Vayishlach 5782 – Reconciliation

By: Dr. Bill Sutker

The story of Jacob and Esau represents an important lesson about reconciliation. As you will recall, their animosity for each other began because Jacob stole Esau’s birthright and his father’s blessing.  After this, Jacob ends up running away from home so that Esau would not kill him. Twenty years later, God tells Jacob to return to his homeland. He learned that Esau lived in the region of Seir. Jacob still felt threatened by his brother, so he decided to send out scouts to assess the reunion. Jacob’s scouts came back and said that Esau was coming to meet Jacob with 400 men– a contingent so large it suggested to Jacob that Esau was intent on violence.  As a result, Jacob develops his own defense strategy.  Jacob makes three forms of preparation for his meeting with Esau: He sent Esau a huge gift of cattle and flocks, hoping thereby to appease him. He prayed to God, saying, ” Rescue me, I pray, from the hand of my brother.” And he made preparation for a possible war by dividing his household into two camps so that one at least would survive if he were attacked.

But there was no confrontation.  The brothers embraced each other.  After years of contention, Jacob and Esau seem to have reconciled. However, that relationship is somewhat awkward, and they will never be the closest brothers. Still, for the first time each can accept the other as he is; each can see the other’s wealth without coveting it.  What has changed? How can two people who tricked and threatened to kill each other embrace? During their boyhood, Esau and Jacob were in fierce competition. Each was loved by one parent but felt the other was the favored child. Each wanted what the other had. They were children competing for their parent’s attention and gifts. Each was too needy to acknowledge the other’s needs.  When they are reunited, Esau and Jacob have overcome their jealousy. Each of the brothers is now able to recognize how much he has. Each is secure in himself; they have no need to envy each other.

Regardless of the interpretation we ascribe to this reconciliation, however, the brothers do not live together happily ever after. When the brothers meet, Jacob was surprised that Esau ran to meet him and embraced him, but Jacob realizes that the day has not yet come in which the sons of Isaac can live together in harmony. Almost immediately after their reunion, they separate again – Esau goes to Seir and Jacob heads to Sukkot.

I read an article about what is termed the conflict spiral: first, we experience turmoil in our hearts because we don’t get what we want. Next, individuals are harmed because we take it out on others. Then families are affected because they are closest to us. Next, social circles are impacted because we live social lives.

What we see in the life of Jacob and Esau is a microcosm of all sorts of conflict that spiraled out of control. When we read their story, we might see some of ourselves or people we know in the narrative.

There are Jewish families whose members are in exile, families whose members do not speak with each other. There are parents who do not speak to their children and children who do not speak to their parents. There are siblings who do not speak to each other. There are longtime friends who are estranged from each other.  When someone asks what origin of the anger was, it may be discovered that no one remembers what caused the impasse. No one knows how it began, but the deadlock continues without end. Who is right? Who is wrong?

Relationships, whether platonic, familial, or romantic, can be challenging. People often get hurt, and it takes time and effort to rebuild. If both people are committed, reconciliation is possible. You can go through this process and maintain your dignity if you approach it in the right way.

How do we begin the reconciliation process?  First, reconciliation requires faith and trust in oneself.  Also, each person must fully believe that they are ready to meet with the other person. If there is an absence of this faith and trust, the meeting will be unsuccessful and possibly result in more harm. Reconciliation with others will likely be difficult emotionally, mentally, or even physically. However, despite these difficulties, the process of reconciliation can result in great reward once it is accomplished; that reward being a sense of inner peace when the person who has been wronged is able to forgive the wrongdoer.

To prepare to reconcile, recognize that it is different than forgiveness. People often confuse forgiveness and reconciliation. Forgiveness is something that requires one person, but reconciliation requires two people. If someone is unwilling to reconcile, you cannot do it alone. First, set realistic expectations. Because reconciliation is a process, do not expect things to go back to normal after one conversation. Focus on small victories along the way. Second, set aside your ego. Reconciliation requires honesty. Whether you were the offender or the offended, prepare to hear things about yourself that you may not like. Be willing to admit that you were wrong, that you were hurt, and to see things from the other person’s perspective. Third, evaluate the broken relationship. Imagine how the other person feels.

Seize the sanctity of this moment. Break the impasse. Break down the anger. Breakthrough the stubbornness. Overcome the ugliness of past history. Open your heart, open your mouth. Initiate the first call. Breakdown the wall of silence.

Do not get discouraged if things do not go as you plan. The amount of time it takes to reconcile will depend on the specific circumstances of the relationship and the personal traits and the people involved. Every relationship will be different.

Remember, to forgive is not to forget.  To forgive is to be liberated from the inner anger, from the quest for vengeance that consumes your life and embitters the life of your family and friends. No one expects you to forget. No one believes that forgiveness eliminates the memory of the pain and anguish of the injury. Forgiving does not reverse the past, but it promises a new and different outcome. When you forgive, when you seek reconciliation, things may never be as they were before the injury. But you can establish a new relationship, a speaking civil relationship.

So, let me ask you: how are you doing in your heart? With whom do you need to be reconciled? Who have you injured? Does anyone have a grievance against you? What reconciliation with people do you need today?

Perhaps there is a more powerful lesson to the learned from the surprise outcome of this story.  The message for all of us is that we must not let our past determine our future. We must not assume we know how things will work out. We must take control, and truly believe that God has entrusted us with freedom of choice. We may not always succeed, but we must not allow past failures to determine our future. Sometimes, despite all the evidence to the contrary, things work out. Just ask Jacob.