This is the week of reunions.
For many, the holiday of Thanksgiving means a reunion of sorts, a coming together with family and friends who we may only see this one time a year. This is one of the special aspects of holiday time, we not only connect with the spirit of the season, and not only eat special symbolic foods, but we renew relationships that are maintained, even in the age of Facebook, at a distance.
These reunions can sometimes be fraught. Each year at this time we come across magazine articles and blog posts about estrangement, how to navigate complex family dynamics, what to say to your racist uncle, how to graciously deflect questions about one’s own life choices, how to talk (or not talk) about politics, and on and on. The fact that Thanksgiving dinner can be a tinderbox waiting to explode is a cliché, but the power of clichés is that they carry some truth to them.
Thanksgiving falls this week as we turn in our Torah reading to the ultimate story of family estrangement and reunion—that of Jacob and Esau. The twin sons of Isaac and Rebekah were at odds since birth, and grew up with very different personalities and interests. In the Torah’s reading, it doesn’t seem like they ever got along. But things really took a turn for the worse when Jacob convinced Esau (who, though a twin, was technically older), to sell him his birthright for a bowl of lentil soup. And later, with the coaxing of his mother, Jacob tricked his aging father to give him the blessing reserved for the firstborn. Biblical blessings are big deals—it means Jacob, and not Esau, would be the spiritual and economic heir of Isaac. With this final act, the paths of the brothers fully diverged.
But not completely, for in this week’s reading Jacob is preparing to be reunited with his estranged brother. Both have gone on in life to be successful, to increase their holdings and establish families and clans. Jacob is extremely nervous about what is to come, and sent ahead gifts to placate a man who (in Jacob’s mind)had every reason to hate him and wish him ill. The text then says,
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.” Then the maids, with their children, came forward and bowed low; next Leah, with her children, came forward and bowed low; and last, Joseph and Rachel came forward and bowed low; And he asked, “What do you mean by all this company which I have met?” He answered, “To gain my lord’s favor.” Esau said, “I have enough, my brother; let what you have remain yours.” But Jacob said, “No, I pray you; if you would do me this favor, accept from me this gift; for to see your face is like seeing the face of God, and you have received me favorably. Please accept my present which has been brought to you, for God has favored me and I have plenty.” And when he urged him, he accepted. (Genesis 33:1-12)
Thus the fear the Jacob had, the anxiety about continued hatred, is for naught. Esau is happy to see him, and does not even want to accept his gifts. Jacob too is deeply moved to see his brother. While the text doesn’t speak of apologies and forgiveness, we can image that these took place. We have an example here of a renewed coming together of family members who were driven apart by their past behaviors.
Not completely, for after the meeting they both go their separate ways. But they have reunited, they have healed the relationship.
To add to this theme of reunions, last week attended my 25th high school reunion. It wasn’t a “formal” reunion with nametags featuring our senior class photos and a big banner announcing the “Class of 1990,” but rather a small informal gathering in the back of a bar in Manhattan organized by some of my classmates. And while I was already going to be on the east coast for the board meeting of my rabbinical association, I wasn’t planning on attending the reunion until a friend who lives in Wisconsin who I haven’t seen in those 25 years announced she was planning to attend.
I met some folks for dinner beforehand, and headed off to the bar. It was a fun experience and I had a good time connecting with some old friends. I am glad I went.
It did give me some further perspectives on reunions and relationships:
One, a solid foundation transcends time. There were a few folks there who I had been friends with in high school, but circumstances and geography led to not keeping in touch so much. But in reconnecting, even after 25 years, it was easy to renew those ties. We were able to share our common experience, but it was more the deep feeling of trust and connection developed years ago that was able to transcend any temporal distance.
Two, the people I talked to in high school are the ones I talked to 25 years later. Probably because of observation number one above, it was easier to connect with those I had been friends with in high school than those I had not. At one point someone joked that it seemed like high school all over again, with groups and cliques forming. But probably more out of familiarity than out of exclusion, as others were also renewing connections based on deep feelings of trust and connection.
And three, the old rules don’t apply. Even though I hung out with mostly my closer friends, I was able to connect with folks who were not part of my social circle back then. We were different people now. Old grudges, when they existed, melted away. The separation and reunion provided new opportunities to establish relationships, to form friendships when they may have not have existed before.
Time is an amazing force. It has an amazing ability to heal and renew, but only if we are committed to that healing and renewal, if we are open to new possibilities, and if we are able to draw on a deep reserve of connection that binds us to others.
This is what Jacob experienced in his reunion with Esau. We can imagine that it was Jacob’s view of the relationship that maintained the estrangement. Jacob was at first unable to allow for the possibility that things could be different. Once he encountered his brother, however, he realized they could be. As brothers, they both had a deep well of relationship and feeling upon which to draw, and the time away from each other allowed both brothers to overcome the divide between them. The past doesn’t change, but it doesn’t determine the future.
We remember this as we move towards our own reunions. As we sit around the Thanksgiving table we may find that we are challenged. Deep seated feelings may arise for us. Differences may seem to outshine the similarities. But if we focus on that which brings us together rather than drives us apart, and remain open to that which may come, then our reunions will be happy ones. We will see in the face of others the face of God. And for that, we offer thanks.