Parshat Hashavua

Parshah Vayishlach: Reconciliation

Shabbat Shalom! In this week’s parshah the Torah teaches us about sibling reconciliation. What does it mean to have a brother or sister? Siblings are conventionally identified as sharing one or both parents biologically or through a formal adoption process mandated by a governmental entity. The sages teach that Esau is preparing to wage war against his brother Jacob. Jacob believes Esau still holds a grudge because he stole his brother’s birthright. Chronologically in parshah Vaishlach decades have passed since the brothers last saw one another. Each brother is married, has children, and holds a position of power in their respective communities. We know this to be true since both Esau and Jacob are in command of sizable entourages and are approaching one another. Although many years have elapsed and these brothers have grown and achieved high stature, they continue to hold on to the anger and bitterness that resulted in their estrangement. Esau is not just a brother, he is Jacob’s twin. My brother and sister in-law are twins and share a special bond that is different from their relationship with their other two siblings.

The trepidation that Jacob has is explicitly detailed in this week’s parshah and referred to in the opening verse, “then Jacob sent angels ahead of him to Esau his brother to the land of Seir, the field of Edom.” From this short verse we learn everything. According to Rashi, Jacob sent angels because he wanted to impress and terrify his brother. Today we don’t associate angels with feelings of intimidation. However, Rashi is referring to a display of power by invoking angels to support Jacob prior to his meeting with Esau. Moreover, this verse refers to ‘Esau his brother’. Why does the Torah need to mention this when it is already known. How come it uses the term brother instead of being more specific and referring to Esau as Jacob’s twin? I suggest the Torah includes this detail because Jacob does not consider Esau a brother and the two have not had any contact for so long. Now we must define what constitutes a sibling.

We are reading this parshah following the American holiday of Thanksgiving. During Thanksgiving it is customary to gather together with family and friends. In addition to biological or family members through some legal understanding, there are also “chosen family members”. For some the mere connection of shared parentage does not warrant any closeness or require that a relationship be sustained. Thanksgiving often brings us face to face with friends and family members that we have not seen or been in contact with for long stretches of time. What kind of preparation do we undergo, if any, in anticipation of seeing these friends and family members? What if the reason for the long separation is due to fallout from financial matters? It is natural to feel a sense of uncertainty or to feel that we need to guard ourselves in these situations. According to the sages this is exactly what Jacob did when sending the angels before him. The sages explain that Jacob prepared in three ways: prayer, sending lavish gifts to Esau, and readying himself for a potential battle. It seems as though Jacob was following the idiom, ‘Hope for the best and prepare for the worst’.

Every move Jacob made prior to meeting his brother was calculated. When he gifted Esau with his choice livestock, he strategically did so by making them appear more bountiful to impress his brother. When Jacob mobilized his ‘camp’ he did so by placing the strongest among his ranks towards the front – in the event that the encounter with his brother turn violent or aggressive. Jacob was not approaching this reunion with an open heart. When Jacob encounters his brother he bows excessively and makes himself appear deferential. Esau runs towards Jacob and kisses him. The text uses the phrase, vayipol al tzavaro vayishakayhu vayivku, translated as fell upon his neck, and kissed him; then they wept. In the Torah scroll, according to the commentary, the word vayishakayhu has dots above each letter. The sages disagree as to the meaning of these dots. There is debate whether these dots denote a positive or negative encounter. This ambiguous word is difficult to decipher, but according to the text after this kiss both Jacob and Esau had an emotional release. Niceties and gifts are exchanged and on this same day, according to verse 16, Esau continues on his way to Seir and Jacob goes to Succoth.

Is this how we treat family? Do we gather together on Thanksgiving and share a meal and one another’s company only to depart and come together the following year or never again? Is this a true form of reconciliation? Perhaps for Jacob and Esau it was sufficient, and yet it still took years for this meeting to take place. Years in which they could have been in one another’s life or at least made peace with what broke them apart. Life is too short to hold grudges. If there is something that is weighing on our heart or preventing us from reaching out to our family, however we understand family, we should not avoid it. We cannot control the outcome, but we can make a phone call or pay a visit and do what we can to improve relations and connections.

It takes courage to make the first move and to have conversations when there is conflict or estrangement. May you be blessed this holiday season to rekindle relationships or strengthen bonds with family that may have faded. We are now in the month of Kislev, as we light our Chanukah candles in another few weeks, may we also bring the warmth of this light into the relationships we have.

Shabbat shalom!