In the beginning of Parashat Vayishlach, Jacob is returning to the land of Israel after being away for more than twenty years. The text tells us about his preparations and his reunion with his brother Esau, whom he hasn’t seen since tricking their father into blessing him instead of Esau, after which Esau wanted to kill Jacob. If we read the text at its face value, Esau seems to be a pretty good guy and a forgiving brother, willing to let bygones be bygones after all these years. However, the rabbis are invested in showing Esau to be a bad man and to show Jacob in the best possible light. In commentaries we are told that Esau has not forgiven Jacob and wants to kill him, but there is no evidence of that in the text itself.
During the time of Roman conquest of the land of Israel, the rabbis understood this section of the Torah to be instructing them as to how to interact with the authorities. The rabbis did not trust Rome just as they did not trust Esau and so they would read this section to prepare themselves to meet with Roman authorities to negotiate with them.
Today we live in a world where often we pre-judge others based upon their political or their religious beliefs and we don’t necessarily deeply examine what they do and do not say. It is so easy to convince ourselves that someone is not our friend because of what we think we know about them without really giving them a chance, without really listening to what they have to say or watching to see what they do.
Our society is quick to judge and condemn. Forgiveness and understanding are really difficult; they take time and energy. Most of us are busy, so overwhelmed, so tired that we are happy to get through the day and fulfill all our obligations without taking the extra effort needed to really listen to someone, to really analyze what they say or write. Life is complicated, life is hard; but we owe it to ourselves and to those we interact with to really hear what they have to say even if we disagree with them, perhaps especially when we disagree with them.
As we go through this time of transition in America, let us not be too quick to dismiss others whom we anticipate might be bad for us or for America. Change is coming, but change always takes place; it is up to us how we will respond to the changes around us. Let us open our ears and our eyes, our hearts and our minds; and make the most of what life has to offer us. Jacob and Esau had a checkered history, but they didn’t end up with much future either since Jacob did not accept Esau’s overtures at face value. May we learn from our ancestors and may our lives benefit from their experiences.