Parashat Vayishlach 5778
Rabbi Daniela Szuster
“It is impossible to change the past, but it is possible to repair our actions with love and compassion”
Last week, we read in the Torah that Jacob left the land of Canaan. He escaped from his brother Esau who had promised to kill him because Jacob stole Esau’s birthright. Jacob lived in Haran for a long time, he established a big family with his two wives, Leah and Rachel, and he had thirteen children!
Jacob felt that it was time to leave Haran. He had finished one chapter of his life, which was to establish a family. Now it was time to return and strengthen his and his family’s bonds to the Promised land.
However, there was a big and painful challenge that Jacob had to overcome in order to accomplish his goal. He had to deal with his brother Esau. During his journey to Haran, Jacob wrestled with an angel. Maybe it was a way to conquer his inner conflicts and fears, and foreshadowed his conflictive feelings about Esau. Indeed, Jacob was afraid to meet his brother.
The dreaded day arrived. All their lives, Jacob and Esau, followed opposite ways. Now, they were going to meet again.
How would you behave in this difficult situation where you have to meet with a brother who wanted to kill you and who you have not seen for a long time? How would you behave toward a brother who stole your birthright? Would you fight or talk? Would you pardon your brother?
As you may know, serious fighting between siblings does not just happen in Biblical stories. It happens in real life coping with this situation is a big and difficult challenge.
What happened next? The Torah tells us: “And Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him; and they wept” (Bereshit 33:4).
It is a very dramatic and moving moment. There were not attempts to kill, to fight or insult. After twenty years, there were kisses and tears, deep and sincere expressions of positive feelings.
Nevertheless, some of our sages are quite distrustful and skeptical of Esau’s behavior. They don’t believe in his expressions of affection. They think that this evil person hid his bad intentions.
For example, in a Midrash in Bereshit Rabbah, Rabbi Yanai says, “We must understand that Esau came not to kiss him (nashko), but to bite him (noshko)! But our ancestor Jacob’s neck became like marble and that wicked man’s teeth were blunted. Hence, ‘and they wept’ teaches that [Jacob] wept because of his neck and [Esau] wept because of his teeth.” (Bereshit Rabbah 78, 9)
In Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer we are told “Esau said: ‘I will not kill Jacob with bow and arrows, but I will slay him with my mouth and suck his blood.”
On the other hand, there are commentators that see this kiss and the brother’s warm meeting as a sincere expression of love.
Ibn Ezrah concludes that the kiss is not meant to be harmful but was indeed real as both brothers end up weeping together.
Rabbi Shimon ben Eliezer believed in Esau when he said, “Esau’s compassion was aroused at that moment and he kissed him with his whole heart” (Bereshit Rabbah 78, 12).
Rabbi Sampson Rafael Hirsch (1808-1888) also believed in Esau when he said: “Even Esau gradually relinquishes his sword and begins to feel the chords of human love.”
This was Esau’s reaction. What happened to Jacob?
It is interesting to point out what Jacob said to Esau at that moment: “No, I pray you; if you would do me this favor, accept from me this gift; for to see your face is like seeing the face of God, and you have received me favorably.” (Bereshit 33:10)
Now Jacob doesn’t see Esau as an enemy. He sees a human who was created in God’s image. He can see the divine image in Esau’s face. It is a real, mystical and transcendent meeting.
Afterward, Jacob insists that Esau accept a gift that Jacob gave him. Why? Maybe it was a way to repair their conflict by giving Esau something back. Jacob felt guilty and wanted to mend their bond. Through a gift, Jacob tried to reconcile with his brother.
After this important meeting, both of them followed their own paths. But now, something had changed in their lives. Now the brothers went in peace and were relieved they made up. In fact, it is written in the Torah: “And Jacob came in peace to the city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan, when he came from Paddan-aram; and encamped before the city.” (Bereshit 33:19)
Jacob arrived at Canaan in peace because he resolved a conflict that he had carried for a long time. Now he was at peace with his brother and with himself.
Jacob and Esau in Parashat Vayishlach teach us about the importance of repairing our errors and being able to reconcile our problems. It is impossible to change the past, but it is possible to repair our actions with love and compassion.
Also, this week’s parashah teaches us to keep in mind that in some difficult situations, only time can heal our wounds.
May God give us the courage and the ability to leave behind resentments, quarrels, and hard feelings, and dare to reconcile and to be in peace, b’shalom, as Jacob and Esau did with so much wisdom and maturity.