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Vayishlach - Reconciliation and Atonement

Reconciliation and Atonement

Further thoughts on Parashat Vayishlach

by John J. Parsons
www.hebrew4christians.com

The Torah reading for this week details the dramatic confrontation between Jacob and his alienated twin brother Esau. Recall that Jacob had not laid eyes on his brother since he had fled from him 20 years previously. Now, as Jacob was finally ready to return to the home of his father, a major obstacle had to be surpassed: Had his brother forgiven him, or did he still harbor malice and plan to exact his revenge?

AFTER FINALLY ESCAPING FROM THE CLUTCHES OF his uncle Laban, Jacob continued his way from Gilead back to the land of Canaan.  Upon entering the Promised Land, Jacob immediately encountered the angels of God (מַלְאֲכֵי אֱלהִים) and realized he was back in "God's camp" (Gen. 32:1-2). It had been a long exile from home, and Jacob surely missed his mother and father... But what about Esau? Would he welcome Jacob back home, or did he still harbor malice and plan to exact his revenge?  Immediately after encountering the angels, Jacob decided that the time was right to seek reconciliation with his estranged brother. Jacob therefore sent messengers (מַלְאָכִים) to the "land of Seir" (to the far south in Edom) to deliver the tidings of his return: "Thus you shall say to my lord Esau: Thus says your servant Jacob, 'I have sojourned with Laban and stayed until now. I have oxen, donkeys, flocks, male servants, and female servants. I have sent to tell my lord, in order that I may find favor in your sight'" (Gen. 32:3-5). (According to Rashi, these messengers were none other than the very angels (מַלְאָכִים) that Jacob had seen ascending and descending the ladder before he left for Charan some 20 years earlier.)

Despite encountering the angels of the LORD upon his return, Jacob was unsure of his place in God's plan. A midrash says that during his long exile, Jacob had begun to seriously doubt himself. After all, he had plenty of time to reflect on his life during those 20 years of servitude to his treacherous uncle Laban... He had been tricked into marrying Leah (rather than Rachel) -- an irony that hauntingly reminded him of his own deception of his father and brother. Indeed, it was the cunning and "grappling" of Laban that had made Jacob into a slave, thereby effectively inverting the very blessing he "stole" from his brother. Was all this middah keneged middah ("like for like") punishment for his sins? Perhaps his mother was wrong all along... Perhaps Isaac should have blessed Esau to become the spiritual leader of the family...  Indeed, what if Esau had undergone genuine teshuvah and was now worthy of the birthright? If that were the case, Jacob was prepared to relinquish his claim as the "firstborn" and would consent to be a servant in Esau's house. With questions like these churning within his soul, Jacob sent the messengers to determine the disposition of his brother. Would Esau forgive him?  Would he welcome him back home or would he seek revenge for the injustice done to him? When the messengers eventually returned, the news was not good: Esau was coming with 400 armed men to meet him - and that undoubtedly meant war. Jacob became "exceedingly afraid" (Gen. 32:7) -- not only because he was vastly outnumbered and unfit for battle (his wife Rachel was far along in her pregnancy and his other sons were still merely children) -- but more importantly, because he was radically questioning the meaning and validity of his entire life.  How could a ragtag band of pilgrims with a guilt-ridden leader confront an indignant brother leading an small army? Indeed, how could Jacob find the strength to believe in his own sense of calling and destiny in light of the wreckage and pain of his past?

Regardless of his personal sense of ambivalence, Jacob began to prepare for his encounter with Esau. First he divided his family into two camps (מַחֲנוֹת), so that if one were attacked, the other could escape (Gen. 32:7-8). Next he prayed to the LORD for salvation (Gen. 32:9-12). Finally, he sent servants to Esau with gifts to appease his brother's anger (Gen. 32:13-21). The Rambam (Maimonides) states that Jacob's approach is a "blueprint" of the future Jewish experience in the Diaspora. In other words, Jacob's response to this threat (devising a plan of escape; praying, and attempting appeasement) teaches how us how to deal with enemies more powerful than ourselves.  The sages ask: But couldn't Jacob have simply waited for God to save him? After all, didn't he have the explicit promise of God to protect him and to ensure that his descendants would inherit the land? Yes, indeed, and Jacob could have passively waited for God's intervention, but the Torah reveals that he did not take God's help for granted.  Jacob needed to exercise his own teshuvah. He did not presume that God would protect him without his active involvement in the process of reconciliation.

Jacob's Prayer:

    O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O LORD who said to me, 'Return to your country and to your kindred, that I may do you good,' I am not worthy of the least of all the deeds of steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps. Please deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him, that he may come and attack me, the mothers with the children. But you said, 'I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude.' (Gen. 32:9-12)
     

Recall that during Jacob's vision of the ladder (Vayetzei) the LORD described Himself as the "God of Abraham your father" and then (almost parenthetically) added "and the God of Isaac" (אֲנִי יהוה אֱלהֵי אַבְרָהָם אָבִיךָ וֵאלהֵי יִצְחָק) (Gen. 28:13). In this prayer, however, Jacob elevated his relationship to his father Isaac by addressing the LORD as "the God of my father Abraham and the God of my father Isaac (אֱלהֵי אָבִי אַבְרָהָם וֵאלהֵי אָבִי יִצְחָק), the LORD who said to me, 'Return...'" (Gen. 32:9). This change is significant because the pilgrimage back to the land was essentially a pilgrimage back to his estranged father Isaac. Jacob was returning to confront not only his difficult past with his twin brother Esau, but the wound he had caused his father's heart (and to mourn the loss of his mother, too). But notice that Jacob's attitude had undergone a transformation. His appeal to God was honest and realistic. When he was younger, Jacob was willing to deceive his own father and to "grapple" the advantage from his brother, but his long exile marked a time of teshuvah that enabled him to come to terms with his past... Jacob consequently became a broken man who understood that he was entirely unworthy to receive God's blessing: "I am not worthy of the least of all the deeds of steadfast love (chesed) and all the faithfulness (emet) that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps" (Gen. 32:10). In a Torah scroll, the Hebrew word katonti (קָטנְתִּי), translated as "I am unworthy," is written with a diminished Tet (ט) to indicate the humility of Jacob. Indeed Jacob no longer felt "entitled" to receive God's blessing but was diminished or "made small" (קָטָן) before the unmerited kindness of God. At this point Jacob began addressing his prayer to the LORD (יהוה) rather than to God (אֱלהִים), indicating that he now sought the compassion of God instead of God's justice.... 

Regarding Jacob's statement, "for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps," the midrash notes that Esau's son Eliphaz (אֱלִיפָז, lit. "my God is gold") had initially robbed Jacob when he first fled to Charan (this explains why Jacob was destitute and dependent upon Laban from the outset). Jacob therefore appealed to the LORD to preserve the favor that was extended to him while he labored in Charan by defending his wives and his children.  God had multiplied Jacob in fulfillment of the promise originally given to Abraham. Just as the LORD had been gracious to him while he was threatened by Laban, so now Jacob appealed to the LORD's grace regarding the threat of Esau.... Jacob's appeal for the LORD's favor was directed to the future of Israel rather than to his own personal future. Just as Moses would later pray after the sin of the Golden Calf, Jacob reminded the LORD of His sovereign purpose and promise to make Israel into a chosen nation that would one day result in blessing for the entire world...

It is interesting to note that after his prayer, Jacob immediately began planning on how to "appease" his brother by sending him tokens of peace (Gen. 32:20). The Hebrew word translated "appease" comes from the verb khafar (כָפַר), from which the word "atonement" is derived (i.e., kippur: כִּפֻּר). Here the Torah seems to be suggesting that Jacob needed to make restitution to Esau for his earlier duplicity, and indeed, the gifts that he offered amounted to an acknowledgment of his culpability. (In the New Testament, the Greek word translated "reconciliation" is katallage (καταλλαγή), which means to exchange one thing for another).  In Jewish thought, only the offending party can set the wrong aright and only the offended party can forgo the debt of the sin (this is called mechilah [מְחִילָה]). This means, among other things, that our sin against another must be dealt with "independently" from our sins against God (see Matt. 5:23-24)).  According to Pirke D'Rabbai Eliezer, Jacob's gifts of appeasement, namely the 565 animals mentioned in Genesis 32:14-15, represented ma'aser (a tenth) of his wealth that he had vowed to give to God should he return safely to the land (Gen. 28:20-22). This "tithe" was then given to Esau as a "peace offering."  If we fail to give our ma'aser willingly, then God will devise a way that it will be given anyway (in this case, as a bribe to Esau).

After making all his preparations, Jacob then "took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and went across the ford of the Jabbok" (Gen. 32:22). According to Rashi, Jacob then went back over the Jabbok because he forgot some "small jars and returned for them." Apparently these jars were intended to offer Esau and his men some drinks...  At any rate, Jacob was then "left alone, and a man (אִישׁ) wrestled with him until the break of dawn" (Gen. 32:24). During the "grappling" (recall the meaning of Jacob's name), the Angel injured Jacob's thigh, but Jacob refused to release his hold until he received the blessing (הַבְּרָכָה). The LORD then asked him, "What is your name (מַה־שְּׁמֶךָ)?"  And he said, "Jacob" (i.e., Ya'akov: יַעֲקב). The Angel then declared to him, "Your name shall no longer be Ya'akov ("heel holder" [of Esau]) but Yisrael ("contender with God"), for as a prince (i.e., sar: שַׂר) you have contended (i.e., sarita: שָׂרִיתָ) with God and with men and have prevailed" (Gen. 32:28).

 

After Jacob was renamed Israel (יִשְׂרָאֵל), he asked the Angel for His Name, but was denied, since the Name is unutterable - even to one who had prevailed with God. Jacob then called the name of the place "the face of God" (i.e., Peniel: פְּנִיאֵל) since "I have seen God face to face (i.e., panim el panim: פָּנִים אֶל־פָּנִים) and yet my life has been spared" (Gen. 32:30).

According to Jewish tradition, the angel who wrestled with Jacob was either Esau's "guardian angel" or Jacob's own yetzer ha-ra (evil inclination). This is inferred from Jacob's statement made to Esau after their peaceful reunion - "For I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of God (Elohim), and you have accepted me" (Gen. 33:10). In other words, Jacob had wrestled with the judgment of God (represented by Elohim) yet subsequently found love and acceptance in the revelation that Elohim is YHVH, the Source of Compassion and love. The earlier wrestling with the angel was thereby symbolic of Jacob's own process of self acceptance and forgiveness that was triggered by the confrontation with Esau (and therefore Jacob's past life). Christian tradition, on the other hand, regards the Angel as a "theophany" of the LORD Himself, especially since 1) this Angel had the authority to rename Jacob to "Israel" (a term that means "contending with God"), 2) the Angel identified himself as "nameless" (i.e., hameforash); and 3) Jacob later called the place of wrestling "Peniel," meaning "facing God" (Gen. 32:30). In either case, however, Jacob had to "grapple" with his faith to find his true identity in the purposes and plans of the LORD.

Our relationships with people matter, especially our relationships with those whom we have hurt. Jacob could not "return home" with unsettled emotional business to attend to regarding his brother (and indeed his father). Part of his ability to inherit the blessing, then, required that he grapple with his past and make amends with those whom he had harmed.  Only in this way would Jacob become "Israel," and only in this way will we find our inner peace with God... May God give us the courage to "confess our sins to one another and to pray for one another, that we may be healed" (James 5:16).


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