Union for Reform Judaism Member Congregation


Jacob has spent twenty years in Haran after escaping his brother Esau’s wrath. He now has two wives, two handmaidens, eleven sons (Benjamin, the 12th, was born later), one daughter, servants and possessions. But there is something that remains unsettled for him. It is the bad blood that exists between him and his brother Esau. He has not seen or spoken with Esau for all this time. Now, as he travels back toward Canaan with his wives and handmaidens and children, and all his possessions, he receives word that Esau has been spotted with an army of 400 men.
Jacob assumes that Esau is coming to kill him. He arrives at the River Jabbok, sends his family across to safety, and he remains alone there at night. Suddenly a “man” comes upon him and wrestles with him until dawn. But the “man” cries, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking!” Jacob replies, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” Said the other, “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.” Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed. . . .” (See Genesis 32.23-33)

Jacob was changed that night. Whether this “man” was an angel, or a demon, or simply his own conscience, is up for eternal debate. Whatever happened, Jacob was engaged in the most profound soul-searching moment of his life. He emerged a changed man. But perhaps an even more interesting chapter in this story is written in what was to come – the moment at which he actually meets his long lost brother, whom he expects will kill him on sight. But that is not what transpires.

Genesis 33:

1 Looking up, Jacob saw Esau coming, accompanied by four hundred men. He divided the children among Leah, Rachel, and the two maids, 2 putting the maids and their children first, Leah and her children next, and Rachel and Joseph last. 3 He himself went on ahead and bowed low to the ground seven times until he was near his brother. 4 Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept. 5 Looking about, he saw the women and the children. “Who,” he asked, “are these with you?” He answered, “The children with whom God has favored your servant.” 6 Then the maids, with their children, came forward and bowed low; 7 next Leah, with her children, came forward and bowed low; and last, Joseph and Rachel came forward and bowed low; 8 And he asked, “What do you mean by all this company which I have met?” He answered, “To gain my lord’s favor.” 9 Esau said, “I have enough, my brother; let what you have remain yours.” 10 But Jacob said, “No, I pray you; if you would do me this favor, accept from me this gift; for to see your face is like seeing the face of God, and you have received me favorably. 11 Please accept my present which has been brought to you, for God has favored me and I have plenty.” And when he urged him, he accepted.

Jacob expects to meet the wrath of his brother that he fled to Haran to escape all those years ago. Instead, his brother is overjoyed to see him, and ostensibly is ready to put the enmity behind them. He dismounts and runs to greet his brother, throws his arms around him and kisses him. . . .

Of all the stories of fraternal strife and reconciliation in the Bible, this is perhaps one of the most moving. We tend to think of Esau as the wild one – the hunter – red, ravenous, and irrational – the one who would sell his future down the tubes for the momentary satisfaction of a gulp of stew. But in fact, Esau becomes heroic at this moment. Whatever wrath he may have harbored dissolves at the sight of the brother he has loved and missed all these years. He embraces his brother. He asks about his life. And ultimately, he becomes the peacemaker.

There are profound lessons for us in this moment of fraternal love. Perhaps the real blessing of Jacob’s struggle at the Jabbok is his confrontation with who he is, and what he needs to change about himself, his past, and his future. For Esau’s part, he lost a great deal because of his impulsiveness. But perhaps the flip side of this impulsiveness manifests itself in his gut reaction to embrace his brother out of the love he feels for him – a love that survived even the hurt that his brother had inflicted.

Rather than “Children of Jacob,” we identify ourselves within our tradition as the “Children of Israel.” Can we appreciate the blessing that we have inherited as the Children of Israel and live out a life of integrity, both within ourselves and in aspiring toward reconciliation with others? It would seem that this is the ongoing struggle for us both individually, and together as a people.