This week, I want to do a careful reading of a few verses in the beginning of the parsha and see if we can learn a message hiding within the Hebrew phrasing (it will help to look at the Hebrew of verses in Genesis 32:4, 7, and 12).
In verse 4, Jacob is sending his messengers to “his brother Esau”, and that is exactly what the Hebrew says (el eisav achicha). We see a subtle change when the messengers return in verse 7 to report back to Jacob that they had met with Esau. They say, “We came to your brother, to Esau.” (el achicha el eisav). And then when Jacob offers a prayer in verse 12, he mirrors the repetition of the messengers when he prays, “Save me please from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau!” (m’yad achi m’yad eisav).
Esentially, the first statement from Jacob is the simplest, and he speaks of ‘his brother Eisav.’ The next two have an extra word and seem to forcibly break the connection between ‘brother’ and ‘Esau.’
I want to suggest that after all of the years of separation between the two brothers, Jacob is returning and gives the benefit of the doubt to his brother Esau. Yes, when he fled from Esau many years earlier, it was because Esau was planning to kill him. Now, the cautious hope is that he will behave towards him as a ‘brother’ and there will be reconciliation. That’s why he sends the messengers to ‘his brother Esau.’
Unfortunately, the messengers find Esau in a seemingly different mind-frame and report that they saw him approaching with 400 men–a sizable army! They tell Jacob that they ‘came to your brother, to Esau,’ subtly showing that his behavior is precisely not one of brotherly love by separating the two words and repeating the “to.”
This causes due concern to Jacob, and in his prayer he pleads to be saved from ‘the hand of his brother, from the hand of Esau’, implying likewise that he recognizes that coming to him with an army is not a brotherly expression of reconciliation. However, I want to suggest that Jacob is not willing to give up on him and he is hoping that he can still be his ‘brother’, and that is why he uses the word.
In other words, if Esau chooses, he can be Jacob’s brother by coming in peace and fraternity. Alternatively, if he chooses to come to fight, he will simply be Esau, and Jacob is not willing to pre-judge him.
Another more subtle reading is based in the Shem MiShmuel (19th c Poland) who reads the prayer as if Jacob is pleading with Gd that if Esau chooses to make war, ‘save me from being his brother’ for he does not want to fight his brother, and he does not want to be associated with a character that cannot forgive as a brother. But if he comes in peace, then is most certainly his brother.
Friends, reconciliation after an argument is a terribly difficult thing. It is an incredible challenge after we have been hurt, to come to make ammends with a truly open mind and heart. We learn from Jacob here an import principle of giving the benefit of the doubt and hoping that others will be willing to reconcile and rebuild with us. Yet he is not a naive optimist that merely assumes the best of others all the time, he is prepared for the difficult reality and hard work that is required for rebuilding relationships.
May we blessed to similarly approach building relationships and community with a realistic openness to deeply encounter the other and receive them as they are, without pre-judging them!