My local library in downtown Walnut Creek held a book sale, which I was actively looking forward to. The first box I came across was labeled “Coffee Table Books,” and among the large, glossy selection was one titled “Sisters.” It featured photographs and interviews with an array of women about their sibling relationships.
The portraits ranged from little girls to old women, and the feelings had a range even wider. There were stories of love and alienation, closeness and distance. I flipped to the beginning pages and saw an inscription there: “Don’t give up the struggle.” I’ll never know who was on the writing or receiving end of that sentiment, but it still hit home, a reminder that many of us have struggled in our relationships with our siblings.
As Jews, we do not have to look far to find models of family conflict. Our origin narratives in the Book of Genesis are filled with them, from the death of Abel at the hands of his brother Cain, to Hagar the maidservant’s mistreatment and exile, to Jacob’s trickery and his brother Esau’s rage. But now, in Vayishlach, we are finally treated to a story of family conflict resolution.
This week’s portion tells the story of the reconciliation of two feuding brothers. We find Jacob about to fulfill God’s direction: “Return to your native land and I will deal bountifully with you.” In spite of this divine assurance, Jacob is filled with trepidation as he anticipates his reunion with Esau. He even sends a message ahead to Esau’s camp expressing his wish to find favor in his eyes. Jacob’s messengers return with the news that Esau, too, is anticipating their reunion, fortified by 400 men.
Naturally, Jacob is distraught. The biblical commentator Rashi explains that the two words used to describe his reaction, vayirah and vayetzer, fear and distress, signify that he was frightened of being killed, and distressed that he might harm his brother in self-defense. The unspoken truth behind Jacob’s words ring clear: I don’t want to be hurt by my brother, nor do I wish to hurt him — let this cycle of pain and misunderstanding end here, with me.
He spent the night before their encounter alone, and wrestled with an unnamed being until dawn. Some of our commentators call this man an angel sent by God to encourage Jacob. If he could prevail in this struggle, surely he could muster the confidence to face his estranged brother. Even as Jacob wrenched his hip while they wrestled, he refused to let the being go until receiving a blessing from the mysterious figure. And so he is blessed with a new name: Yisrael — “For you have struggled with beings divine and human… and have prevailed.”
But another commentator, Nehama Leibowitz, brings a very different interpretation. She claims that the being with whom Jacob wrestled through the night was none other than Jacob himself. Perhaps he was facing a younger version of himself, acknowledging his role in a conflict that created years of misunderstanding and silence. Leibowitz’s interpretation also reminds us that working to make something better of our lives and our relationships is a lifelong process for us all.
When the two brothers met the next day, Esau ran to greet Jacob. They embraced, and they wept. Jacob’s struggle with the Divine and with himself was transformative, giving him the strength to transform a broken relationship.
Stories don’t have endings, especially when it comes to families. Even people who have lost a sibling say they still find themselves in conversations with their brother or sister, sometimes decades later. Family is our first touchstone for our imperfections, our blessings, our wounds. So we struggle, and we love. And if we are brave, we will, like Jacob, come to know sparks of the Divine in the world within and beyond our families.
Seen in this light, the story of Jacob and Esau just may be a Divine inscription to us: Don’t give up the struggle.
Rabbi Rebecca Gutterman is the spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Tikvah in Walnut Creek. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.