Vayishlach: Turning to the Truth
In the portion of Vayishlach, we are given a model for how to handle confrontation, a lesson that’s very relevant to our modern times. Because conflict often necessitates discomfort, it seems we will do anything to escape it. Haven’t you noticed? Many people these days live almost exclusively to avoid confrontation, thereby ensuring that they also live with resentment and fear. Deep down we know that this is not an honest way to live. The truth is that the more you attempt to ignore that which troubles you, the more it will continue to torment you. Action is needed.
Jacob understood this, which is why in this portion he took the risky decision to contact his brother Esav. From our perspective, this decision is baffling. We know that Esav wanted to kill Jacob. At that point, they hadn’t spoken for years. So why on earth would Jacob invite such negativity into his life? The answer is simple: the negativity was always there. Jacob simply decided to face it. We must learn to do the same.
When the decision was taken, Jacob and Esav’s father was still alive. Jacob knew that it was best to confront their animosity before he passed away. This is why he brought his brother back into his life, and he did so by sending an angel as a messenger. This angel told Esav all about Jacob’s situation: for example, that he spent many years with Lavan, and that he currently enjoyed incredible riches. Lavan was notorious for his association with evil — he was the grandfather of the worst person on the planet, a dangerous man who could kill someone just by thinking of them — so this information was obviously carefully selected. The idea was to intimidate Esav.
To an extent, it worked. Hearing this news made Esav doubt himself and begin to fear his brother. It put the brothers on even ground since Jacob, naturally, was very scared of Esav. He took this action before they met to ensure that Esav felt a similar fear for him. Soon Jacob was informed that his brother was on his way — a terrifying prospect only made worse by the fact that he was bringing 400 people with him. Quickly, Jacob divided his camp. His logic was that if one camp was taken out by Esav’s men, at least the other would survive.
Then he proceeded to meditate and pray. He begged G-d to protect him, he showed humility, and he thanked Him for His gifts. At a time when many would be preparing weapons, he withdrew to find strength in the Divine. Even more unexpectedly, when Esav arrived, Jacob bowed to him seven times over. He even hugged and kissed him. Can you imagine this? Such a great display of respect and affection for your would-be killer? Hugging and kissing your worst enemy? It’s an unthinkable image. However, unthinkable as it may be for us, it was also the best thing Jacob could have done. His first impulse was to bite his brother, but these acts of love immediately unlocked love in Esav.
Jacob had faced conflict in the best possible way. First of all, he had ensured good timing, meeting while their father was still alive. He had kept the meeting on equal ground by managing the power dynamics of his fear. Then, at the moment of confrontation, he had shown love and respect towards his enemy, therefore disarming him. We can contrast this approach with the errors of his sons, Simon and Levi. When their sister (Jacob’s daughter) was raped in the city, they immediately sought violent revenge. Their cruel retribution brought all the world to fight with Jacob. We see here why Jacob rejected their actions entirely — this was not his way of managing confrontation!
Our situation is thankfully different from Jacob’s: we do not face a killer on the road. However, we can also be hunted down by our demons. Will we run? Or will we look them in the eye? Can we even bow to them, hug them, and kiss them? Many messages in society validate escaping from these difficult encounters, but that is a path that leads to nowhere. In order to live an authentic life with the authentic relationships that our souls deeply crave, we must have the courage to have confrontations. This means more than confronting the enemy; it means confronting ourselves.
Consider Jacob’s display of love for Esav. We too should learn to respect our enemy. Why? Because they are mere messengers. They have a clear and important role: to deliver us the lessons we need to hear. They aren’t the source of our problems, which actually exist within ourselves. Why be angry at the man who humiliates you when you know your own actions are the real root of your shame? From this perspective, the people that we meet are not the causes of our despair. They are simply reflections of our own shortcomings. They show us what we have to work on. They are to be welcomed, not ignored.
Accepting our culpability and complicity may seem unappealing. However, it can be very liberating when it’s fully understood. Think about it: once we appreciate that our problems come from within, we discover that the solutions lie there too. We can help ourselves! We have agency! Someone who points fingers and blames others for what goes wrong ends up depending on their enemy to repair it. That’s completely disempowering. It’s the result of a victim mentality, and this mentality will always block us from realizing our potential.
Esav had a victim mentality. Jacob did not. He could have lived with his head in the sand, as though the threat of his brother did not exist. Instead, he chose the right moment and faced it head-on. He understood that whatever he hid from was destined to find him. His example invites tough questions for us as spiritual people: what our enemies are trying to show us about ourselves? Are we ready to stop blaming them and instead even embrace them? Are we ready to stop running from the truth about ourselves? This is the deep reflection that this portion of Vayishlach encourages.