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Peter J. Rubinstein
Parashat Vayishlach

Peter J. Rubinstein  |  December 1, 2012

This story that you’ve heard from Laila [Blavatnik] is one of the most amazing stories in our entire Torah. I would suggest to you, however, that there are actually two different chapters to it: one chapter, one episode, clearly stated, and one to which the text pays no attention. So let’s talk about both.

The first, as you heard from this rather remarkable d’var Torah, is one about Jacob, the rather disgusting young child who engages in lying and deceit and trickery and a charade, partially with the help of his mother. And what he does is in some ways steal both the blessing and the birthright, both the inheritance and the blessing, of the first child, which appropriately would have been given to Esau—he steals them both.

And we can imagine that the moment—at least those of us who have siblings—coming home to learn that something that was rightfully ours had been taken by our younger sibling, would have caused not only consternation but also the kind of fury that Esau demonstrates and exhibits.

He never acted out according to the story, but it is said to Jacob,  “You’d really better get out of here because your brother Esau was just in such turmoil knowing that such injustice had been done by his younger brother.” There was fear that his older brother Esau would strike out and hurt him.

And so as you have heard, the brothers part for twenty years. And it is at the bank of the River Yabok that it says that Jacob “va’yay-avayk,” and just listen, the word for the river, Yabok, and the word that means struggle,  “va’yay-avayk,” sound very similar. Somehow struggling and passing through the water is a metaphor.

We know as a people that everything that gave us birth happened as we went through water: the most creative act of Jewish history was passing through the Red Sea, which, to this day, at every service, we commemorate with the singing of the Mi Chamochah, the words that we sang as we came upon the other shore, never believing, you see, that there could be another day.

And when those waters parted and Moses and the people passed through, there was something more than delivery into a destiny. There was given to them an understanding that no matter how bleak, no matter how awful, no matter how terrible, there will come a time when we pass through to the other side. That there is always another chapter, there is always reason for hope, there is always reason to point our spirits and our eyes to a larger vision and to move on.

And that’s, it seems, what Jacob did. He struggled with something, and we believe that that mysterious man could have been God. It says he named the place “Peniel,” that it was the face of God that he saw, and Jacob passed through that transitional moment in his life when he became something other.

Now, all of us are always passing through transitional moments. Some of them are driven by our body changing from childhood to adulthood, to older adulthood, and so we’re pushed forward. We know we have to face the significant transformations in our own life, as we try to redefine our relationship to ourselves and to our siblings and to our parents and to our school.

And then there are other transitions that are external to us. They’re the graduations and the accomplishments and all those times in our lives that mark that we have entered a different stage. But then there are those transitions over which we have total control. The one for instance in which Jacob participated.

You see, the fact is, he didn’t need to cross over that river. At least, metaphorically. He may have had to pass over it to meet Esau, but metaphorically, he could have just stayed who he was: deceitful, selfish, deceptive, unjust. But he had come to understand what he had lost, not the least of which was a relationship with his brother. And he knew as he came toward his brother that something had to change within him in order to make things right with his brother.

So that’s the story that the Torah tells. But now let me share my understanding of the story that the Torah doesn’t tell.

And that’s about Esau. Because remember that Esau, too, had to pass over that river, that river Yabok to get to the place where he was going to meet Jacob. And we see as those two brothers approach each other, Jacob was filled with the fear of how Esau was going to react upon seeing him. So afraid was he that he sent his wives and his children and his possessions on forward in order to somehow ease Esau into the meeting with his brother Jacob.

But what do we find? We find that as soon as Esau lays eyes upon Jacob, there is not a whit of anger, not an expression of vengeance, no sense of upset. The text simply says,  “They threw each other upon the other’s shoulders and wept.” And one would have to imagine that Esau went through a transition, too. He was able to accept the changes in Jacob just as Jacob had to understand that his brother had changed as well.

We have control over transitions in our lives, making ourselves different. Crossing the river, becoming, we hope, kinder or gentler or more loving or more patient. But it also has to be that the people around us have to change to accept those changes within us. For how often might one sibling change while the other is never able to let go of the grudge. How often might one fight happen in a marriage and one is able to say,  “I’m sorry; I did wrong,” and the other can never forget how hurt they were, bringing it up time after time, every time there is another struggle.

So it isn’t that we can unilaterally change and expect that the world is just going to accept us as we are. What we do is hope that others have changed enough to allow us back into their lives in order to start again.

And for me, Esau is a hero in this story. Esau, the man who too often is vilified, is the one who came to understand enough about himself to let the younger brother who had created such injustice, who had stolen so much from him, to let that brother into his life with such tenderness, such openness, such graciousness, and such love that they could lean their heads on each other’s shoulders and cry.

Realizing what both had lost in the twenty years that had passed and insome way vowing that now they’re lives, at least in terms of each other, would be different.

I understand—we all do—how difficult it is for us to confront our own shortcomings and to somehow recreate ourselves. But what we probably even understand more is how resistant we are to allowing the people who have hurt us, who have crossed us, who have been mean to us, how difficult it is for us to let them back in. No matter how they would express their apologies. No matter how they and we would want it different. It is that way with people, it is that way with nations, it is that way with religious faiths.

And yet, if we expect to have peace at all in this world, whether it is with our own families, with our own friends, with the people who pass through the constellation of our lives, it is going to have to be that we are willing to accept the possibility of regret and change in those we once counted as enemies.

Laila, what I know about you is that you in some way are an embodiment of both chapters in this story. You are the one who will continuously recreate yourself, setting goals for yourself, understanding what shortcomings might be and trying with great strength to transform. But I also believe you are the embodiment of Esau who Jacob then says “kirot penei e-lohim,” that in his brother he saw the face of God. You are also that person that I believe would extend an extra measure to allow people to back into your life. And you above all would be sincere enough, adult enough, and wise enough to believe that people can change.

So in some way this story is about you. In some way, in some miraculous way, perhaps destined from the beginning that you would read it. And you have models in your life, the people who do that, who extend themselves. I for one, who know your brother so well, know him as somebody who has become an extraordinary young man, and who has embued his presence and his life with great strength and temerity and goodness. And we who are around him just love who he is and what he’s becoming.

But it is now the measure of you. We sat here from the beginning to the end loving you even though we may not have known you. And that’s what you do. You just bring us in magnetically into your life. And we are just so extraordinarily joyful to be showered by your smile. To hear your voice, and to see your energy, your strength, and your kindness. And those are gifts from God you cannot take for granted.

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