For many, this weekend brings joy as we pause from our busy lives, gather with family and/or friends, and offer thanks for the blessings of our lives. The Macy’s Parade, football games, catching up, lots of food, and so much more. Each of our families has its own rituals for this truly American holiday. Yesterday afternoon found me in our backyard playing catch with 3 of my children. As I donned my long-neglected baseball mitt, I thought to myself, “Is this cliché or what?” It wasn’t the slightest bit cliché. It felt quite real and oh so very good.
For some, family gatherings and reunions can be a time of anxiety. Old tensions are sometimes reignited. Sometimes they even flare anew. Is he going to tell the same old stories we’ve been hearing year after year? Is she going to bring that time, twenty years ago, when I . . . We never can be quite certain of what to expect.
In our Torah portion, we read of Jacob, who has now spent some twenty years in Haran with his Uncle Laban. He has worked hard, he has built a family, and he is ready to make the journey home to the land of Canaan. However, to do so, he must pass by way of the land of Edom where his brother Esau now lives. He too has worked hard. He too now has a family. No doubt, he still harbors more than a bit of resented towards his younger brother who, when last they were together, had tricked their father into offering him (Jacob) the blessing of the firstborn, intended for Esau. He has no idea Jacob is headed his way, so for him, Jacob is likely barely even an after-thought. But for Jacob, crossing paths with his brother anew represents at the least, uncertainty, and more likely a high measure of anxiety.
So Jacob sets out for home. Knowing he must pass through territory close to Esau he sends messengers to announce his impending arrival. He receives back word that Esau is coming to meet him, with four hundred men. Not knowing how to interpret Esau’s approach, and mindful of what he did to his brother twenty years earlier Jacob conceives of a plan. He divides all he has into two camps, figuring if Esau attacks, at least one might survive. He separates himself from both groups, and spends the night before he will potentially meet his brother alone. As we know, the rest is “history.” At least it’s “Biblical narrative” as Jacob wrestles during that lonely night with an adversary whose identity is unknown. Angel? God? Esau? His own psyche? Many have imagined, no one truly knows.
As morning breaks, and the fateful moment of meeting approaches we read, “And Jacob lifted up his eyes and saw, and, behold, Esau was coming, and with him four hundred men. And he divided the children to Leah and to Rachel, … And he passed over before them, and bowed to the ground seven times, until he came near to his brother.” (Genesis 32:1-3) These are among the most tense passages in our Torah. In the Midrash, the Rabbis attempt to imagine Jacob’s interior emotional landscape. One such passage reads: “Rabbi Yehuda, the son of Rabbi Ilai, commenting on the verse ‘Then Jacob was greatly afraid and was distressed’ (Gen 32:8), asked: ‘Are not fear and distress identical?’ Our Sages teach that the meaning is that Jacob was doubly afraid. He was afraid that he might be killed. And he was distressed that he might kill in order to save himself, and his family. Jacob thought: If he prevails over me, will he not kill me? And if I am stronger than he, will I not kill him? This is the meaning of what is written: “He was afraid – lest he should be slain; and he was distressed – lest he should slay (Midrash Genesis Rabbah 76).
So often, gathering with those we have not seen in a long time can provoke unexpectedly anxiety. Our subconscious remembers what we have worked hard to forget. In our time, when families are so often living at great distances from one another, siblings, though years or decades removed from growing up together may slip into, or be dragged back into “the old ways.” All too often we see one another with the lenses of the past.
Jacob and Esau have bitter memories of one another. Certainly Jacob, and perhaps even Esau, approaches the reunion with trepidation. While their reunion does not establish a new chapter in which they will live out their years in renewing relationship, the picture Genesis portrays is hopeful and healing nonetheless: “Looking up, Jacob saw Esau coming, accompanied by four hundred men. He divided the children among Leah, Rachel . . . He himself went on ahead and bowed low to the ground seven times until he was near his brother. Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept. (Genesis 33:1-3)
Only in healing a piece of that which he had broken twenty years earlier was Jacob able to continue on his journey to fulfilling his potential. For such opportunities, to come together, to laugh, to cry, to heal and to share gratitude for blessings, indeed we should give thanks.