Flowing through Bereyshit/Genesis are the themes of blindness, deception, and identity. Last week, in Parashat Vayetzey, Jacob’s very identity was shaken and remade at Bet El. Before he fell asleep he was a thief fleeing from the wholly justified wrath of his brother Esau. When Jacob awoke from his dream at Bet El, it was to realize that he had met the divine. Through the rest of Vayetzey, Jacob moved through a series of new identities: lover, husband, father, shepherd, and fugitive from his father-in-law Laban. The man who had fled his home alone had become the leader of a multitude on course to close the circle in a meeting with his brother Esau.
So did Jacob’s memory of his encounter with the divine at Bet El — where he learned that God is in every space — give Jacob the ability to meet his brother with equanimity? The plain answer is: No. Vayishlakh opens with Jacob consumed with fear and hatching plans to get out of this encounter alive. He attempts to buy off Esau’s wrath with gifts of livestock. He divides his people and flocks into two camps, so that if one is destroyed the other will survive. And he reminds God of the promise that if Jacob returns to his native land, God will deal bountifully with him.
And after he makes all these preparations, Jacob once again is a man alone in the night, hoping to escape his brother Esau’s just wrath. And once again, he has a life altering encounter in the dark. When he awakes, he is no longer Jacob. He is Israel. Jacob feel asleep filled with fear, but in the morning he is this new man, Israel, who goes forth to meet his brother.
And, miracle of miracles, in meeting his brother Esau, Jacob once again meets God. The moments with Esau are filled with generosity by both. And Esau, the man who was wronged, is so gracious that Jacob is moved to say, “To see your face is like seeing the face of God.”
Who is this man Jacob? He came to this moment through identity theft. He stole Esau’s identity in order to steal his birthright. Jacob is not the only identity thief in the Torah. In a few weeks we will meet Tamar in Parashat Vayeshev, where she steals Judah’s identity. In the case of Judah, that identity theft made him a better man.
But is that the case for Jacob?
Unfortunately not. In this moment of divine forgiveness and compassion, his neck wet with the tears of his brother and his own weeping, Jacob pulls himself away. In this moment of space and time, Jacob rejected the gift his brother offered — to be rejoined as brothers, to go home, and to heal this broken family. The fearful and deceitful Jacob overcomes the Israel who has touched the divine.
There is a price to be paid for this failure of courage, faith, and vision.
Instead of journeying with his brother, Jacob goes to Shechem. It is there that he meets with the most shameful moment of his life — the murder of his daughter Dina’s bridegroom and all the men of Shechem. Jacob’s sons wipe out the fathers and sons of their neighbors, leaving destroyed families in their wake. Jacob blames these terrible events on his sons Simeon and Levi and not on himself.
Many years later Jacob will lose his beloved son Joseph as a result of the jealousies of his sons. So bitter is his life that when Jacob meets Pharoah, he tells him he has had a long and bitter life.
But the loss of Joseph and Egypt is in the future. At the end of this parasha, Jacob returns to Bet El to build an altar memorializing his first encounter with God and then finally, at last, reunites with his brother Esau to bury their father Isaac. Too late, of course, for Isaac to have seen his family reunited.