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The Meeting of Jacob and Esau: The Healing of the Open Wound

  • The Meeting of Jacob and Esau: The Healing of the Open Wound

    Vayishlach, Genesis 32:4−36:43
D'var Torah By: 

The drama of Jacob and Esau is not over yet. In the previous episode involving the two brothers, Jacob stole Esau's birthright and blessing by tricking their father, Isaac. Intent on revenge, Esau threatened to kill Jacob for having wronged him. Seeking to protect Jacob from his brother's wrath, their mother, Rebecca, sent Jacob to live with her brother Laban. Jacob had inflicted a wound on his brother that may never heal.

After having spent twenty years in Laban's home, Jacob is commanded by God to return to the land of his ancestors, the land of Canaan. In order to do so, Jacob has to pass through Edom, the territory of his brother, Esau.

The prospect of meeting Esau after their twenty-year estrangement is indeed daunting. How will Jacob face Esau after having usurped the latter's inheritance and blessing? Will Esau carry out his threat to kill Jacob? Will the bitterness remain, or has it subsided? Will the wound opened by Jacob still be as fresh as the day on which it was inflicted?

The two men prepare for their meeting like warriors about to enter into battle. Jacob sends men to spy on Esau, as well as gifts meant to appease him. Esau surrounds himself with a 400-man army. Each is tense and apprehensive at the prospect of seeing his brother again.

At last the moment of truth arrives. Esau makes the first overture: He embraces Jacob, falls on his neck, and kisses him. The tension has been broken.

But what does Esau's kiss mean? In the Hebrew text, the words for "he kissed him" have dots over them, raising a question about their meaning. Rashi points out an argument in the midrash regarding whether the kiss was a sincere act or an empty gesture, a social convention used to fill an awkward moment. We might also ask, What was Esau thinking? Was he kissing Jacob with his lips while still plotting revenge in his heart?

In Judaism, we usually put more emphasis on actions than on intentions, on the acts we perform rather than on the emotions we feel. Looked at in this way, Esau's kiss can simply be taken at face value as a sign of reconciliation. Do Esau's feelings really matter at this moment? His overt behavior indicates peace: Do we need to be concerned whether he is feeling vengeful inwardly?

Judging Esau by this one action alone, we can view him as a leader. Although he has been deprived of his role as the patriarch of an entire nation, Esau, nonetheless, is shown in this situation to be a leader, a leader of one, as he takes the first step in this poignant act of reunion with his brother. Although Esau was not chosen by God, perhaps the Torah is giving him credit for the leadership qualities he does possess, as reflected in his ability to bring a moment of healing to the siblings' deep-seated personal crisis. Thus his role in this episode has a profound significance all its own.

Questions for Discussion

  1. What do you think led Esau to take the initiative in his meeting with Jacob? How did Esau have to change during the siblings' years apart to enable him to embrace Jacob?
  2. Have you experienced moments of healing in your life? How did you prepare for them? What did you feel just before and after such moments?
  3. Which member(s) in your family is a healer in the way Esau is? What role have such people played in your family's history or in your personal history?

Rabbi Loraine Heller has worked in the field of geriatric care in New York City.

Repairing Past Wrongs or Smoothing Out the Rough Edges
Davar Acher By: 
Laura Weiss

We read only a short time ago, in Genesis 27, that Jacob stole the birthright and blessing of his brother, Esau. In order to escape Esau's angry wrath and save Jacob's life, their mother, Rebecca, arranged for Jacob to leave home and go far away. Jacob does so and stays away until his brother's anger has subsided.

Nearly twenty years pass before the estranged brothers meet again in this week's parashah, Vayishlach. En route to his home, Jacob must pass through Esau's land. Painfully aware of his earlier indiscretion, Jacob fears that Esau may kill him and take all of his possessions.

In addition to sending messengers to Esau with kind words and gifts, Jacob prays to God saying, "You have said, 'I will deal bountifully with you and make your offspring as the sands of the sea, which are too numerous to count.'"(Genesis 32:13) It appears that Jacob is asking for God's help and protection. But is it reasonable for Jacob to expect God to make amends for a mistake that he, Jacob, made? What would he learn from the experience if God relieves the tension and prevents the confrontation between the two brothers? Is it right for a person to expect God to fix a wrong that he or she inflicted on another?

We learn from the High Holy Day liturgy that we must rectify problems we have caused between ourselves and other humans before God will forgive us. Jacob said to himself, "If I propitiate him [Esau] with presents in advance and then face him, perhaps he will show me favor." (Genesis 32:21) Although Jacob does supplicate himself before Esau, there is no evidence that he addresses the issue of betrayal or asks his brother for forgiveness.

In Genesis 32:25-33, we learn that Jacob wrestles with a stranger the night before his meeting with Esau. Some commentators suggest that the stranger is Samael, guardian angel of Esau and the incarnation of evil. Others propose that the stranger symbolizes the struggle with evil that Jacob and his descendants will confront from this time forth. According to others, the stranger is a holy angel, who symbolizes Jacob's future internal struggles with the spiritual.

I suggest that the stranger with whom Jacob wrestles is his conscience. He knows that his attempt to rectify a wrong without acknowledging his own responsibility and asking for forgiveness has not been entirely ethical. Forgiveness is about understanding, compassion, and committing oneself to not repeat a wrongdoing. Jacob attempts none of these.

What can we learn from the events of this story? Are its lessons universal? Imagine that you have had a fight with a parent or sibling because you feel that he or she has wronged you. Hours, days, or weeks go by with no communication between you and that person until he or she needs something from you and comes bearing gifts in order to win you over or to insure that you don't seek revenge. Although the offer of gifts is tempting, it does not provide you with the opportunity to tell the other person how hurt you were, why you were hurt, and that you hope he or she never does the same thing again. Is the problem resolved? It is possible that on the surface, everyone is friendly again. But, as in the situation of Jacob and Esau, the relationship may never be fully repaired. Without a heartfelt request for forgiveness and a promise to never repeat the same action, a certain trust is lost.

The encounter between Jacob and Esau in Genesis 33:4 appears to be a friendly one. Esau runs to greet his brother. He hugs Jacob and kisses him. However, shortly after their encounter the two part ways and do not meet again until their father's funeral. It is fortunate that Esau does not kill Jacob or even hold a grudge against him, but has Esau truly forgotten and forgiven Jacob's betrayal? Does real forgiveness take place between the two men? Although the brothers part unscathed from their encounter, is their relationship really repaired?

Laura Weiss is the director of Young Adult Initiative at the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland in Ohio.

12/05/1998
Reference Materials: 

Vayishlach, Genesis 32:4-36:43
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 217–237; Revised Edition, pp. 218–240;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 183–208