Have you ever dreaded seeing a friend or family member that you don’t get along with, only to end up having a positive experience? After twenty years away from home, Jacob dreads his reunion with Esau, but our text teaches the two end up embracing and healing their tumultuous relationship. What can we learn from the story of Jacob and Esau? Find out from Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, on this week’s On the Other Hand.
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Welcome to episode 47 of On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, we continue to reflect on more than 2,000 years of Jewish wisdom in just 10 minutes, with modern-day commentary on the weekly Torah portion. Of course, we think there are plenty of ways to interpret Torah, so we want to hear what you think. Talk to us on Twitter. Our handle is @ReformJudaism. Like us at Facebook.com/ReformJudaism, and subscribe to the podcast on iTunes.
This week Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, teaches us about Parashat Vayishlach. He asks what a revelation really looks like, and he wonders who the people are in your life with whom you have reconciled and why.
This week we focus on Parashat Vayishlach. And 20 years has elapsed since the beginning of last week's parashah when Jacob had to flee his home and to find a safe harbor. Turns out he not only finds a safe harbor, he finds love and begins a family.
And now, it's time to go home. And he is headed back to the place where he is from, and he is panicked. He's panicked about reuniting with his brother Esau whom he has such a difficult relationship. And he, once again, goes to find a place and goes to sleep. But as many of us know with a night before a very difficult or anticipated encounter, he doesn't get very much sleep.
And we're told in the midst of his sleep that someone comes and wrestles with him. We're not really sure exactly what it is that transpires. Was there another person? Is there an angel? Is he wrestling with his own conscience, trying to come to peace with how he handled his brother? But the text tells us that they wrestled.
And in that encounter, physically, Jacob is changed. His name is changed. His sense of self is changed, and his destiny is changed. He becomes Israel, one who wrestles with God and human beings and prevails.
And when he wakens in the morning, he is about to face his brother. And he gets nervous, so he sends members of his family to the front to butter up his brother with gifts and all kinds of wonderful, sweet, young people. And it turns out that their reuniting moment is nothing like what he had feared.
He reunites with his brother Esau, who is—we remember from years back when they were children— he's the very muscular, athletic soul who is kind of not really interested in the finer things of life. But it turns out in this encounter, the encounter is one where not only do they embrace, but they kiss.
And of course, the commentators can't believe that Esau really is taken to this emotional place and kisses his brother. They said, no, no. He really bites him. And he can't really be that generous, open-hearted person that we encounter in Genesis 33.
I just want to take a moment and think about all those people and all those encounters that many of us have dreaded in our lives that have turned out actually much better than we had anticipated—so much so that they become revelations moments that change us for good. And I think that these two brothers, Jacob and Esau—so symbolic of yin and yang, of darkness and light, of good and evil. It's such a caricature of who they are.
And in the narrative that we read today, it is certainly the case that Esau shows himself to be an extraordinary soul, filled with forgiveness. His brother offers all these gifts, and Esau says, my brother, keep them. I have what I need. There is such a transformation of who he is. And in the Bible, we oftentimes keep Esau in his earlier state—an aggressive and not very refined human being.
So I think of those moments where I know for myself there are people that I had underestimated— people that I thought were only going to be filled with antagonism—who it turns out, when we open ourselves, we can encounter goodness in them. I think of that moment on the White House lawn in 1993 when President Bill Clinton stood with Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat. It was an encounter that was so unlikely. How could it possibly be? How could they shake hands? Did they really mean the shaking of the hands or was it ultimately really a wrestling with and a trying to undermine moment.
So as we think of whether sometimes a kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh—we think of all those great cultural references in our tradition—I'm intrigued by a beautiful verse in the Psalms that says, kindness and truth will meet. Justice and peace will kiss. Is that possible that those things come together in the world?
Well, if it's possible that Jacob and Esau have a moment of reconciliation, a moment of healing, a moment of hope—honestly, I actually believe that anyone, anywhere, with whomever they struggle with, we have that ability to heal those relationships. And we have those moments when we will, like Jacob, be knocked over by the change in growth in our, quote, "adversary".
So Vayishlach, he sent messengers ahead, but the messengers actually weren't needed. This is a moment where brothers became who they should have been all along but weren't. And I hope that each of us as we reflected last week on the ladder that Jacob experiences in his dream, that we see that same ladder of growth exemplified in this week's parashah.
But the ladder isn't just for Jacob to climb. It's also for Esau to climb. And honestly, if we just read this story in the simple reading of it, it seems as if Esau has done the most climbing of all. He's not the aggressive ogre that he was made out to be. And frankly, that he acted that part. He is a person who has grown from his own pain, from his own separation with his brother.
So think about who are those people in your life? Maybe they're people close by—maybe a sibling, maybe a friend, maybe somebody you haven't seen in 20 years, maybe somebody you're going to see at an upcoming holiday celebration, maybe someone you're going to studiously avoid seeing or being near. But think of Jacob and Esau, embracing. Think of them hugging and kissing and feeling as if they had lost all those years through all that painful narrative.
So draw strength and hope. On some level, I think this would be a great parashah to read at the High Holidays when we try to read about the hope of reuniting, and healing, and advancing our most important relationships. But we read this not at the High Holidays. We read this in the weekly cycle of readings. And we read it to not only find inspiration for others, but so that we would have the courage of a Jacob and the change in possibility of an Esau.
Jacob and Esau, they literally come together. And they hug, and they kiss. May we and may those we struggle with and those we potentially will reunite with and reconcile with—like the verse in Psalms where kindness and truth meet, and justice and peace kiss—may we find those moments of healing, those moments of reconciliation.
And in so doing, we continue to climb higher and higher, becoming and morphing and transforming into the people that we become. Jacob into Israel, and each of us—as part of the people of Israel—we too have that ability. We have that potential. Let's reach for it together.
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On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life. Until next week, l’hitraot.