This week’s portion begins with an ominous pronouncement: “Jacob sent messengers ahead to his brother Esau in the land of Seir, the country of Edom.” Jacob is traveling with his family, servants, cattle, and belongings, and he has realized that he may just run into his long-lost twin—the same guy he tricked out of a whole lot of inheritance and honor a few decades back.
You may recall that Esau wasn’t exactly thrilled with his younger twin the last time they’d seen one another. Actually, Jacob was fleeing for his life, taking his birthright and the shirt on his back across the desert and hoping for the best.
Of course, a lot has changed in the years since they’ve seen one another. These decades have been formative, to say the least. Jacob was a singleton when his brother last laid eyes on him; now, he has four wives and 11 children. He is at least prosperous enough to send messengers to greet his brother. Esau, for his part, also has multiple wives and scores of children; he’s done well for himself in the intervening time.
And that’s just the physicality of it. How have they grown and changed, as they shift into adulthood? In modern parlance, Jacob is doing a lot more adulting these days. We know that he had to stand up to his father-in-law multiple times in the past years. He had to build his own flock, take charge of his camp, navigate a thorny situation between his sister-wives. Each of these events has its own impact on how Jacob thinks about the world.
We don’t know much about the circumstances of Esau’s life during the past 30 years or so, but it’s safe to assume that he’s done a lot of growing up, too. Who remains the same at 50 as they were at 20?
These two brothers are not the same. But the sepia-toned memory they have of one another lives on in their minds: They are afraid to meet. Jacob is especially terrified.
We know Jacob is afraid because the text says so: “Jacob was greatly frightened; in his anxiety, he divided the people with him, and the flocks and herds and camels, into two camps thinking, “If Esau comes to the one camp and attacks it, the other camp may yet escape.’” says Genesis 32:8-9
Anxiety can make you do some crazy things. In Jacob’s case, he splits his camp up (as mentioned above), and then goes about praying to God for mercy. After that, he chooses 440 sheep and goats, 30 camels, 50 heads of cattle, and 30 donkeys as a housewarming gift to his brother.
I usually get a nice house plant or a Seamless gift card when I see someone for the first time in a while, but sure, a veritable ranch of wildlife is fine, too.
Once the servants have been sent forth with this guilt-ridden offering, Jacob spends the night alone in the wilderness. As we know by now, when people spend a night alone in the desert in the book of Genesis, they’re probably going to have some sort of revelation and this parsha does not disappoint. Our hero wrestles all night long with an unknown being, is injured, but triumphs. For this, he receives a new name, Israel, “for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.”
This passage is the reason why we are known as the People of Israel, or Israelites. It’s the namesake of the State of Israel. It is, as my mother loves to tell me, why we Jews should always question our faith, never take things at face value.
It has also been interpreted a bazillion ways. Rashi suggests that this mystery man is Esau’s guardian angel. Nechama Leibowitz has likened the night in this passage to the diaspora, and the rising dawn to a return to the promised land. I’ve heard it suggested that this may be one example of an obscured homosexual encounter in the Bible, similar to the love between David and Jonathan in the book of Kings.
I’d like to offer another interpretation, for which I’ll finally get to the parenting part of this essay.
In a little over four weeks, I’ll be heading to Israel for the first time since July of 2020. My little family and I had been back home for five months at that time, after our flight back to New York got canceled in March of the same year. When we hugged our parents goodbye at Ben-Gurion International Airport, we imagined we’d be back soon, that the pandemic would end sometime.
Not so much. We haven’t been back in 18 months. In baby years, that’s ages. In pandemic years, that’s almost as long as Jacob and Esau were apart.
We’ve gone through so much during these months. We came to Brooklyn unemployed, unsure if we’d be leaving our apartment at the end of the lease. My baby couldn’t talk yet. Now, we’re both fully-ish freelancing (it’s always an ish situation when you’re self-employed), we just signed another two-year lease, and yesterday my kiddo belted out ‘Love Me Do,’ as he rode his scooter down the sidewalk.
I’m nervous about seeing everyone again. Not send-440-sheep-and-goats-nervous, but still a little apprehensive. It’s been hard to stay in touch and be apprised of all the happenings. Cousins have gotten married, had babies, moved. Three of my closest friends moved to new homes I’ve never seen.
Are we the same people? How will I be around them? How will my little one be around these people, who both know me better than anyone and can feel so far away?
I, like Jacob, have been having some nights full of wrestling. By which I mean anxiety dreams.
I’m searching for something I can’t find in one, then I’m trying to put together a puzzle I can’t solve in another, then I’m navigating my way out of a thicket in another. I wake up, heart pounding, exhausted. It’s not great.
I like to think that Jacob was a neurotic Jew like myself, riddled with anxiety at the prospect of seeing someone who he loves, and misses, and feels miles away from. This makes me hopeful, because this portion ends so well.
In the end, of course, Esau welcomes his brother with open arms. Worst case scenario be damned, this big brother is just happy to be reunited with his sibling. “Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept,” reads Genesis 33:4.
The truth is that, when I see my family and friends, we’ll probably hug and cry, too. Because maybe it’s our birthright to be neurotic and anxious, but it’s in our blood to love each other no matter what as well.