When Jacob is finally ready to be reunited with Esau, he sends his story in advance to Esau: “I have acquired cattle, asses, sheep, and male and female slaves.” The messengers who (we assume, for it is not stated in the text) convey Jacob’s story, return and report back to him: “We came to your brother Esau; he himself is coming to meet you, and there are four hundred men with him.”
Does Jacob’s story suggest the possibility of reparations? Does Esau’s story express a threat of revenge? Sure. But they also deliver the same simple message: Look what I’ve done with my life, Jacob says to Esau; Look what I’ve done with my life, Esau says to Jacob.
But Jacob can’t see that, not yet. He’s too freaked out to see beyond the surface details.
When he learns that Esau is coming with a band of men to meet him, Jacob is understandably frightened. Reacting to fear, he divides “the people with him, and the flocks and herds and camels, into two camps, thinking, ‘If Esau comes to the one camp and attacks it, the other camp may yet escape.’”
His great fear is not allayed, however, by this move, so he calls upon the ultimate source of defense: God. He doesn’t merely plead to God to come to his aid; using his best rhetorical skills, he appeals to God’s integrity, reminding God of God’s promise to Jacob: “Return to your native land and I will deal bountifully with you!”
With Esau and his men bearing down on him, Jacob fears this promise will be broken.
Jacob is so desperate that, within a span of three verses, he reminds God of that promise twice. The second time, Jacob specifies what God meant by bountiful: “You have said, ‘I will deal bountifully with you and make your offspring as the sands of the sea, which are too numerous to count.’”
To my surprise, when I read this passage (Gen. 32: 4-13) recently as I prepared to speak briefly about it in a Torah service during a Jewish mindfulness meditation retreat, I saw a mirror image of my own behavior when I prepare to visit one of my brothers. As I write this, I am on the eve of just such a visit.
My parents, brothers, sisters-in-law, nieces and nephews live in Southern New Jersey, where we all grew up. I talk to my mother every few days; I talk to my father only on those rare occasions (two or three times a year) when he answers the phone; I talk to each of my brothers about as frequently as I talk to my father.
When it’s time for a visit, I coordinate dates with my mother and rely on her to notify my brothers of my plans. I prefer to visit them when I can be accompanied by at least one member of my immediate family: my strong, smart, gifted speech-pathologist wife; my compassionate, progressive, oldest step-daughter who is now completing her residency in family medicine in one of the nation’s most prestigious programs in her field; my bold, unpredictable, talented younger step-daughter who produces videos for the websites of some of the most well-known magazines in the country; my intellectually and artistically inquisitive, music obsessed son who has just finished his first semester at one of the nation’s leading public universities.
They are my cattle. They not only accompany me; they go before me.
I don’t know how my brother prepares to meet me. I just know what I perceive when I arrive at his house. Outside: designer mailbox at the curb; jet black Mustang in the driveway; perfectly groomed lawn; privacy fence around the pool. Inside: pristine surfaces—counters, floors, walls; fashionably dressed, well behaved, straight A, photogenic daughters; bottle of vintage wine, brought up from the cellar just for this occasion, ceremoniously presented to impress us and instruct us in the ways of refined taste. His troops.
How had I missed, every previous time I read the story of Jacob’s and Esau’s reunion, seeing myself reflected so clearly in it?
Now I see: it’s my story against his.
Preparing to meet him, I fear for my life. And this fear divides me. I turn from it, which is to say from myself, toward promises, made by whom I cannot say though I appeal nonetheless to this unknown source to fulfill his/her/their/its promise to make me “bountiful.”
“Bountiful”: it’s not some measurable quantity of material goods I’m in need of (he’ll always have me beat there); it’s not the accomplishments and character of my children and wife that I can point to as proof of my worth.
What, then? Mother’s undivided love? Is that it? Is that the “bounty” for which I yearn?
Seven years I had her to myself. When I was only two-months old, she divorced my birth father. She remarried a hardworking, devoted, loving, generous, and funny man when I was five. Then they gave me a brother.
And everyone knows what a brother is: a murderer. He killed me the hour he was born.
And Jacob stole the birthright. Never mind that my Hebrew name, the name that chose me in my thirties, for I wasn’t given a Hebrew name at birth, is Ya’akov.
Displacement, division, distance.
After bestowing on Esau a bounty of gifts (delivered by his servants)—200 she-goats, 20 he-goats, 200 ewes, 20 rams, 30 milch camels with their colts, 40 cows, 10 bulls, 20 she-asses and 10 he-asses—the last move Jacob makes before meeting Esau face to face is to send away everything that is his—wives, children, servants, and all his possessions—his story!
Then Jacob spends a night alone.
We know what happens next. Jacob is wounded. Hasn’t he been wounded since birth? This time, for the moment of his encounter with his bare, un-storied being, he meets his wound and does not flee into a thousand stories to protect himself.
Only now is he ready for Esau, who runs to greet him. Jacob bows to his brother after which they embrace and weep.
This morning I’m hundreds of miles from my brother. Wounded. Will I, one night, have the courage to embrace my wound? Would doing so make me whole? Who would I find then racing to greet me?