Parshat Vayishlach by Shira Billet
Guilt is one of the most difficult emotions to face. Sometimes when we feel guilt toward another person, instead of confronting that guilt, we unconsciously demonize the other, thereby denying our responsibility toward that person. In this week’s parasha, two brothers meet after years of latent guilt building up. In the parasha we read two weeks ago, Toldot, Jacob deceived both his father Isaac and his brother Esau in order to receive the blessing that Isaac had intended for Esau. A devastated Esau wanted to kill his brother as an act of revenge. Jacob was informed of this intention and escaped from the land of Israel to the land of Haran, where he remained for over two decades and fathered eleven children. In our parasha, Jacob is finally en route to the land of his youth, ready to return after so many years. On the way, he finds out that his brother Esau is coming to greet him.
Jacob is terrified – and immediately assumes that Esau’s plan is to wage war against him and to kill him and his family. Jacob strategically plans for this possibility, splitting up his camp and sending the women and children in a separate group for their protection. When the brothers actually do come face to face, Esau runs to greet Jacob, hugs and kisses him, and cries. It seems that Jacob has completely misjudged his brother’s intentions. It seems that Esau has long forgotten Jacob’s childhood deception and his own desire to take revenge. It seems Esau has long ago grown up and – guilt free – is not plagued by the past. Jacob, on the other hand, could not forget the past, but he reconstructed the past in a way that demonized his brother. He assumed that his brother would be so barbarous as to kill women and children over a childhood blessing. Rather than recall the past in such a way that would highlight his own guilt, and lead to apologies and remorse, Jacob imagines his brother as a terrifying and unknowable other who can only be avoided or appeased.
How many times do we engage in a similar fallacy in our own lives? As privileged young people blessed with the greatest opportunities of American society, we often forget the many inequalities in our society that we unconsciously help perpetuate by not working to change the social structures that create these inequalities. Instead of viewing those we should help as brothers and sisters, we often re-imagine them as unknowable others who cannot be helped, or whose positions in society are their own faults. We forget the role we play in our own society. But if we probe closer, we may just find that the many people who seem so different from us are really our twin brother or sister. Let us learn the lesson Jacob learns in this week’s parasha, when he confronts the reality of his brother – and thereby himself – for the first time.