Most, but not all, of the midrashim and commentaries describing the interactions of Jacob and Esau apologize for the former and castigate the latter. They find ways to excuse and justify Jacob’s theft of the blessing that was meant for Esau.
Jacob is portrayed as the pious, righteous, innocent Torah observer, while Esau is described as the personification of all that is evil.
There is some, limited, support in the text for this reading. By creating a polarized, black and white account of these fractious twins’ relationship, however, the commentaries miss the rich psychological depth in the text. This is a multi-layered story that offers a window into human emotions and relationships. Like Jacob, we only become complete when we learn to face ourselves with honesty. This may not result in a tranquil life, but it will result in a life of meaning and purpose.
As Parashat Vayishlach opens, Jacob is preparing to return to the land of Canaan after more than twenty years in Haran. Vayishlach means, “then he sent,” referring to the messengers that Jacob sends ahead to his brother Esau, announcing his return as the head of a wealthy household.
To be clear, Esau does not live in the land of Canaan. He has settled in Seir, located southeast of the Jordan River. Jacob does not have to announce his return. He could simply continue on to Canaan and avoid Esau completely. But Jacob is aware that he will need to make contact before he can go back home. Jacob knows that he will not be complete until he faces his brother again.
It is like how Luke Skywalker’s training is not complete until he faces Darth Vader one final time in Return of the Jedi.
Jacob’s messengers return with the news that Esau has gathered four hundred men with whom he is marching to meet his brother.
What does the text tell us about Jacob’s reaction? “And Jacob was greatly afraid, and he was distressed…” (32:8) Four hundred men is not a force to be trifled with. It looks like Esau is coming for war, and Jacob understands this well.
He employs several strategies to deal with the coming crisis. First, Jacob divides his household and his flocks into two separate camps, figuring “should Esau come to the one camp and strike it, the remaining camp will escape.” (32:9)
Second, Jacob prays. Some details of his prayer are notable. He recalls the promise that God has made to his predecessors Abraham and Isaac, and then declares himself unworthy of all the kindness that God has bestowed upon him. katonti mi-kol hachasadim u-mikol ha-emet asher asita et avdekha… Literally, “too small am I for all the faithfulness and trust that you have shown your servant…” (32:11, Fox) His prayer concludes with a panicked plea. Jacob begs God to save him from Esau. He fears that his brother is going to murder him, his wives, and all of his children.
Third, he sends a gift – a rather significant one, to be precise. 200 she-goats and 20 he-goats, 200 ewes and 20 rams, and so on. He sends the gifts in waves, with each servant instructed to present them to Esau as a gift from “your servant Jacob.” He is repeatedly humbling himself before his brother. Jacob figures that if he can butter up his brother in advance, Esau might react to him more favorably.
These are the preparations of someone who is terrified of what could happen, but not immobilized by his fear. He has done everything possible to ensure his survival through the impending encounter.
That night, something unexpected transpires. Jacob is isolated on the banks of the Jabbok River. There, he is confronted by a mysterious stranger who wrestles with him all night long. We do not have time this morning to delve into the many possible meanings of this evocative episode except to say that Jacob’s encounter is that of someone whose mind is not at ease.
It is the night before the biggest day of Jacob’s life. His soul is in turmoil. He does not sleep. His entire past, with all of its’ sins and mistakes, comes crashing into him. Esau reminds Jacob of the worst parts of himself: Jacob knows that he has committed a serious sin against his brother.
He emerges from the experience with a new name, courtesy of his assailant, now revealed to be an angel: Yisrael – “for you have striven with beings Divine and human and prevailed.” But has anything really changed? After all, Jacob still has to meet his brother.
Let’s try to imagine what that meeting must have been like for Jacob. Off in the distance, he sees Esau and his four hundred men approaching. Jacob gathers his household together.
The picture in my mind is like what we see in those period war movies, where the two opposing armies are lined up across the battlefield from each other. Before the fighting starts, each side sends an emissary to the middle for a parlay.
Jacob sends the maidservants and their sons first. The second contingent is Leah and her sons. Next, he sends Rachel and Joseph. Finally, he himself sets off. He is limping from his struggle with the angel. He has not slept. He pauses in his approach seven times, bowing down to the ground.
Suddenly, Esau starts running towards him. He is big, hairy, and full of muscles. Jacob is no match for him in a fight, and he knows it. What is Jacob thinking and feeling in this moment?
Terror. He is about to pay the debt on his past mistakes. Perhaps he even welcomes the anticipated violence to balance his guilt.
Then Esau hugs Jacob, buries his head in his neck, and kisses him. Not what Jacob is expecting.
There is a wonderful midrash that teaches that it is not a kiss – a neshikah – but rather a bite – a neshikhah. The nineteenth century Chassidic Rebbe, the Sefat Emet, understands this midrash metaphorically. In reality, it is a legitimate kiss. But what Esau intends to be a kiss is experienced by Jacob as a bite; and it is the bite that is most threatening.
Jacob is expecting a beating. He wants Esau to just get it over with. It will make him feel better. It will even the score between the brothers.
But when Esau responds with graciousness and love, Jacob is “bitten” to his core. He cannot run away from his sin any longer.
The text says that “they cry,” in the plural. They are crying for different reasons: Esau is crying out of genuine happiness to be reunited with his brother; Jacob is crying out of guilt.
Then Jacob offers Esau all of the gifts, and Esau declines them. Jacob will not be able to pay off his guilt. He begs Esau to accept his offering, “for to see your face is like seeing the face of God.” He confesses to the wrong that he has committed.
Kakh-na et birkhati, he then says – “Please accept my blessing which has been brought to you.” (33:11)
Jacob refers to the gift as his berakhah, his blessing. This is not just any gift. Jacob is giving back the blessing which he stole twenty two years earlier. At last, Esau agrees.
Now, at last, Jacob can be free of his brother.
What was this blessing that Jacob gave back, the one that he had stolen? It was a blessing of material wealth and physical power. “May God give you of the dew of heaven and the fat of the earth, abundance of grain and wine. Let peoples serve you, and nations bow to you…” (27:28-29)
This is precisely what Jacob has returned to Esau. He has given him his wealth, and has humbled himself before his more powerful brother. Jacob realizes that he should have never taken this blessing. It was not meant for him, and it was not fitting for who he is.
There was a second blessing that Jacob received from his father before he left many years earlier. That blessing was given out in the open. Isaac called upon God to bless Jacob with progeny. “May [God] grant the blessing of Abraham to you and your offspring, that you may possess the land where you are sojourning, which God assigned to Abraham.” (28:4)
That is the blessing that had been meant for Jacob all along. It just took many years, and much travail, to recognize it.
But perhaps the journey is necessary. As we grow older, we (hopefully) become more wise. The rashness and impulsivity of youth is gradually replaced by thoughtfulness and patience. How often have we thought to ourselves, “If I only knew then what I know now…”
The story ends vayavo Ya’akov shalem. “Then Jacob arrived complete.” (33:18)
It is not to say that Jacob’s life will be hunky dory from now on. Far from it. God never promises Jacob a life of tranquility. In fact, his new name, Yisrael, is fitting. You have striven with beings Divine and human and prevailed. That is Jacob’s fate. That is who he is.
That is also the fate of his children, b’nei Yisrael. The children of Israel. That is our fate.