brother and I have been estranged for 7 years. Like Jacob, I have no faith or hope that reconciliation is possible. I know that there are many families today where siblings are estranged. Can the story in Vayishlah be a role model for us today? Can we find hope in this story? What if reconciliation is not possible? How can we find a way to live without it? How can we manage to let go of our anger? Anger is toxic and slowly destroys the one who is angry. We need to release the anger without reconciliation.

The ideal is always to reconcile with the other, but that always starts by walking the path of reconciliation ourselves. If the ideal is not possible, then may we be on a path to reconciliation by ourselves, within ourselves, with a visit to our past, with the courage to remember our own pain, and the willingness to understand the other. Perhaps in this way we will find a way to release our anger and move forward, even without the reconciliation meeting.



Miriam Herscher is a rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion.