The Reconciliation that Wasn’t
I am struck, on this reading of Parashat Va-Yishlah, by the dramatic tension between Jacob and Esau, as they anticipate meeting and as they finally cry together after 20 years of not seeing or speaking to each other. Though not many of us “run off with the birthright” of our siblings these days, many of us have difficult relationships with a brother or sister with whom we try to reach reconciliation. But it is not easy. And sometimes, it is impossible.
The meeting of Jacob and Esau is fraught with ambiguity. On the one hand, Jacob sends word to Esau that he has left Laban and is coming “home” toward Esau. On the other hand, Jacob is frightened to death about what Esau may do to him when they meet. He, therefore divides his camp in two, so that if one is attacked the other might be spared, sends a lavish gift of 550 animals to Esau to win his favor, and prays to God for protection. Meanwhile, as Esau prepares to meet his brother Jacob, it is perhaps with a sense of anger after being cheated of his birthright once already, so he brings along 400 men with him! And on the eve of the actual meeting, Jacob has an enigmatic nighttime struggle with a divine being that wounds him. Whether this is a real being, or the Torah’s way of letting us into Jacob’s self-conscience, it’s clear that Jacob is struggling mightily with his past and especially with his hurtful behavior toward his brother. No amount of gift-sending, praying to God, or bowing obsequiously in front of his brother can erase the fact that 20 years ago, he fled from Esau having cheated him terribly.
The actual meeting seems quite sincere. Esau embraces Jacob, falls on his neck, and kisses him and they both weep. After introducing his family, Jacob urges Esau to accept his gifts, telling him “for to see your face is like seeing the face of God”. Jacob is deeply relieved and moved by Esau’s willingness to see him again, and embrace him rather than harm him. Esau would like to pursue the relationship, but Jacob cannot. When Esau suggests that they travel together to Seir, Jacob makes excuses; he says that his children and his flocks are frail and need to travel at their own pace. Jacob urges Esau: “Let my lord go on ahead of his servant, while I travel slowly, at the pace of the cattle before me and at the pace of the children, until I come to my lord in Seir” (Genesis 33:14). But Midrash B’reishit Rabbah (78:14) informs us: “We have searched the whole Scriptures and do not find that Jacob ever went to the mountain of Seir to see Esau. Is it possible that Jacob, the truthful, would have deceived Esau? So when is Jacob to come to Esau? In the Messianic era; when ‘saviors shall come upon Mt. Zion to judge the mount of Esau.'” (Obadiah 1:21)
Traditional interpreters will tell us that the two brothers had to separate for the growth and development of the Israelite people – the descendants of Jacob/Israel. This is true on the national level. But on the personal level, I am struck with the fact that Jacob is unable to reconcile with his brother. The Torah gives us no explicit reasons, but we can imagine a few: Perhaps Jacob never really liked his brother, and couldn’t start pretending now. Maybe seeing Esau reminded Jacob of the terrible pain he had caused Esau, and Jacob didn’t want to be reminded daily of his deceptive past. Perhaps the brothers lived such different lifestyles that Jacob felt they could never really have a relationship.
It’s painful to read about this separation (and perhaps be reminded of similar separations in our own lives.) But perhaps the Midrash is right. Perhaps some reconciliations will only be made in the Messianic Age to come.
The publication and distribution of the JTS KOLLOT: Voices of Learning commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.