After more than twenty years in the service of Laban, Jacob, with his large family and hundreds of livestock, determines it is time to return home. (Bresheit/Gen. 32:4-22)
But he also faces a dilemma: should he go directly to his parents’ home in Hebron? Or should he notify his brother, Esau, that he is returning to the land of Canaan? This is no small matter.
Twenty years earlier, Esau wanted to kill his brother. Their mother, Rebekah, when she sent Jacob away to escape Esau’s wrath as well as to find a wife, had promised that she would send him a message to come back once Esau’s anger had abated. However, we find no indication in the Torah that such a message was ever sent. Hmm…
So why did Jacob decide to let his brother know he was coming?
It is difficult to even approach an ‘objective’ understanding of Esau. Layers of tradition and commentary have painted a very negative picture of Esau, also called Edom. His descendants were very hostile to the children of Israel in the days of Moses (Bamidbar/Numbers 20:14)
Furthermore in Malachi 1:2 we read, “…Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated [rejected]…”
Nevertheless, let us attempt to take a fresh look at these twins.
Their conflict began in the womb and a prophetic word to their mother at that time indicates deep division and rivalry in the future. Although they were twins, they were very different in every way – appearance, temperament and occupational choices.
Two key events – the matter of the birthright and later, the blessing – define the long standing hatred of Esau towards his brother and to be sure, there is a certain ‘understanding’, a certain ‘sympathy’ on the part of some, of Esau’s intense hatred.
The heart of their conflict – indeed, at the heart of every conflict – is this principle: Human beings behave situationally; i.e., according to their personal perception of the situation.
For Esau, what Jacob had done was deceitful. Though he acknowledged that he ‘sold’ the birthright for a bowl of stew, nevertheless, as human beings are so wont to do, he rationalized to himself that he acted impulsively and had Jacob really loved him as a brother, he would not have ‘taken advantage’ of Esau’s impulsiveness. Objectively speaking, right or wrong, nevertheless, to Esau THAT was the reality of the situation.
For Jacob, the situation was entirely different. He did not feel he had done wrong but rather had cooperated in the fulfillment of the prophetic vision that God had given to his mother before he was even born. The stage is set for inevitable conflict when two people look at the same events from such a totally different perspective.
Fast forward to this week’s parsha: it is suggested that Jacob surmised that surely after 20 years, his brother’s hatred had dissipated and that the natural affection of brother for brother must have returned. So he send a message to Esau, announcing his return to the Land. (32:5-6) And a careful message it was. Recognizing that 20 years earlier, Esau had accused Jacob of being driven by ambition to rule over him, Jacob sent him a conciliatory message. He addressed Esau as ‘my lord’ and portrayed himself as ‘your servant’.
What a shock then when his messengers returned saying, Esau is coming to meet you with four hundred men!
Jacob desperately turns to God, then divides his family into two camps. He then prepares his own ‘reception’ for Esau – a substantial gift of 580 animals from his own abundance of livestock. He sent goats, sheep, camels, oxen and donkeys, male and female of each species. He instructed his servants who would take the gift to Esau to keep each species separate and in traveling towards Esau, they were to keep a significant distance between each of the five groups of animals. He closes his instructions to them with this declaration: “I will appease him with the gift that goes before me.” 32:20
It is a known psychological principle that anger breeds impulsive actions. We see this at work in Esau, who upon hearing his brother was coming immediately ordered 400 of his men to join him in wreaking vengeance. It was a long, slow trip, most likely on camels. By the time they had traveled far enough to encounter the first part of Jacob’s gift, he and his men were tired, hot and uncomfortable. They stop to find out whose large flock is this and are told that this is a gift to Esau from his brother. They go on for a few more kilometers and lo and behold, another large flock.
Again the same message. This happens three more times! Esau’s journey loses much of its enthusiasm, his anger progressively dissipating with each gift he encounters. Perhaps he was suspicious at the first gift, but by the fifth one, he is beginning to see Jacob in a new light.
How can I make that claim?
Because when they actually encounter each other (33:3-4), Jacob prostrates himself to the ground seven times as he nears Esau whose response is to run towards Jacob, embrace him, kiss him and ‘they wept together.’
What Jacob had done was to create a means by which Esau could begin to see him in a different light, a means by which the flames of the old anger could be doused and a means by which Esau could associate Jacob with a pleasant experience.
What is the lesson to us? Although completely different in temperament and committed to opposing values and interests, human beings can learn to relate to each other in love and respect, provided each party is willing to exercise the patience and the wisdom to put aside one’s own view and be willing to consider the other person’s perspective. Even if the disagreement remains, the relationship can be mended as each grants to the other the right to their own opinion, but also chooses the higher value of loving each other for reasons greater than the issue that caused so much pain.
In Tune with Torah this week: Is there someone in your life whose opinions, attitudes or behavior annoys or offends you? Do you find it difficult or perhaps impossible to understand why they do what they do? (don’t we all have people like that in our lives???) The most efficient way to repair our relationship with that person is to summon from within the patience to put our perspective aside and ‘step into their shoes’, sincerely trying to understand their point of view, even if we don’t agree with it. For, you see, understanding brings compassion, compassion cancels the critical spirit that prolongs disunity. Furthermore, Compassion paves the way for true relationship founded on what we have in common with this other person, not the ‘issues’ that seek to divide us. May we have the humility of our father, Jacob, that will make us willing to follow his example in whatever form it takes in our particular situations.