Parashat Vayishlach 

December 9, 2022Jane Taves

Content Warning: This article contains mention of rape. 

In Parashat Vayishlach, we continue the book of Genesis. I love this time of the year when each parashah is packed with action and stories, and we revisit so many familiar moments in our history.  Parashat Vayishlach is no exception, with numerous stories pulling our emotions in many directions. We are in awe, we are frightened, we are touched, and we are appalled. It is here that Jacob wrestles with ‘a man’ and has his name changed to Yisrael. Jacob and Esau meet again after 20 years of uncomfortable separation. Dinah is raped, or maybe not, by Shechem, and we witness the extremely violent response by her brothers. Along the way, Benjamin is born, and Rachel and Isaac die and are buried.

I am particularly struck by the meeting of Jacob and Esau. In our modern times, I find this to be a compelling moment of reconciliation and forgiveness. We witness the lead-up to this moment entirely through the eyes of Jacob, and yet the pivotal actions that determine the outcome are made by Esau.

Jacob and Esau have been more than estranged. The last time the brothers were together, Esau threatened to kill Jacob, causing Jacob to flee his home to save his life. The reasons for Esau’s wrath were significant: Jacob had tricked Esau into giving Jacob his birthright, and then Jacob had tricked Isaac, their father, into giving Jacob the blessing that was intended for Esau. Now, Jacob returns to his homeland and learns that Esau is coming to meet him, bringing with him 400 men. Jacob approaches this encounter with great fear for himself and his family. When the moment comes, he meets Esau with deference, bowing seven times as he approaches him, pressing Esau to accept a huge number of gifts, and offering Esau his blessing, perhaps symbolic of the blessing that Jacob stole from Esau twenty years earlier.  

But what makes this story so significant for me is what Esau does. He forgives Jacob. He runs to him, he hugs him, and he kisses him. And the two brothers weep together. What do we learn from this? A brother who has been clearly wronged, who has threatened to kill this brother, is able to forgive with no need for explanation, no retribution, no rehashing of the past.  

How many family rifts have we witnessed in our lives over far less serious wrongs than those suffered by Esau, and how often are the family members unable to find this forgiveness? And in our larger world, how many conflicts are we witnessing between nations, political beliefs, religions, and even between streams of Judaism? Forgiveness and reconciliation are in short supply right now. What can we learn from the decisions that Esau makes in this parashah?

I confess that I am not original in being intrigued by this part of this parashah. A personal story: 

Many years ago, I was invited to participate in a weekend of study and worship at B’nai Jeshurun in New York City. Participants from synagogues around North America came together for this program, created by the Union for Reform Judaism “Synagogue 2000” initiative. I was deeply moved by worshiping with this congregation, known for its music, dancing, and participatory worship. Vayishlach was the parashah that Shabbat, and at morning services, in lieu of a formal D’var Torah, two of the rabbis engaged in a dialogue. They focused on this transformational scene with Jacob approaching in terror and Esau’s intentions completely unknown. Witnessing the two rabbis tell this story as a conversation felt almost as if we were witnessing for ourselves the reconciliation of these two brothers. I have never forgotten that experience, and forever since, when we study parashah, I gravitate to this part of the story, and I wonder in awe at the forgiveness we witness here.

May we all learn how to forgive. May we learn that forgiveness benefits us as much as the person we are forgiving. And may we model this behavior in our families, our communities, and our world.

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