This week’s parashah is Vayishlach. Jacob and his family have left Laban’s household and are on their way to the Land of Canaan. Jacob sends messengers to his brother, Esau, informing him of their impending arrival. The parashah tells of their meeting and ultimate reconciliation, and includes the famous story of Jacob wrestling with the angel. It also covers the tragic and violent story of Dinah and Shechem. We hear briefly of the death of Rachel in childbirth and of the funeral of Isaac and his burial by his sons, Jacob and Esau.
Jacob’s messengers were evidently not well received: “The messengers returned to Jacob saying, ‘We came to your brother Esau and he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him.’ Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed and he divided the people that were with him and the flocks and herds and camels into two companies, thinking, ‘If Esau comes to one company and destroys it, then the company that is left will escape.’ Jacob then prays to God for deliverance, ‘O God of my father Abraham, and God of my father Isaac … deliver me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I am afraid of him: he may come and kill us all, the mothers with the children’” (32:3-12).
Twenty two years had elapsed since Jacob had deceived his father into giving him the blessing that was rightly due to Esau, his elder brother, and he had fled Canaan to escape Esau’s rage at what he had done. Clearly, Esau’s wrath had not abated and Jacob felt that he and his family were in great danger.
Jacob sought to show his brother, in both word and gesture, that whatever he had done in the matters of birthright and blessing, he still gave his elder brother all the honour that was due to a firstborn son. He sent gifts to Esau and instructed his messengers to say to him, “They are from your servant, Jacob; they are a present sent to my lord, Esau and, moreover, he is behind us” (32:18). The gifts, as the text describes, were very considerable, but the language of “Lord” and “servant” was also important, and these formalities were repeated three times. When they finally met, Jacob went ahead of his family and “bowed himself to the ground seven times until he came near to his brother.” The Hebrew for “he came near” is “gishto”, which comes from a verb that can imply “becoming closer to” or “overcoming the distance between them”.
What happens next is quite extraordinary: “And Esau ran to meet him and embraced him and fell on his neck, and he kissed him, and they wept” (33:4). Jacob’s relief is evident six verses later, when he persuades Esau to keep all that he has given to him: “for I have seen your face as one who sees the face of God and you were pleased with me.”
The relationship of Esau and Jacob is far more complex than the starkly contrasting traditional portrayals of the two brothers lead us to assume. Esau was very different from his family but he continued to love them and part of his anger at his brother’s deception came from a deep sense of personal hurt and rejection, as well as the loss of what was rightfully his. Esau’s anger was a perpetual reminder for Jacob of the depth of what he had done to his brother – he had to live with it, and it is not surprising that in the language of the story there are occasional undertones of sacrifice and atonement.
While apology for wrongdoing is important, Jacob’s response goes beyond expressing contrition and seeks to be reparatory in both its use of language and its powerful symbolic gestures.
The language might be seen as excessively deferential, but it is an attempt to signify that Jacob wishes to give Esau the honour that is due to the firstborn and acknowledge his birthright. The gravity of Jacob’s undertaking is expressed with a ritualised formality that is reminiscent of diplomatic ceremonial. It also signifies that Jacob recognises the depth of his brother’s hurt and the seriousness of what had taken place between them: this would have been beyond the scope of ordinary language or more informal apology.
Symbolic behaviour – the prostrations and the gifts – is immensely important: simple gestures convey a depth of understanding that is beyond the reach of purely verbal expression.
I think especially of St John Paul II’s prayerful presence at the Western Wall, or Willy Brandt’s kneeling in silent contrition at the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial in 1970. The image of Abraham Joshua Heschel taking part in a civil rights march in Selma, Alabama, alongside Dr Martin Luther King, had a formative impact on me, as did President Nelson Mandela’s donning a Springbok jersey in his attempt to dispel the horrors of apartheid South Africa.
Jewish tradition, following the Hebrew Bible, sees the Edomites – and later Idumeans – as Esau’s descendants and reads the earliest stories in the light of what was often a very tragic relationship between the two peoples. The Book of Obadiah, read by some communities as the haftara for our parashah, reflects a particularly dark period in the relationship at the time of the destruction of the first Temple. But the earliest story teaches us that we are not defined by our histories and need not be locked into eternal conflicts. Relationships are always more complex than we think, and that is a sign of hope for us all.