I recently heard this African parable: When he was far away, he looked like a monster. When he came closer, he looked like an animal. When he came closer still, he looked like a human being. When we stood eye-to-eye, he looked like my brother.
Jacob is returning to the Land of Israel following a long hiatus in Haran with Laban. He has four wives, eleven children, many servants, and numerous flocks and herds in tow. Jacob’s mind, however, is entirely focused on Esau, the brother he deceived and from whom he fled many years earlier. Returning now after more than two decades, Jacob fears that Esau still harbors a deadly resentment, so he sends servants ahead to propitiate Esau with gifts.
The messengers returned to Jacob, saying, “We came to your brother Esau; he himself is coming to meet you, and there are four hundred men with him.” Jacob was greatly frightened; in his anxiety, he divided 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 be saved.” (Genesis 32:7-9)
From afar, Esau appears to Jacob like a monster preparing to attack with his hoard. Jacob prepares accordingly: he divides his family and entourage into two camps, expecting that Esau will attack and hoping that Esau will manage to wipe out only one of the camps. But you cannot be too careful, so Jacob adopts an obsequious tone and fawning posture in a transparent attempt to strike a deal with God:
Jacob said, “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, Adonai, who said to me, ‘Return to your native land and I will deal bountifully with you’! I am unworthy of all the kindness that You have so steadfastly shown Your servant: with my staff alone I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps. Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother from the hand of Esau; else, I fear, he may come and strike me down, mothers and children alike. Yet 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.” (Genesis 32:10-13)
But Jacob doesn’t entirely trust God, either. He next instructs his herdsmen to select more “gifts” for Esau and drive the chosen flocks in waves to Esau: 200 she-goats and 20 he-goats; 200 ewes and 20 rams; 30 milch camels with their colts; 40 cows and 10 bulls; 20 she-asses and 10 he-asses (Genesis 32:15-16). This is no small “gift”! It is, in fact, a measure of Jacob’s anxiety.
[Jacob] instructed the [herdsman] in front as follows, “When my brother Esau meets you and asks you, ‘Whose man are you? Where are you going? And whose [animals] are these ahead of you? you shall answer, ‘Your servant Jacob’s; they are a gift sent to my lord Esau; and [Jacob] himself is right behind us.” (Genesis 32:18-19)
Esau now appears to Jacob as an animal who can be distracted and manipulated with enticing food or gifts. But Jacob is still wary and scared. That night he carries out his plan to divide his family and entourage into two camps and then crosses the Yabbok river alone. That night he famously wrestles with a “man.” For the biblical author this was evidently God, but later generations uncomfortable with such vivid anthropomorphism dubbed the man an angel. Still later generations suggested that Jacob was wrestling with his conscience, but in truth, there is no sign that Jacob has reached that level of moral consideration yet.
The following morning, Jacob actually lays eyes on Esau, who is approaching with his entourage of 400 men. To Jacob, Esau is close enough to appear like a human being with whom he can communicate:
[Jacob] divided divided the children among Leah, Rachel, and the two maids, putting the maids and their children first, Leah and her children next, and Rachel and Joseph last. He himself went on ahead and bowed low to the ground seven times until he was near his brother. (Genesis 33:1-3)
Esau is no longer a monster, nor even an animal. He is a human being—powerful enough that Jacob bows before him, fearing that Esau’s intentions may still be deadly.
Within moments, they are close enough to look one another in the eye because Esau runs to greet Jacob.
Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept. (Genesis 33:4)
Face-to-face, eye-to-eye, Esau is again Jacob’s brother.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Esau recognizes Jacob as his brother long before Jacob recognizes Esau as his brother. Had Esau any intention of attacking Jacob, he would not have given him two full days to strategize and prepare. Accompanied by 400 fighters, Esau could have attacked and slaughtered Jacob, his family, and his entourage immediately. And if that doesn’t convince you, please note that Esau rejects Jacob’s gifts as entirely unnecessary and at the same time acknowledges him as “my brother.” After Jacob introduces his family to Esau,
[Esau] asked, “What do you mean by all this company which I have met?” [Jacob] answered, “To gain my lord’s favor.” Esau said, “I have enough, my brother; let what you have remain yours.” (Genesis 33:8-9)
Esau could see from afar that Jacob was his brother, but Jacob had to be eye-to-eye before he is able to recognize Esau as his brother.
Some of us are like Esau, able to recognize in the Other our sister or brother. And some of us are like Jacob: At a distance, the Other (immigrants, African Americans, Muslims, Hispanics, women, people whose political views differ from ours and who voted for a different presidential candidate—take your pick) appears to be a monster because we know nothing about them and, in our minds, write the script of who they are, how they think, what they believe, and how they will treat us. When the Other is a bit closer, we cannot entirely sustain the fiction we have created that they are a monster, but still consider them an animal, wholly unlike us. Once we come to know them, they become to us human beings and we discover that we have far more in common than we were willing to admit. But when we see meet the Other face-to-face—when we engage in meaningful conversation and listen carefully to their needs, concerns, fears, and aspirations—they become our brother or sister. And when the Other becomes our sibling, we become far more compassionate people.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman