Heroism and its reward take many forms. A war hero or one who saves others from disaster often receives recognition for courageous deeds; other heroic acts gain little notice or praise. The individual who helps an unemployed worker find a job to become self-supporting, the teacher who encourages a failing student to pursue his studies and avoid a lifetime of illiteracy, an individual who gives beyond his means for the greater good of his community — all of these people are different kinds of heroes.
Vayishlah, this week's Torah portion, describes a particular type of heroism extolled by generations of rabbis. In this text, Jacob, haunted by a lifetime of regrets, remembered how he betrayed his father, conspired and cooperated with his mother to deceive Isaac and defraud Esau and then spent years running from his brother's anger and vengeance. Nevertheless, his lifetime of guilt, regret and fleeing ends with a heroic act that most people would be wise to emulate.
Like Jacob, most people experience regrets of one kind or another. Most bear the pain of guilt for words spoken in haste or for those they wish they had spoken. All the many "could-have-beens," the "should-have-beens" and the "only-ifs" plague our existence.
In Sholom Aleichem's story "The Knife," a child steals a pocketknife. That theft thenceforth dominates the character's thoughts and actions. There is no escape from his guilt, no way for this child to obliterate the memory of his crime.
Like that child, many individuals feel possessed by some unhappy bygone event that proves unrelenting in its power to encroach on all other aspects of life.
Jacob's mind was constantly invaded by the memories of his misdeeds, in spite of years spent trying to suppress and forget them. These painful remembrances were particularly oppressive when Jacob heard that his brother Esau and his company of men were traveling toward him: "We came to your brother Esau; he himself is coming to meet you, and there are four hundred men with him. Jacob was greatly frightened" (Genesis 32:7-8).
Finally, Jacob would have to face both Esau and himself.
But Jacob panicked. He sent servants ahead with rich gifts to appease Esau. He divided his camp into two halves so that, at the very least, half of his community could escape if Esau attacked the other. Then he waited.
During that night's sleep beside the Jabbok River, Jacob became as restless as the water. Rest eluded him; the night wore on and played its tricks. Whatever sleep he managed was fitful. In the churning, windblown waters of the Jabbok, Jacob saw Esau's face. In the ripples he spied the shriveled appearance of his father, Isaac, dancing across the currents. He heard their voices in the cascades. In the chill of the night there were no grand visions of a ladder reaching toward heaven with ascending and descending angels, a previous vision that foretold a glorious future.
As Jacob struggled with himself, he became agitated, as if he were locked in battle with an alien creature. Jacob's body convulsed; he wept as he struggled. Jacob was ashamed of his past and afraid to meet the future; he wanted to run away once again. But Jacob knew he needed to stand his ground at last, to become someone different than the coward he'd always thought himself.
By daybreak, Jacob felt transformed. He had made peace with his past and would now refer to himself not as Jacob, from the Hebrew word meaning "heel," but as Israel, a name meaning "he struggled with God and prevailed." A calm overtook Jacob and he slept deeply until the bright sun was directly overhead. He had not slept so soundly since he was a boy.
Jacob arose and was ready to meet Esau face to face. Now he hoped to change the destiny of their relationship, which had gotten off to such a poor beginning. He ran toward Esau and the brothers embraced. With tears streaming down his face, he whispered into Esau's ear: "To see your face is like seeing the face of God" (Genesis 33:10).
As the brothers journeyed on together, reminiscing, Jacob noticed that he now walked with a limp, an injury he had sustained during that fitful night by the water.
"It is not the limp of a battle wound," he told himself. "It is a reminder of my struggle to overcome my past."
When considering these two brothers' troubled history and years of regret and longing, what kind of heroism does this story in Vayishlah teach us? It is written in Avot d' Rabbi Natan (Chapter 23), "Ayze hu gibor? Ha'oseh soneh oh ohavo," which means: Who is the true hero? The one who turns an enemy into a friend.