- Posted by Elaine Zecher
- On November 23, 2018
- 0 Comments
Welcome to Shabbat Awakenings, a weekly reflection as we make our way toward Shabbat.
This week’s portion is regarded as one of the most beautiful reconciliations of the Torah. It rivals the section we will read in a few weeks of Joseph’s dramatic revelation of his true identity to his brothers. But I don’t want to ruin the surprise.
So, we focus on what occurred when Jacob, after twenty years, prepared to meet his brother Esau. The last time they had seen one another; Esau had threatened to kill him because Jacob stole his father’s blessing meant for Esau. Jacob escaped with his life and started again. He found wives, had children, and amassed wealth.
Now it was time for the confrontation of his past and the threat of violence. He heard Esau was on his way to meet him with hundreds of men. Jacob feared the worst and sent hundreds of animals from his various herds in an attempt to placate what he assumed was an aggressive and aggrieved brother.
In the middle of the night, he wrestled with some being and emerged with a new name, Yisrael, the one who struggled with beings divine and human and prevailed. (Genesis 32:29)
In the morning, when he finally encountered his brother, instead of war and violence, there were tears and a warm embrace. A beautiful reconciliation.
This is often where we stop when we tell the story. It has the best ending. But, it is not the ending. There is more to the scene. It appeared that Esau made an assumption about the day after and ever more. Esau suggested:
Let us start on our journey and I will proceed at your pace. (33:12)
But Jacob demurred:
Let my lord go on ahead of his servant, while I travel slowly…until I come to my lord in Seir. (33: 14)
Jacob knew Esau headed toward Seir and he could meet him there. Esau eventually agreed to go forward with what seemed like an expectation that he and his brother and their entourage would find one another again in Seir. The problem was that Jacob had no intention of ending up in Seir. He journeyed to Succcoth and built a house for himself and made stalls for his cattle… (33:17) The rabbis of the Talmud acknowledged that Jacob had no intention of going to Seir and instead sought to put as much distance between him and his brother. They believed, however, that in the Messianic Era, Jacob would indeed keep his word and end up in the same place as his brother. (Jerushalmi Avodah Zarah 2:1)
They didn’t need to wait that long. Two chapters later, the brothers reunited to bury their father Isaac. (Genesis 35:29)
Why did the rabbis need to bring in the messianic time for the brothers to find one another again when family obligation at the death of a parent served the same purpose? The former assumes peace, healing, and wholeness. The latter acknowledges the need to do what is necessary even when all the pieces don’t bring peace to an imperfect world.
Jacob and Esau had reconciled after two decades of potential enmity, but it did not mean their relationship would turn into a close association. Other midrashim posit that Jacob continued to send presents because he remained afraid of Esau. Nevertheless, the Torah text provided a full description of the line of Esau just as it had done with the patriarchs.
Perhaps the rabbis were trying to teach that the distance between the actions of the messianic era, a time of perfection and the actions we take as we live our imperfect lives may not be a far as it seems. We need to continue to reach toward our brothers and sisters, to struggle at those places where reconciliation can happen. And when we do, then maybe we can find paths forward to bring all of us closer even when we head in different directions.
We will join together tonight for Shabbat. There are lots of sweet babies to bless and bring into the community and others to welcome. Qabbalat Shabbat begins at 6:00 p.m. Live webstream here.
Study the portion at Torah study. We begin with a short service followed by a lively discussion and close the morning with Qaddish and Qiddush.
I am grateful for your thoughts and reflections. Connect directly with me here.