Parashat Vayishlah

The Path to Reconciliation

How do you keep the past alive without becoming its prisoner?

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Provided by American Jewish World Service, pursuing global justice through grassroots change.

In Parashat Vayishlah, Jacob makes plans to return to the land he had fled 20 years before. Assuming that his twin brother Esau still wants revenge for being defrauded of their father's blessing, Jacob devises several contingency plans. Yet, when the two brothers finally meet, Esau runs to embrace him.  Jacob declares, "When I see your face, it is like seeing the face of God (Genesis 33:10)." 

american jewish world serviceMany medieval commentators hold Jacob blameless in the betrayal of Esau and explain his use of obsequious language and flattery during their reunion as a clever ploy to protect his family rather than an acknowledgment of wrongdoing. Some contemporary readers see the story as one of genuine forgiveness. Jacob wrestles with an angel--that is, his conscience--and is changed. Esau finds it in himself to respond to his brother with love.

Regardless of the interpretation we ascribe to this event, however, the brothers do not live together happily ever after. Almost immediately after their reunion, they separate again--Esau goes to Seir, Jacob heads to Sukkot. They come together only once more, to bury their father Isaac. This is not a true reconciliation, but rather an uneasy détente like that between the former Soviet Union and the United States in the final years of the Cold War. For two countries separated by oceans, like the two brothers divided by long distances, this may have been the most reasonable first step.

What Could Have Been

In today's world, however, most significant conflicts happen within countries--for all parties, there is no option to "go their separate ways." Even in the case of atrocity crimes, survivors must inhabit the same land as those who have perpetrated horrific violence against them. In many of these cases, however, victims and perpetrators are seeking ways to transcend cycles of violence and to achieve reconciliation.

Since 1973, more than 20 reconciliation commissions have been established in countries across the world--from Argentina to Zimbabwe, from Rwanda to Sierra Leone. Not surprisingly, after a conflict ends, each side has its own version of "what really happened." By providing a forum for survivors and perpetrators to tell, record, and acknowledge their stories, these commissions can provide the means for people to move toward sustainable relationships. 

shaking handsIf only this had happened with Jacob and Esau. If only we heard from Esau, "You betrayed me and robbed me of my future. Despite that, I promise not to take revenge." And from Jacob, "What I did was wrong. I promise not to do it again." Then, possibly, the emotional moment of reunion could have pointed the way to a true reconciliation. Instead, Esau's descendants became the people of Edom who aided in the slaughter of Jews when Nebuchadnezzar plundered Jerusalem (Obadiah 1:11-14). Détente was not enough.

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Carol Towarnicky

Carol Towarnicky is a freelance writer in Philadelphia.