Sunday, December 2, 2012

Reconcilation is Rarely Magical, Shabbat Vayishlach, 12/1/2012

My girls, my mother, and I spent Thanksgiving w/ Mickey, Minnie, Prince Charming and princesses galore.  It was lovely, and I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to be away for the holiday and for the time we had to spend together.  Indeed, Disneyworld is the home of everything magical.  It is, I believe, the only place where the greeting: “have a magical day” doesn’t come across overly saccharine or insincere.  My daughters’ orthodontist office tries to pull off the same cheeriness, “It’s a great day at …” greets every single caller, every single day, every single hour.  It’s a lovely attempt at spreading cheer and optimism, but really – is every day so great?  We forget that Disney’s great success grows out of being expert at fostering the imagination and bringing the make-believe to life.  There is always a challenge in all things Disney, but there is also always a happy ending, a happy ending that contains a useful life lesson tidily wrapped up within a beautifully presented package. 

Outside of the Magic Kingdom, however, reality more often looks like the mess of our biblical narrative: life is filled with wrestlings, misunderstandings, difficult journeys, and, of course, family conflict.  Sometimes these challenges resolve into a magical Kodak moment.  More often than not, they are resolved in less than fully satisfactory ways, but in ways – if we are lucky - through which can move forward in our lives with more compassion and wisdom than perhaps was had before the conflict.

Jacob and Esau’s reconciliation in Parashat Vayishlach, from which Harry will read and about which he will share some thoughts in a moment, reflects an honest portrayal of conflict resolution that can serve us well.  Jacob approaches this meeting with his brother with fear and anxiety, and with good reason.  We don’t have to reach too far back into our memory in order to recall the earlier story of Jacob agreeing to a plan of trickery and the ultimate stealing of Esau’s birthright.  The first impulse, thus, might be to imagine Jacob as simply fearful for his own survival.  He expects his brother to be ready to exact revenge.  Who wouldn’t? Vengeance is a common if not base human desire.  Our imaginative rabbinic tradition reminds us, however, of the complexity of human emotion.   Our fears aren’t always so easy to parse out.   The medieval compilation Midrash Rabbah reads, “He was afraid lest he be killed, he was distressed lest he should kill.”   Jacob’s great trepidation is not solely about his own physical survival; rather, it is a muddled mix of fear about what may happen to him and anxiety over what he may do to his brother in the midst of conflict.  Conflict is distasteful and challenging even to those who hold the most power.  Conflict should cause distress; it should force us to consider what we are capable of doing to the other.

Creating peace out of conflict is no easy task, and the Rabbis of the Rabbinic and early medieval periods aren’t so eager to portray Jacob and Esau’s resolution as entirely peaceful.  They imagine judgment and conflict still seething just below the surface of the brothers’ exchange. They seem to understand that a “happily ever after” Disney-esque reunion is too unrealistic for this encounter.  And, as we will read/see in a moment, the dots above each letter of the Hebrew word  וישקהו,  found in the biblical text itself, in the ancient Hebrew, may indicate that although he ends the scene with a weepy embrace, the biblical writer too hesitated in ending the story so sweetly.  It is as if he was punching out each syllable with those dots to remind us that it isn’t so easy to overcome long-standing rivalry.

There is one clue, however, that offers evidence of the potential for true reconciliation between these estranged brothers.    Soon after their emotional embrace, Jacob remarks to Esau,  
 אלהים פני כראת ראיתי פניךseeing your face is like seeing the face of God.”  Despite the rivalry that went down between them, Jacob is able to see the divine in his brother.  Having just experienced an epiphany of God in last week’s Torah portion, we expect that Jacob knows what he is talking about.  His experience of his brother is as valuable as was his experience of God. 
We are never told if Esau returns the sentiment, for the biblical narrative is focused on Jacob.  But, it seems to me, that one lesson that can be drawn from this remarkable verse, and its placement, is that true reconciliation can only transpire between those who are willing to see the potential for godliness in each other.  Perhaps if we can do that, we may also find the best of our humanity within ourselves and others.
Ken y'hi ratzon!