Envisioning enemies as flawed, wounded people &mdash just like us

Genesis 32:4-36:43
Obadiah 1:1-21

This week I opened the Chumash (Five Books of Moses) with great excitement, for this week we read Parashat Vayishlach, containing one of the Torah’s great stories of reconciliation. Jacob and Esau’s long-anticipated reunion has tremendous human drama on the interpersonal level, and of course, deep resonance on the national level as well. As is my wont, I dove into my favorite commentaries, both rabbinic and Chassidic, expecting that, as always, I would find wisdom and inspiration there. I needed to find elevating words about peacemaking between brothers, about hatred melting into love, about seeing in the “enemy” the face of God.

On this occasion, I came away disappointed. My heart sank as I read one variation after another of the rabbis’ distrust of Esau’s transformation from murderous rage to brotherly love.

Remember that 20 years earlier in the narrative, Jacob had fled his home because Esau was enraged at Jacob’s trickery, resulting in Jacob receiving the blessing that rightly belonged to Esau, the firstborn. Jacob continued to hone his abilities to deceive during his 20 years serving Lavan and building his own family. Finally, Jacob knew that it was time to return home and face the truth of his own life.

Realistically, the text tells us that Jacob made elaborate plans to protect his family, expecting that he would find Esau’s violent anger unabated even after the passage of 20 years. And then, all alone in the dark of night, Jacob struggles with a being, with his own demons, and emerges a new person, Israel, the God-wrestler.

Still, he approaches Esau cautiously, unable to imagine that Esau, too, might have grown and changed during the intervening years. In the dramatic climax of the story, Esau runs to greet Jacob, and they embrace and kiss and cry together. After an awkward, formal exchange, Jacob says, “To see your face is like seeing the face of God, for you have reconciled with me.” (Gen. 33:10)

Suddenly, Jacob stopped seeing his brother as an enemy and saw him rather as an imperfect human being like himself, capable of doing terrible wrongs, and yet created in the image of the divine.

For once, it seemed to me that many of the classical commentaries obscured rather than clarified the luminous meaning of the text. Throughout the ages, rabbis have regarded Esau as symbolic of the enemies of the Jewish people, even of “the dark side” of the human psyche, incapable of anything but implacable hatred and evil. Many have noted that the word “and he kissed him” is marked with dots in the text of the Torah, as we might write ironic quotation marks, to indicate the implausibility of Esau’s loving gesture.

It is no wonder why the rabbis had such a dark view of Esau. His character serves as a perfect symbol of those who have oppressed our people throughout history. The rabbis, it seems, found some kind of comfort in finding their people’s historical experience anticipated in the sacred text. We, too, have good reason to focus our attention on the evils that have been done to us. No one can blame us when we feel hopeless about the possibilities for change and transformation.

But strip away the obviously human layer of interpretation here, the inevitable reading of one’s own historical experience into a sacred text, and we see that the Torah’s meaning is strong and clear. Jacob, with a little help from an “angel” in the night, re-created himself, turning his own mortal battle into a vehicle for transformation. As a result of that battle, he limped for the rest of his life, never again so certain of the truth of his claims, never again certain that his rights superceded those of others. Limping toward the feared confrontation, Jacob was able to see his brother’s humanness, his brother’s capacity for love, the divine goodness even in Esau.

This narrative is a gloriously hopeful tale of personal and national transformation, of estranged brothers turning into family again, of learning to see enemies as flawed and wounded people, just like us.

May Torah’s teaching on reconciliation inspire us with hope for a world redeemed.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg, a Conservative rabbi, is a spiritual counselor in private practice.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg
Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Amy Eilberg serves as a spiritual director, peace educator and justice activist, and teacher of Mussar. More information on her work can be found at rabbiamyeilberg.com.