Parashat Vayishlach 5780

Rabbi Tanya Sakhnovich – 13 December 2019

The story of reconciliation between two brothers Esau and Jacob is one of the most powerful in the Torah and one of the timeliest for us and our country this week.

Parashah Vayishlach starts with Jacob coming back to the land of his childhood; the Land, which God promised to give to him and his descendants; the land, which he left fleeing from his brother’s wrath. He is coming back now, 20 years older, with 20 more years of life experiences, both good and bad.

Jacob fled with a rod and now he is a wealthy man blessed with a large family and God’s protection. He was wronged and he was hurt. He is coming back determined to make amends with his brother for the wrong he did to him 20 years earlier. Such a noble endeavour of a man, who has been transformed by his life experiences and wants “to do the right thing”.

It is all well said but not easily done. As Professor Lewis B. Smedes said: “It takes one person to forgive, it takes two people to be reunited.”1 And those of us, who fell out with our siblings or family members even once will not only sympathise with Jacob but also empathise with him. Jacob wishes to reconcile but he does not know whether his brother Esau (perhaps rightly so) is still holding a grudge against him.

So, at the beginning of our parashah, Jacob sends messengers to his brother Esau from “your servant Jacob” and learns from them that Esau is on his way to meet him… with 400 men alongside.

Jacob is clearly very frightened. As a man with a guilty conscience he thinks the worst and as a man of action, he is preparing to meet Esau’s possible attack by dividing his people and his family into two camps and moving them as well as all their possessions, to the other side of the river Jabbok. Jacob prays to God and asks for God’s protection from the hand of Esau.

But Jacob also hopes that he might appease his brother with lavish gifts, which he sends as soon as he learns that Esau is on his way to meet him. His conciliatory and peaceful intentions are very clear through his verbal interaction. Jacob refers in his correspondence to “My Lord Esau”2 rather than “brother”, calling himself “your servant Jacob”3, thus restoring, at least verbally, the status quo he challenged and destroyed 20 years earlier. No one can say that he didn’t try.

For the whole night Jacob is left alone with himself, his guilty conscience and probably many suppressed memories from his childhood. It was a night of struggle, definitely physical but probably emotional and mental too for Jacob, who arose as a Patriarch from it. A man who struggled with God and people and, most likely, with his past too, Jacob emerges as a person, who is willing to take responsibility for his actions and do everything to appease his brother for what he did to him 20 years ago.

Jacob meets his brother that very morning and approaches him by bowing low to the ground 7 times, publicly showing his acceptance of Esau’s authority that he would challenged 20 years earlier. The actual scene of the meeting and reconciliation of the two brothers is beautifully moving and succinct. It is described in 5 powerful and significant verbs: “Esau ran to greet him, he [Esau] embraced him, fell on his neck and kissed him and they wept.”

To Jacob, I am sure, it was great relief, Esau chose to let the past go and embraced the present moment with his repentant brother, who made no excuses for the past and showed in every way his willingness to make amends for it. Thus both of them left the past behind them and turned the page to a new chapter of their lives.

This thought is published on the morning of the election’s results. It has been one of the most difficult, deeply emotional and a hurtful election campaigns in decades. It reflected and highlighted the division and polarisation within our society.

It might be a difficult morning for some or many of us in some way. We faced a night of uncertainty, with the possibility of hope or disappointment – just as our patriarch Jacob did in this week’s parashah. So this morning’s challenge can be not only to accept the results of the election but also to reconcile with them and to move on to the next stage of our lives as individuals, families, communities and as a country.

As with Jacob and Esau, who went on their own ways after their reconciliation took place, we might not share the same path as our opponents but without acknowledging the hurt we caused to each other, seeking forgiveness and making amendments for it, we will struggle to move forward.

We can learn from our patriarchs how to leave the old grudges in the past and live in the present moment. As the Yiddish proverb says “Az me muz, ken men”4 – When one must, one can.
1 Ryan Howes, Forgiveness vs Reconciliation, March 31st 2013 in Psychology Today.
2 Ibid 32:5
3 Genesis 32:6
4 Kristina Swarner, Yiddishe Chochma, 1996, p.67.

Share this Thought for the Week