The saying goes “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” And it’s often at the moment when you feel like you might lose someone or something that the most effort is put in to save the situation. In romance movies the guy only realizes how much he loves the girl when she’s walked away and is almost completely out of his life. In a trial a defendant might push a plea agreement to the back of his mind until he realizes what the punishment might and fights to get the better deal. Whatever the circumstances, we often don’t see the good in a situation until we’ve had something happen that gives us a new perspective.
As we read the narrative of the lives of our patriarchs, it becomes clear that learning from their past mistakes helps them to put into perspective what life is all about. This week’s parshah, Vayishlach,again shows us interaction between Jacob and his brother Esau. The last time these two were together, Esau didn’t seem too attached to his birthright blessing until it had been given to Jacob, and Jacob didn’t care much about his brother’s right to the blessing until his brother threatened to kill him. Now, twenty years or so later, we find the brothers on a path to meet again. Both are now married and fathers of large clans, and both have large flocks with them.
Jacob and Esau’s meeting is filled with pleasantries and what feels like a forced benevolence between them. They offer each other gift after gift. “You take my flocks, brother,” one says. “I couldn’t possibly do that,” the other responds, “God has given me too much, you take from me.” While these pleasantries may seem somewhat insincere, they are signs the brothers have changed. Jacob is the most convincing by alluding to the incident with the messenger of God that took place immediately prior to this meeting. He says, “No, I pray you; if you would do me this favor, accept from me this gift; because to see your face, I have seen the face of God and you have received me favorably. Please accept my blessing which has been brought to you, for God has favored me and I have plenty.”
In this statement to his brother, Jacob sees that he has an opportunity to prove himself as a changed individual. He remarks that he has seen God’s face and knows that he is a changed person. No longer can he go around acting as though he himself didn’t do anything wrong, now he must acknowledge his actions and convince Esau that he has changed. One commentator reads this verse as Jacob proclaiming to Esau and the world that he has learned to see his brother not as an intimidating rival, but as a person fashioned in God’s image. Furthermore, Jacob extends a blessing to his brother: Take my blessing now because I stole a blessing from you years ago out of jealousy. Please now, take a blessing from me. At this, Esau accepts Jacob’s offer, and they move forward.
Since the brothers are now family men, they both seem to have an understanding of the importance of forgiveness and friendship. Jacob’s act could have been “too little too late” had Esau not understood that his brother was truly a changed man. And Jacob might have approached his brother with force or terror had he not had a life experience that allowed him to see others as holy beings.
What is remarkable about this narrative is that each brother was willing to give the other a second chance. Too often we close ourselves down when someone has deceived us or hurt us. It’s easy to say that efforts to reconcile are “too little too late,” and much more difficult to forgive and keep an open mind. Reading this narrative teaches us that even in situations that we might think can never be fixed, we would be well served if we kept our minds and hearts open to the possibility of change and forgiveness. As we enter into the darker, colder period of the year, may we be blessed with warm hearts and acceptance of those who have changed for the better.
THIS TOO IS TORAH: Brothers Jacob and Esau have a history much like the characters Elphaba and Glinda from Wicked. We learn an important Torah lesson from the two witches. These two characters start out at bitter odds with one another, giving each other the evil eye, ignoring one another, not giving the benefit of the doubt that either one is genuine. But as the story progresses, the viewer sees their relationship change. At a touching moment when they realize what their relationship has meant to them, they sing, “Because I knew you, I have been changed for good.” A relationship like this is rare, as too often we find ourselves holding back the benefit of the doubt and standing in our own, biased vision of reality.