Vayishlach 5783

Stories of vengeance and forgiveness.

Ultimately, we are the stories we tell of ourselves, whether as an individual, a community or a people.  This week’s narrative is a yarn of huge scope and dimension.  We read the story of our ancestor Jacob on his return journey home after 20-years of exile from his family and his land.  He fears the wrath of his twin brother Esau who last time seen swore to kill Jacob in revenge for Jacob’s stealing his birthright and blessing.  In these 20 years, Jacob has become father to eleven boys and one girl, through his wives Leah and Rachel and their maidservants Zilpah and Bilhah.  In Jacob’s story of return that we read this week, we learn that fearing his brother’s revenge, Jacob divides his family in two: “If Esau comes to the one camp and attacks it, the other camp may yet escape.”  (Genesis 32:9).  Jacob then sends Esau some of his wealth of animals, thinking “If I propitiate him with presents in advance, and then face him, perhaps he will show me favour.”  (Genesis 32:21).  

That evening, left alone on one side of the river Jabbok, he wrestles with a mysterious messenger-man who renames him Israel.  Jacob deceives.  Israel prevails.  But it’s not so simple.  Who is who and which is which?  The story wavers. Sometimes our own story line wavers.  We hear inner voices of fear and of faith, voices self-demeaning and voices self-loving. Not always one way, not always the other – but over time, having tendencies one way or another. We are complex creatures. Jacob/Israel.  This is who he was, this is who we are. 

Our stories accumulate, and as they do, we become selective in which ones we tell, how we tell them and how we live them.   And this is reflected in the very story of reconciliation that occurs immediately the next morning after Jacob’s wrestle and renaming.  

We the reader, prepared like Jacob in the story itself to have an ominous fear of impending doom, come into Esau’s presence.  “Esau ran to greet him.  He embraced him, and falling on his neck, he kissed him and they wept.”  What relief. What grace.  Such love and forgiveness.  True.  And it’s also true that the tradition has also read this story not as one of reconciliation but of continued conflict.  In this Esau is disingenuous, manipulative.  We also have an oppositional lens, reading our stories as us against them, them against us.  How much can we embrace love, how much do we hold on to the fear? 

Focusing on the word “kissed”, Rashi, the great 11th century commentator on the Torah writes: “Dots are placed above the letters of this word, and a difference of opinion is expressed in the tradition as to what these dots are intended to suggest: some explain the dotting as meaning that Esau did not kiss him with his whole heart, whereas others say at that moment Esau’s pity was really aroused and he kissed Jacob with his whole heart.”  How we read this story, how we tell this story gives it its meaning and forms its impact in our lives.  

We look at the world around us, with even more conflict and hardening of positions in the land where this story was first told thousands of years ago, and we have to decide which version of this story will be the one we favour.  Similarly, we, with all our inner voices and varied stories, need to find that way to favour the path of love and forgiveness, within and beyond. We are the stories we live and tell. 

Rabbi Jeffrey Kamins

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