Parashah Ponderings

Thanksgiving Angst

Parashat Vayishlach 5782 / פָּרָשַׁת וַיִּשְׁלַח
Genesis 32:4-36:43

Thanksgiving falls next week. Thanksgiving is supposed to be a joyous holiday — a time of feasting with family and friends and, of course, a time of giving thanks for our abundant blessings. For too many, though, Thanksgiving is anything but joyous. For them, it is a time of acute angst, a time of fear and loathing. I’m sure we all know someone who does all in their power to avoid “celebrating” this classic American festival with family members with whom they are all but estranged, people with whom they passionately disagree about everything from politics to table etiquette to the proper way of raising children to sports to — well, you name it! You or I may be one of these people who suffer from Thanksgiving angst. Sometimes we may be able to avoid the conflicts we dread by making plans that put us far away from those whose views and/or behaviors we despise. Sometimes, though, we suck it up and manage as best we can through several hours of confinement with those same people.

How sad that we let our passions separate us from our families. As one friend said to me recently, “Love them or hate them, they’re still family.” The family is as the most essential building block of our society. At it’s best, the family is where we learn to help one another, if not love one another. At it’s best, it’s the source of values that make for an orderly, compassionate society. When we become separated from that source of caring, of love, of learning, we are lucky if we can find another well to nourish us. Unfortunately, many of people who suffer from a rupture in their family relationships are left to flounder, to stew in misery and angst.

Our ancestor Jacob was one of those people who would have suffered from Thanksgiving angst were he alive in our own day. Imagine if Jacob’s reunion with Esau after 20 years would have taken place at Esau’s residence. Imagine Jacob receiving an invitation to join Esau and his family for Thanksgiving.

To help you visualize this encounter, consider what we read in Genesis 32:8-13:

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 escape.” Then Jacob said, “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O LORD, 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.’”

In this moment, Jacob cares only about self-preservation, keeping himself safe as well as those in his immediate family. “What if Esau comes after me?” he says. “I better protect myself.” “Even the promises of You, God, give me little assurance that I’ll make it through this encounter.” If he were preparing to reunite with Esau on Thanksgiving, he’d be doing everything he could to steal himself for the encounter, to prepare himself emotionally just to survive.

Yet, he decides to move forward, to make the journey toward what he believes will be an unpleasant encounter. On the way, he encounters an angel with whom he wrestles. He emerges from the bout with a limp and a new name, Yisrael, “one who strives with God.”

Shortly after Jacob takes on a new gait and a new name, we find him approaching Esau (Gen. 33:1-5):

Looking up, Jacob saw Esau coming, accompanied by four hundred men. He 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. Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept. Looking about, he saw the women and the children. “Who,” he asked, “are these with you?” He answered, “The children with whom God has favored your servant.”

He shows up on Esau’s “doorstep,” if you will, with his family. Instead of fending off arrows and swords, Jacob receives an embrace and a kiss. An embrace and a kiss from the brother he cheated, not once, but twice! The story here has a happy ending! We imagine they have their Thanksgiving meal. Maybe there’s even laughter, and singing, and lots and lots of story telling.

What happened? Why didn’t Esau attack Jacob and all that was his? Maybe it’s because Esau had years of really effective therapy. He remembered what Jacob had done to him, but he had learned to deal with it in a way that wouldn’t consume him or his sacred family tie. Maybe it was that after Jacob wrestled with the angel, a violent encounter with Esau seemed like child’s play. He wasn’t scared any longer. He showed up with an open heart.

The point is that we need not let our Thanksgiving angst keep us from the ones we should and will again, God willing, love. There certainly is some of Esau and Jacob in each of us. Let us let our best Esau’s and Jacob’s emerge this Thanksgiving.

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