In this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, we read the story of a well-known family reunion. Twin brothers Jacob and Esau meet for the first time since Jacob received the blessing that had been intended for Esau. Jacob fled after this happened because he feared his brother’s revenge. Years later, when the brothers have grown and raised their own families, they have to meet, and Jacob is afraid. In anticipation of this reunion, Jacob sends his servants to Esau with messages of subservience and a variety of gifts. With the hopes of winning him over and gaining his forgiveness, he instructs his servants to use language such as “your servant Jacob” and “my lord Esau.” But when the two do finally meet, it is Esau who surprises Jacob and responds with great affection and a striking gentleness.
Is Jacob so afraid of his brother because of what happened the last time they saw each other, or might it go even deeper? The Torah suggests that Esau had always been different from Jacob. In many ways the brothers are set up as opposites. Esau is the wilder and more physical of the twins, a skillful hunter and a man of the outdoors, while Jacob is mild mannered and stays indoors. (Genesis 25:27) Esau married two Hittite wives (Genesis 26:34-35) which aggravated his parents; Jacob married within the family. There is a softer side of Esau, too. To appease his father Esau also takes a wife from within his own clan. Family is important to him.
These two brothers had not seen each other for years. Often when family members come together after long absences, there is apprehension. How do we get ready and how do we protect ourselves? Jacob sends gifts to his brother. Perhaps to appease him. Perhaps to show his big brother how well he had done for himself. (Genesis 32:2-6) Esau also took measures for his own protection. He traveled with an entourage of 400 men. (Genesis 32:7) It is not unreasonable to suppose that Esau, too, was nervous about this reunion.
On Thanksgiving we often find ourselves sitting with people we have not seen in a long time. The incidence of anxiety and depression goes up around the holidays. Why? For some it is simply because we have to be with our families. Others feel the melancholy of empty seats at the table. Sometimes reunions are hard because of how much we have changed. College students come back to holiday tables with people who have known them forever but who now seem not to know them at all. We feel vulnerable. We become more guarded; our tolerance is tested. We might feel alone although we are surrounded by those whom we love and who love us most in the world.
We are at our best when we rally for the people who are the most important to us. And we are at our worst when adults begin to behave like children. Old sibling rivalries and unhealed wounds resurface. Many arguments begin over smaller things. The best in us also emerges as hosts spend hours cooking, guests travel, and as we agree on the safety precautions we will put in place for Thanksgiving this year, perhaps with a cautious return to being together in person. This is the best of us — the history, the tradition, the stories, the respect. Like Jacob and Esau, when we reconnect each year, we have to reintroduce ourselves. If we are ready for it, we may come away from our family time with blessings. “Esau ran to greet him. [Esau] embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept.” The brothers’ anxious reunion turned out to be surprisingly tender. In this moment we get to see, again, the side of Esau who loves his family. Esau has left his old grudges behind. He came to the reunion in the spirit of openness and forgiveness. Jacob, too, has done his spiritual homework.
Within parashat Vayishlach we have the familiar story of Jacob’s encounter with an unknown being, the night before he will see his brother. (Genesis 32:25-29) Jacob is said to be wrestling with a man, but when the dawn is breaking Jacob asks for a blessing before they let go of each other. He is told that his name will no longer be Jacob but Israel because he has striven with beings divine and human and has prevailed. Elie Wiesel teaches that Jacob wrestles that night with the parts of himself that he likes and the parts of himself that he doesn’t like. (Wiesel, Messengers of God, pp. 122-129) Family reunions take a lot of work. Not just the food, the effort, the travel and safety plans. But also preparing ourselves from the inside out.
The word mincha comes up a lot in our portion. The word means offering and refers to the gifts Jacob brought his brother. But when he is face to face with Esau, at the end of their meeting, Jacob uses a different word and calls his gift, bracha, blessing. This change in language is significant. Jacob was able to transform his gifts from ordinary offerings into blessings.
Jacob was at his worst when he was taking the blessing that was not rightfully his. Now Jacob is at his best when he gives bracha, blessing, to his brother. And Esau is at his best when his initial response is to tell his brother that the gifts are not necessary and kisses him instead. In the exchange of blessings, the brothers join the sacred dance of giving and receiving. How can we do what Jacob did and transform our ordinary offerings into blessings that are imbued with holiness and intention? Turning offerings into blessings can change the way we experience life and also the way we interact with others. We are approaching our society’s season of giving. Now is our time to wrestle. We have to decide what kinds of gifts we will give to those we love and how we will transform our offerings into sincere blessings of peace and forgiveness. Material gifts, mincha, are nice but Judaism would ask us to cherish even more our intentional acts of caring and relationship, bracha.
Our families will always bring out our best and worst, and like Jacob and Esau, we may have to change in order to prepare to meet them. Jacob left his divine struggle with a limp and a new name and both things required change and growth. Esau discarded his tough façade and walked away from his brother with tear tracks on his cheeks. Our opportunity is to transform ordinary gifts into blessings. To do this we begin by transforming ourselves with all the vulnerability it entails. This is hard and holy work.