Jacob And Esau: What Kind Of Reunion Was This?
The Sons Of Isaac Reconcile
Jacob and Esau hadn’t seen each other for 20 years, ever since Jacob took their father’s blessings and Esau swore to kill him. Now they’re headed toward one another – Jacob with his family and his riches, and Esau with 400 of his henchmen. Jacob is faced with a decision: On the one hand, he can try to bribe Esau with gifts and flattery. After all, this wouldn’t be the first time Jacob managed to outwit Esau. But on the other hand, maybe this a chance to finally reconcile with Esau once and for all. What should Jacob do?
Well, if we read the encounter between the brothers, it’s really not so clear which option Jacob chooses. Join Ami Silver as he delves into this ambiguity, and suggests that there’s a whole lot more to this story than meets the eye.
Ami Silver takes this discussion one step further in his blog post on Parshat Vayishlach: The Journey From Yaakov to Yisrael
I want to take a look with you at a key moment in Parshat Vayishlach – when Jacob and Esav are reunited, for the first time in 20 years.
Isaac's Sons, Esav and Jacob, Reunite
Just to summarize: Jacob had taken the firstborn blessings from their father Isaac, and Esav vowed to murder him in revenge. But, Jacob fled for his life and spent the next couple decades in the house of his father in-law, Lavan.
Now, Jacob is finally making his way home, and, by the look of things, Esav seems ready to make good on his promise to kill his brother: After all, he’s coming to meet him with 400 of his henchmen. But, things don’t go as expected: Jacob sends Esav a bunch of gifts and makes a big show of honor – and in response, Esav ends up hugging and kissing him.
So, once again, Jacob manages to evade the wrath of Esav and emerges from this encounter unscathed.
But I want to ask you: What exactly are we supposed to learn from this? That Jacob had good street smarts? That when push came to shove, he managed to distract Esav with some gifts? So… we learn that if we’re ever in a pinch, bowing down to the adversary and playing to his ego can be an effective way out? Is that Jacob’s lasting legacy? Seems like an odd lesson.
I think that if we dig deeper into this story, we’ll discover that there’s something more profound taking place. Let’s replay the story more slowly, paying close attention to its details, and I’ll show you what I mean.
Jacob Returns to Esau... and Reconciles
When Jacob hears that Esav is on his way with 400 men, he’s terrified. So Jacob splits up his family, in the hopes that at least some will survive the coming onslaught – and he begs God for protection.
He also sends Esav gifts… and we’re not talking about just a greeting card and a bouquet of flowers. He literally sends every type of domesticated animal you can think of. There are: 200 female goats, 20 male goats, 200 female sheep, 20 rams; 30 mother camels and their nursing calves; 40 cows, 10 bulls; 20 female donkeys and 10 male donkeys.
And if you think about it, this isn’t just a one time gift – it’s an investment. Jacob sends males and females of each species; enough for Esav to breed herds and herds of livestock. In ancient agricultural society, this might have been the equivalent of giving him a chunk of stock in Apple or Google. It’s a gift that keeps on giving.
So... it really does seem like a flat-out bribe. Not nice to use those words, maybe, but that’s what it seems like. Let’s keep reading.
To accompany the bribe, it seems like there was also a healthy dose of over the top flattery: Jacob tells his servants to bring the animals to Esav and say לעבדך ליעקב – these belong to your servant, Jacob – מנחה הוא שלוחה לאדני לעשו – it’s a tribute for my master, Esav. Jacob almost seems like he’s groveling: Esav, my master; please accept this tribute from thy humble servant Jacob.
Then, when Jacob finally gets within range of Esav, וישתחו ארצה שבע פעמים – he bows down, not once, but seven times! עד גשתו עד אחיו – until he reached his brother. It really seems like Jacob will do anything to butter up Esav and, hopefully, convince him to spare his family.
And the crazy thing is, it actually worked! Esav sees him and seems to, inexplicably, undergo a complete about face: וירץ עשו לקראתו – he runs to Jacob – ויחבקהו ויפל על צוארו – he hugs him and falls on his neck – וישקהו – he kisses Jacob – ויבכו – and then they cry. It’s a love fest! Jacob’s machinations worked after all.
But why did Esav fall for this? This is the guy who vowed to kill his brother over their father’s blessings! And he’s been holding the grudge for 20 years! Now Jacob gives him a fancy petting zoo and calls him nice names and he lets it all go?!
Why Did Jacob's Gifts Reconcile Esav?
So, maybe Esav is just a greedy buffoon. One moment he’s full of rage, but when you buy him off with goodies he’s your best friend. Could be. But I think there’s evidence that something else was afoot.
To get to the heart of what’s going on here between Jacob and Esav, I’d like to take a step back for a second and play one of our favorite games here at Aleph Beta: where have we heard this all before?
Ask yourself, where else, earlier in the Torah, have we encountered a scene of sorts that involves brothers, in which there is talk about one brother becoming extremely wealthy? One brother being a master over the other? One brother bowing down to the other?
Well, wouldn’t you know it, all of these elements appeared, 20 years earlier, in the blessings that Isaac gave to Jacob – the blessings that were intended to go to Esav. That was the last time these brothers crossed paths, and it’s the reason they’re meeting again only now. Let’s take a look at those brachot.
Parallels to Jacob and Esav's Reunion
Isaac’s blessing began: ויתן לך האלהים מטל השמים ומשמני הארץ – God will give to you from the dew of heaven, and the fat of the land – ורב דגן ותירש – with abundant grains and vines. In other words: “God’s going to make you really rich! You will receive the Divine gifts of rain and crops.”
Now, those are gifts that only God can provide. But when Jacob meets Esav, 20 years later, he gives him the next best thing: enough livestock to allow Esav to build up his own commercial empire.
Isaac’s blessing also spoke about gaining power and status. He said: יעבדוך עמים – nations will serve you… הוה גביר לאחיך – you will be a master over your brothers. So maybe it’s no accident that Jacob calls himself Esav’s servant – עבדך יעקב; and calls Esav אדני – my master.
And look at the final element in Isaac’s blessing – bowing: וישתחוו לך בני אמך – your mother’s children will bow to you. When the brothers meet again, one of Rebecca’s children is indeed bowing to the other. Jacob bows to Esav seven times.
And it goes still further. Isaac said, וישתחוו לך לאמים. Nations will bow to you. Well, after Jacob bows to Esav, his 12 sons, the nascent tribes of Israel all bow to Esav, one by one. They would one day grow into a great nation; and they were all bowing to Esav at this very moment.
When we put the pieces together, we start to see a startling picture. It’s as if the words of Isaac’s bracha were coming to life right before Esav’s eyes. At this moment, Jacob seems to actually be giving the brachot back to Esav.
And Jacob seems to intimate as much. A bit later on in their encounter, he says: קח נא את ברכתי – please take my blessing – אשר הבאת לך – that has been given to you.
On the surface, Jacob is simply talking about the animals he sent his brother. But after hearing all the other echoes of the original blessing, we can’t ignore the deeper meaning behind these words: Take my bracha, that was meant to be yours.
Perhaps Jacob’s antics weren’t just bribes and flattery after all. This whole conflict was about the brachot he had taken 20 years ago – perhaps Jacob was trying to set things straight, even the scales, as it were, between him and his brother.
So, that might be part of what’s going on here, but I want to argue to you, that beyond questions of wealth and power, Jacob was looking to make things right at an entirely different level, too.
Because remarkably… if we broaden our lens, and keep looking at these two episodes side by side, the parallels between them actually continue.
Digging Deeper into the Story of Isaac's Sons
Twenty years ago, Jacob walked into Isaac’s room claiming to be Esav. Right away, Isaac was suspicious, so he said: גשה נא ואמשך בני – come close and let me feel you, son. He wanted to pat down Jacob to determine his true identity.
Now, fast forward 20 years: As Jacob makes his approach toward Esav, he bows seven times – עד גשתו עד אחיו – until he came close to his brother. גשתו… גשה… it’s the same word both times.
And just like Jacob came close to Isaac and his father put his hands on him, here too, Jacob comes close to Esav and his brother puts his hands on him – ויחבקהו – he wraps him in an embrace.
And there’s more. The next thing Isaac told Jacob was: גשה נא ושקה לי בני – come close and kiss me, son. And, 20 years later, the next thing Esav does is: ויפל על צוארו וישקהו – he fell upon Jacob’s neck, and kissed him.
And Esav didn’t just kiss him anywhere – he kissed him on the neck. Jacob’s neck had also played an important role, back when he took those blessings. Jacob was afraid that his smooth skin would give him away; so in order to make him seem more like Esav, Rebecca took hairy goat skins and placed them on Jacob’s hands – ועל חלקת צואריו – and on the smooth of his neck. Now, Esav kisses him in that very same spot.
And, perhaps most importantly, let’s talk about the conclusion of each of these scenes. Both stories end in tears. When Esav realized that Jacob had taken the blessings, it says: וישא עשו קלו ויבך – he raised his voice and cried. Twenty years later, after the brothers embrace and kiss, it says ויבכו – they also cried.
Jacob and Esau's Tears of Reconciliation
We’re seeing that these two stories, separated by 20 years, are following almost all the same steps. But there’s a major contrast between these stories, that I believe might hold the key to understanding the larger meaning behind this later encounter. It has to do with the tears.
Although both stories end in tears, the tears are very different from one another. Twenty years ago, Esav was crying tears of anguish and rage, tears that were transformed into a vengeful promise to kill his brother. Now, 20 years later, Jacob and Esav both cry – they’re crying together.
If we put it all together, it seems to me that these were tears of true healing and reconciliation. And they were caused by Jacob’s initiative: Jacob knew that there was one thing, and one thing only, that could repair his relationship with Esav. He had to go back to the root of it all – to the blessings he took from their father.
So as he approached Esav, Jacob acted out those blessings before him. He was showing Esav that he was ready to let go of the brachot, and give them back to him. It wasn’t a show or a bribe. Jacob was coming clean, he was willing to do what was necessary to restore their shattered relationship. And when Esav saw this, he was moved to tears.
The brothers embrace, and in their embrace, they then retrace the steps of Jacob’s earlier deception. Only this time, it’s different. The same steps that were once used to deceive, and tear the brothers apart, are now bringing them closer together. This wasn’t a replay of the past – it was redeeming that earlier episode, repairing the messy roots of their conflict.
The Lesson Behind Jacob and Esau's Reunion
In the end, there is a moral to this story, and it isn’t that you need to do whatever's necessary to come out on top. If anything, it’s that you need to do whatever’s necessary to heal a painful past. Especially, when you contributed to that pain; especially when the ones who are suffering are you and the people closest to you.
Once upon a time, Jacob covered his neck to deceive and take what was meant for Esav. But now, he’s willing to literally stick his neck out to his brother in a sincere effort to make amends.
Jacob didn’t know whether Esav would attack him or kiss him. But his willingness to initiate, and be vulnerable toward his brother, proved to be his greatest strength.
For me, this speaks to the heart of what reconciliation is all about. All too often, we remain in conflict with other people simply because neither of us is willing to budge; to be vulnerable enough to admit fault, or show the other one how much we sincerely want to fix this relationship.
Jacob had the courage to rebuild what was broken, to repair the wounds of the past. That is a model to aspire to, it’s a legacy to be proud of.
And for an even deeper dive into these stories, check out Rabbi Fohrman’s mind-blowing course, Jacob: Man of Truth. You can see the links for all of these in the description of this video.