D’var Torah: Jacob, Esau and Reconciliation

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 2 December 2012

Are we eternally bound to live with conflict, to live with the fear of others hanging over us?  Or can we change patterns of relationship from the past, break out of cycles of mistrust and tension?

This week’s Torah portion should give us at least a little hope.

Jacob and Esau have not seen each other since the former’s theft of their father’s blessing. Esau has every reason to hate his brother, Jacob every reason to be fearful and suspicious. And yet, their meeting is, if not a warm reunion, surprisingly uneventful. They are reconciled.  Peace is found.

How is this reconciliation possible? What lessons can we draw?

Underpinning their meeting is the willingness of both parties to move on from past conflict. Jacob sends gifts and messages of peace.  He is not too proud to bow down to the brother who he fears – for the sake of reconciliation – ‘seeing your face is like seeing the face of God’, he says. Dignity, self-importance, we might conclude, is less valuable than peace.

Esau, for his part, is willing not only to move past previous wrongs, but to accept his own situation. He too can make peace, reassured by his own position of security – he acknowledges ‘I have enough, brother’.  He is not driven by resentment of the success of the other, but respects it, values it.

Their peace does not demand of them eternal love – the brothers ultimately go their separate ways – they are, truly, separate nations.  But they are able to move beyond their conflict.

As if by contrast, the portion also gives a less positive model of peace.  We are told later, after Jacob has moved on, that, to ensure the safety of Jacob and his family,  ‘a terror from god fell on the cities’ around.  Also peace, but one based not on fraternal reconciliation, not on the resolution of conflict, but only on fear.

Let us hope that in our lives, and in Israel’s current conflict, there can be real peace – that, like Jacob and Esau, the patterns of the past need not dominate the future.