Friday, November 23, 2007

Parashat Vayishlach

My mother-in-law, Claudia is visiting us these days. She has been here for a week and it has been delightful. Rebecca’s sister, Elizabeth, arrived in Jerusalem via Detroit last night. It is wonderful to have them here. It is family reunion time, both in our apartment and in this week’s parashah, Vayishlach! Of course, the nature of the reunions is totally different: the arrival of Becca’s family is purely joyous; the one in our parashah is fraught with tension and potential danger.

After many years on the run from his brother Esau, Jacob now faces direct confrontation with him. He expects and prepares for the worst: he divides the family and all of the wealth into multiple camps so that if Esau attacks one, a portion of the family will survive. He spends the night struggling with an Angel, some say with God and others say with his own internal demons, leaves the night fight victorious and with a new name. He also leaves the fight wounded, an outer wound that reflects a deep inner one, a recognition of flaw and deceit. He prepares gifts for his brother, perhaps bribes, perhaps recognition that giving these will somehow repay the theft of the birthright and the blessing.

Imagine his surprise when he is so emotionally and positively received by Esau! He must feel relief and…happiness. Esau runs to him, embraces him, cries with him and kisses him. What more could one expect?

It appears that Jacob may question the sincerity of Esau’s positive response. He offers the gifts he has prepared even after the warm meeting. After serious prodding from Jacob, Esau accepts the gifts. The midrash sees in Esau’s accepting of the gifts as a sign of insincerity. If Esau truly accepted Jacob, why accept the gifts? But, what if he was genuine in just accepting Jacob at that moment, immediately, without remorse and without need for a gift? What if Esau was worried that rejecting the gifts would anger Jacob? Regardless of the motivations, the meeting leads to reconciliation that reaches its climax when the two brothers join together to bury their father, Isaac, upon his death.

Rashi, in commenting on this moment cites an argument about Esau’s intentions from Sifre and other sources. Some rabbis argue that Esau was insincere, that he ran to Jacob with the intention of killing him, biting his neck until death. At that moment, Jacob’s neck turns to stone and Esau cries not out of love but because his teeth hurt. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, however, believes that Esau’s intentions were pure, that his tears were tears of joy and the love in his kiss true and deep.

In America, this is a week of family reunions, and reconciliations. How did you approach those with whom you needed to reconcile. You sat at the table with them, watched football with them, and sat at the table some more. Did you come to the event prepared to do battle? Did you assume the worst? Did you avoid the necessary confrontation altogether, either by accepting an invitation elsewhere or by never looking the other person in the eye, navigating yourself to never be alone with the person. And if the conversation did happen, did you do what was necessary? Did you reject the acceptance of the other as insincere?

Or, did you view the interaction through the eyes of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai? When the other cried and embraced you, did you accept it for what it was: an open, honest, and sincerer response? If you did, you probably feel much better, making the internal struggle leading up to the reunion worth the while. And if you did not, all is not lost, for the odds are good that you might still be with or near that person. So, do the work and go to the person. Approach them with the eyes of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. And if someone approaches you to reconcile, do so with the same belief in sincerity and honesty.

And now, it is time to go and baste the turkey, the one we are having for Shabbat dinner.

Shabbat Shalom.

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