Because I Knew You – Parshat Vayishlach 5775

In the smash Broadway musical “Wicked,” we learn an important Torah lesson from Elphaba and Glinda.  At a touching moment when they realize what they’ve learned from one another, they sing “Because I knew you, I have been changed for good.”  These two characters start out as rivals who  judge each other on first impressions alone.  But as the story progresses, the audience sees their relationship change.

Brothers Jacob and Esau have a history much like Elphaba and Glinda.  They begin their journey at their birth, Esau favored by one parent, Jacob by the other.  Jacob seems to win the favor of his mother easily and goes along with whatever plan she sets forth.  When this plan takes the blessing meant for Esau away from him, Esau turns on Jacob, forcing Jacob to run away.  This week’s parshah, Vayishlach, brings the brothers together again.  The last time these two were together, Esau didn’t care much for 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, 20 years or so later we find the brothers on a path to meet again.  Both are now married and are fathers of large clans, and both have large flocks with them.

Jacob and Esau’s meeting is filled with pleasantries and what feels almost like a forced peace between them.  Each offers the other gift after gift, “You take my flocks, brother,” one says, while the other responds, “I couldn’t possibly do that, God has given me too much, you take from me.”  These might be simple pleasantries, but they are signs the twins have changed.  Jacob makes his most convincing argument by alluding to the incident with the messenger of God that took place immediately prior to this meeting.

In chapter 33, verses 10 through 11, 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.”

Jacob hopes to prove to his brother that he is a changed individual.  He asserts that because he have seen God he has been changed for the better.  The narrative told us earlier that Jacob expected the worst from his brother in this meeting, and has received the best, perhaps because both have gone through troubles and separation from family – they have that in common.  In this moment Jacob can see that Esau changed because he became a father, but more importantly, Jacob changed because he comprehended the hurt he caused his brother.  Jacob is by no means innocent, and now, hoping it’s not too late, he must convince everyone else that he has changed for good.

Jacob goes further to extend a blessing to his brother, imploring him to take his blessing because he stole a blessing from Esau years ago out of jealousy.  Esau accepts Jacob’s offer, and they move forward.

Since the brothers are now family men, they seem to have a better 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 both brothers were willing to give the other a second chance.  Too often we close ourselves down when someone has deceived us or hurt us.  It is easy to claim that whatever is done is too little too late; it’s much more difficult to forgive and keep an open mind.  And Jacob and Esau are better for going through this emotional experience; they have both been changed for good.

As we enter into a darker, colder period of the year, may we be blessed with warm hearts and acceptance of those who have changed for the better and who have changed us for the better.

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