Let me tell you a story.
This story is about a boy who never fought an honest fight in his life.
Whatever he wanted he stole with lies and deceit.
While growing up he played spiteful tricks on his siblings.
Eventually he even stole from his parents.
Despairing of controlling him, his parents threw him out of the house.
Homeless, he wandered northwards across the hills and valleys.
He was exposed to the cold, fending for himself, rejected even by his parents.
After some time, he found a relative who was willing to take him in.
Yet, underneath his warm facade, this man was almost as cruel as he was.
Over the years that followed they did not fight openly – neither one liked open hostility – but each tried to deceive the other with subtle traps and scams.
Our homeless boy never fought an honest fight in his life, but over the years of conflict he became a man and made enough from his schemes to get out of his master’s house.
One early morning, the master away on business, he ran.
He made off with two of his master’s daughters.
He made off with his master’s most cherished religious possessions.
Let’s take a step back. Most of you will have realized by now that the story I have just told is the story of Jacob. It’s the story of who he was and how he came towards his fateful meeting with Esau. By having looked at the story through Jacob’s flaws we can throw new light on the story.
Jacob has been mulling over his past actions for many years – thinking about everything he had done to Esau and his parents. He had been rerunning the VHS tape of what he had done, over and over again. The guilt of the past stewed in him for year upon year.
Jacob had always seen himself as intellectually superior but physically inferior to Esau, never facing him directly but sniping at him from the shadows. Throughout his life he had run from conflict. Now he is walking straight into a confrontation with a man who has every reason to kill him.
Jacob’s terror is palpable. Intellectually he tries to devise every stratagem he can that will save him and his family. He sends wave after wave of gifts to Esau to try to placate him. He divides his camp so as to ease escape. He prays with all his heart.
Clearly he is terrified but has he changed? Does he want to apologize? Is he truly a different person?
Jacob can choose to see himself as the victim: disowned by his parents, cheated by Laban, attacked by his brother. The world is out to “get him” and he is the center of his own universe
That night alone on the bank of the Yabok river, Jacob struggles with a mysterious “man” until dawn. This man represents Jacob himself. Who will he be: a victim or a brother? In the last moments of the fight, the mysterious figure gives Jacob a new name. This name says something different. Instead of “Jacob” = con-man/ankle, “Israel” – struggling and becoming better as a result. That is the moment when he changes.
Jacob finally realizes he has been living a life paralyzed by fear, blaming his own errors on others, never taking responsibility for his actions. He finally understand that the only way things will get better is if he decides to take ownership of his life.
We can see now how Jacob’s fear had paralyzed him. He was so caught up in the VHS tape of the past that he could not see the present. He drew on his worst fears, his guilt, his shame, and rolled them in his mind again and again, as if Esau would not also have changed in the decades passed.
While Jacob had lived in his own bubble, caught up in his own drama as if it were on everyone’s mind, Esau had been living his life, going out into the world and moving beyond his childhood struggles. As the story concludes we realize that Jacob’s fear was all in his head, that his fear had created a fictional adult Esau with the maturity and temper of the child Jacob had known.
The reunion of Jacob and Esau teaches us that emotions like anger and fear can completely take hold of us.
These emotions can be used by political campaigners and others to manipulate us and win voters. They can be used by abusive spouses to silence and subdue their partners.
We cannot always control the events in our lives but we can control our response to those events. Ultimately it is our responsibility to take charge of our inner-selves and decide how we should respond, how we should react, how we should move forward.
Rabbi Marc Kraus 11/16/2013