Torah gives clues on handling Thanksgiving Reunions

Rabbi Amy Feder

By Rabbi Amy Feder

As the holiday season approaches, I find myself thinking about what an overwhelming and emotional time of year this is for many people. Some of us love the holidays – the smells of turkeys roasting and latkes frying, extended celebrations with family and late nights with friends visiting from afar. Yet for others among us, those same holiday reunions bring feelings of loneliness and anxiety, heartbreaking memories and reminders of loss. Are our celebrations and experiences really so dissimilar, or is it just our perception of these gatherings that makes the difference?

I am reminded of this week’s Torah portion, in which Jacob and Esau are reunited after nearly a lifetime apart. The brothers had been fighting ever since the womb, and Jacob spent most of his life fleeing from his brother’s terrifying (albeit justifiable) anger. Finally, as grown men with children of their own, the two meet again. The scene in the Torah text is tense; Jacob is clearly frightened, worrying that the family reunion will turn ugly, even fatal. Fortunately, Esau runs to greet him, falling on his neck and kissing him, weeping with joy. It seems, at first, like a sweet Hollywood ending. Yet the Hebrew text has strange dots over the word “kiss”, signs that we should give this word a closer look. One tradition suggests that the embrace was just an act. Another tradition (which the “Twilight”-obsessed fan in me loves) says that Esau didn’t kiss but rather bit Jacob on the neck. To make Esau out as vampire-like is, perhaps, unfair, but the varying traditions do allow us to see how the same family reunion could be perceived in so many different ways. What appears as a heartfelt moment to some is a disaster to others.


So how can we use this story to ensure that we experience our own holiday reunions in a positive light? Allow me to offer you a teaching from one of my bar mitzvah students, Andrew Gelfman. Prior to this scene in the Torah, Jacob wrestles with a divine stranger. Andrew explained to me, without a doubt in his mind, that this stranger was clearly Esau’s guardian angel. He insisted that only after this unique event could the brothers have had such a sweet reunion.

While I’m not as confident as Andrew is about the identity of Jacob’s mysterious stranger, perhaps he’s right as the story pertains to reunions, not just about Jacob and Esau, but about all of us. Like Esau, we must reach a point when our guards (even the angelic kind) are down. Only then can we meet our loved ones with whole hearts, prepared to move into another holiday season with all its ups and downs. And like Jacob, we must wrestle with our own demons, facing the anxieties and losses of years past so that we can look ahead and celebrate the good still before us. May this year’s holiday season bring us all joy, wholeness, and peace.

D’var Torah

Rabbi Amy Feder is Senior Rabbi at Temple Israel and a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.