Story of Jacob provides universal lesson in family, life

BY RABBI ARI VERNON

After 20 years away from home, working hard and growing a family, a man returns to his roots and doesn’t know what kind of reception to expect.

He left under difficult circumstances. He had cheated his brother, schemed with his mother against his father, and left town quickly to avoid the wrath of his family.

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You may already recognize this as the story of our ancestor Jacob and his return to the land of Israel at the beginning of this week’s parashat Vayishlach, but many of us can identify with his experience. It may not be 20 years, our departure may not have been as abrupt or shameful, and our return may not be filled with the same angst and worry about how we will be received. But, in our society everyone leaves home, and in our community many people return.

The dance between Jacob and Esau reveals family dynamics that resonate with many. Jacob sends out messengers to gauge Esau’s attitude towards him. They report that Esau is coming to greet him with 400 people.

This show of force is open to interpretation. Esau could be trying to show his excitement and desire to welcome his brother home with a reception fit for royalty. Jacob takes it as an antagonistic gesture, dividing his entourage into several parties so that at least some might survive an attack.

The evening before the reunion, Jacob wrestles with a person through the night.

Who the man is remains unclear.

It could be Esau came to work out their differences in private before the formal reunion, or it may be Jacob’s own psychological struggle with his past deceptions and personal guilt. It may simply be an angel.

When Jacob finally sees his brother the next morning, Esau’s greeting seems to be one of joy and magnanimity, but we are left with the ambiguity in the word used to describe his embrace. The scribal markings in the Torah’s text draw attention to the fact hat the verb vayishakeihu can be translated as “kissed” or “bit.”

Whether kissing or biting, the brothers ultimately cry together.

Most, if not all of Jacob’s relationships seem to be strained by misunderstandings that might have been avoided with a more open dialogue. Count among them the purchase of Esau’s birthright, the theft of his father’s blessing, his marriage to Leah, and his flight from Laban’s house.

In this case, Jacob’s worrying and planning for meeting his brother was superfluous, and it begs us to consider how we approach similar life situations.

Might we be better served in being forthcoming, declaring our intentions and desires to one another instead of trying to manipulate the situation to our advantage?

Consider the effort that Jacob puts into dividing his entourage when only a little additional inquiry would have made Esau’s intentions abundantly clear.

When we take that extra step to understand another’s words and actions, we can take away the anxiety and uncertainty, avoid tears and make joy the focus of our reunions.

Ari Vernon, Rabbi of Shir Hadash Reconstructionist Community, is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.