Jacob finally heads back to Canaan at the opening of this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach (“And he sent”)—after living 20 years in the Aramean town of Charan, being cheated by his uncle and father-in-law Lavan. Jacob now has his own large family and plenty of wealth to make a fresh start. But one thing hangs over his head: when he fled Canaan 20 years before, his twin brother Esau was planning to murder him.
Esau was enraged because his brother had cheated him twice. First Jacob had traded Esau a bowl of stew for Esau’s larger inheritance as the firstborn. Then Jacob had disguised himself as Esau to steal their blind father Isaac’s blessing.
Jacob’s guilt over his own behavior and anxiety about Esau are still strong 20 years later. He knows that Esau has moved to Sei-ir and founded his own kingdom, Edom. What he does not know is whether Esau still wants to kill him.
The first thing Jacob does after he crosses the hills of Gilead east of the Jordan is to send messengers to his brother.
And he gave them orders, saying: “Thus you shall say: “To my lord, to Esau: Thus says your servant Jacob: I sojourned with Lavan, and I lingered until now. And it happened I acquired oxen and donkeys, flocks and male slaves and female slaves. And now I send ahead to tell my lord, to find chein in your eyes.” (Genesis/Bereishit 32:5-6)
chein (חֵן) = favor, approval.
Jacob words his message to his brother carefully. He addresses Esau as “my lord” instead of “my brother”; calls himself “your servant Jacob”; and mentions “finding favor in your eyes” as if Esau were his king.
The blessing that Isaac gave to Jacob instead of Esau included the words:
Be an overlord to your kinsmen, and may the sons of your mother bow down to you. (Genesis 27:29)
Now Jacob’s message intimates that the reverse of the blessing is true; Esau is Jacob’s overlord, and Jacob will bow down to him.
But Esau does not trust his brother’s words. (See my post Vayishlach: Message to a Brother, in which I speculate on how Esau might misinterpret Jacob’s message.)
And the messengers returned to Jacob, saying: “We came to your brother, to Esau, and he is actually going out to meet you, and 400 men are with him”. Jacob became very frightened … (Genesis 32:7-8)
Jacob concludes that Esau still carries a grudge from 20 years before. Why else would he head north with an of 400 men?
He reacts by dividing his family and possessions into two camps, so Esau’s men cannot wipe out everyone at once; by praying to God; and by sending several ridiculously large gifts of livestock ahead to Esau on the road. Jacob instructs the servant in charge of each drove of livestock that when he reaches Esau and his men, he should tell Esau the animals are a gift from Jacob. Again, he uses language that flips Isaac’s blessing.
And you shall say: From your servant, from Jacob, it is a minchah sent to my lord, to Esau; and hey!—he is also behind us. (Genesis 32:19)
minchah (מִנְחָה) = a gift of respect, thanks, homage, or allegiance; a tribute.
In the Bible, a person gives a minchah to a king or to God. Thus Jacob’s messages continue to emphasize that he is subservient to Esau—just as if Isaac had given the blessing to Esau after all, and it had taken effect.
For he said [to himself]: I will appease him with the minchah that is going before me, and after that I will see his face; perhaps he will pardon me. (Genesis 32:21)
Jacob then spends the night on the bank of the Yabok River, wrestling with a mysterious being and coming to terms with his own identity. (See my post Vayishlach: Blessing Yourself.) In the morning he crosses over and goes to meet Esau—still limping from his wrestling match.
… and he bowed down to the ground seven times until he drew up to his brother. (Genesis 33:3)
Bowing to the ground seven times was the correct procedure for approaching a Canaanite king in the second millennium B.C.E. By literally bowing down to his brother, Jacob is, in effect, transferring Isaac’s blessing to Esau.
And Esau’s hostility evaporates. He might question Jacob’s words; he might view the gifts of livestock with suspicion; but when he sees his brother limping toward him and bowing his gray head to the ground seven times, he realizes that his brother has changed. Jacob is not trying to cheat him again.
Then Esau ran to meet him, and he embraced him, and he fell on his neck, and he kissed him, and they wept. (Genesis 33:4)
Jacob introduces Esau to his family. Next Esau politely refuses to keep Jacob’s gift, and Jacob politely urges him to accept it, according to the usual social ritual. At first Jacob says: “If, please, I have found chein in your eyes, then take my minchah from my hand …“ (Genesis 33:10)
Esau still demurs, so Jacob urges him to accept the gift a second time, saying: “Take, please, birkhati that was brought to you, because God chanani and because I have everything.” And he urged him, and he took [it]. (Genesis 33:11)
birkhati (בִּרְכָתִי) = my blessing.
chanani (חַנַּנִי) = favored me. (From the same root as chein.)
The gift of livestock is so large it probably equals the inheritance of the firstborn that Jacob once traded him for. (The Torah does not say how much each brother actually inherits when Isaac dies later in the story, but both are already wealthy.) Jacob urges Esau to accept not only the equivalent of the inheritance, but also a blessing. Thus Jacob returns everything he cheated Esau to get.
Are the brothers reconciled? Not quite. Esau, no longer angry or anxious about Jacob, invites him to come home with him to Sei-ir. But Jacob refuses, on the pretext that the children and the nursing animals cannot travel fast enough. He falsely promises to catch up with Esau later. Then he heads in the other direction.
Jacob has made amends for his bad deeds, so his conscience is cleared. He no longer has a rational reason to believe Esau holds a grudge. Yet he still cannot get over his fear of Esau.
I think the reason is that Esau has not changed. Jacob has changed; he has faced who he is, and taken steps to right past wrongs. But Esau is essentially the same: impulsive, emotional, easy to persuade. At that moment, Esau loves him because he believes Jacob had become a good brother. But in the future, who knows what random act or remark might sway Esau’s heart?
I have similar problems in my own life. I can think of at least three people with whom I have reconciled—up to a point. I have thought of good reasons why they did not reciprocate my apologies, and I am careful to treat them with respect. Yet all three seem unpredictable to me, moved by mental complexes I do not understand. Like Jacob, I am still afraid of what they might do next.
Sometimes only a partial reconciliation is possible. Perhaps Jacob is wise to realize this, and to travel away from his brother Esau.
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