The Art of Saying Sorry

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Jenna Englender

Parashat Vayishlach contains two moments of attempted reconciliation.  The first ends well; the second ends badly.  I suggest that these disparate outcomes have much to teach us, not just about the immediate process of reconciliation, but about how to prepare ourselves and live in a way that makes reconciliation possible.

The parasha opens with the well known encounter between Jacob and Esau, over twenty years after Jacob fled to Haran fearing for his life at the hands of the angry Esau. We watch with apprehension as Jacob and Esau approach each other and we breathe a collective sigh of relief as Esau seems to forgive Jacob and Jacob leaves in peace.

Jacob and his family then make their way to the city of Shekhem, where almost immediately Jacob’s daughter Dinah is kidnapped and raped by the prince of the land. Shekhem (Dinah’s rapist) decides he wants to keep her as his wife, and asks his father, Chamor, to speak with Jacob and his sons. This attempted reconciliation fails, with horrendous consequences.

Why?  In both stories, one party has transgressed against the other by taking something that does not rightfully belong to them (Jacob steals Esau’s blessing and Shechem steals Jacob’s daughter). Hamor’s negotiation with Jacob and his sons echoes Jacob’s approach to Esau earlier in the parashah.  Both speak respectfully, offer elaborate gifts and are genuinely hoping that in doing so, they will successfully appease the person they have wronged. And yet, Jacob’s meeting with Esau goes exceedingly, almost unbelievably well, while Chamor’s negotiation ends with the slaughter of the entire city of Shekhem at the hands of Jacob’s sons.

It is important to note that Jacob’s successful approach is actually his second try.  His first attempt, at the very beginning of the parasha, has none of the nuance of his second. When Jacob arrives from Haran, he sends angels to Esau with explicit instructions of what to say:

Bereishit 32:4-6:

וַיִּשְׁלַ֨ח יַעֲקֹ֤ב מַלְאָכִים֙ לְפָנָ֔יו אֶל־עֵשָׂ֖ו אָחִ֑יו אַ֥רְצָה שֵׂעִ֖יר שְׂדֵ֥ה אֱדֽוֹם׃ וַיְצַ֤ו אֹתָם֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר כֹּ֣ה תֹאמְר֔וּן לַֽאדֹנִ֖י לְעֵשָׂ֑ו כֹּ֤ה אָמַר֙ עַבְדְּךָ֣ יַעֲקֹ֔ב עִם־לָבָ֣ן גַּ֔רְתִּי וָאֵחַ֖ר עַד־עָֽתָּה׃ וַֽיְהִי־לִי֙ שׁ֣וֹר וַחֲמ֔וֹר צֹ֖אן וְעֶ֣בֶד וְשִׁפְחָ֑ה וָֽאֶשְׁלְחָה֙ לְהַגִּ֣יד לַֽאדֹנִ֔י לִמְצֹא־חֵ֖ן בְּעֵינֶֽיךָ׃

And Jacob sent angels before him to Esau his brother to the land of Seir, the field of Edom. And he commanded them, saying: ‘This shall you say to my lord Esau: Thus says your servant Jacob: I have sojourned with Laban, and stayed until now. And I have oxen, and asses and flocks, and men-servants and maid-servants; and I have sent to tell my lord, that I may find favour in thy sight.

The reader can feel the sense of superiority in Jacob’s message. He sends the angels (see how far he has come – angels who do his bidding!) with no instruction to listen to Esau, but rather to present very matter of factly the deal he is offering. I have acquired many possessions (fulfilling the birthright that I stole from you). I will give you some of these possessions and then you will forgive me. Despite Jacob’ use of the words lord and servant, one can imagine Esau hearing it as intimidating and presumptuous. Thus it should be no surprise when the angels return from their journey with bad news: Esau did not concede, but is rather greatly angered and is on his way (according to some meforshim) to kill you!

And so Jacob rethinks his approach. He takes account of his life and everything he has accomplished so far, wrestles with himself, with G-d, with an angel (interpret the scene as you will) and prepares to face Esau with an open heart. We now arrive at his second attempt to regain Esau’s favor, which he does through an incredibly mature and beautiful approach built around the following five things:

  1. Time to heal. Esau is incredibly angry when Jacob steals his blessing. His distress upon hearing what he has lost is haunting (וַיִּצְעַ֣ק צְעָקָ֔ה גְּדֹלָ֥ה וּמָרָ֖ה עַד־מְאֹ֑ד Bereishit 27:32) and his intent to kill is real enough that Rivka is willing to send her favorite son away out of fear for his life. Certainly, we do not think Esau forgave Jacob because he was less angry than Shimon and Levi were at the assault on Dinah. Jacob, however, is able to give Esau time and distance, two incredibly important things that allow him to cool off and regain his pride by building a successful life separate from his family (וַיֹּ֥אמֶר עֵשָׂ֖ו יֶשׁ־לִ֣י רָ֑ב אָחִ֕י יְהִ֥י לְךָ֖ אֲשֶׁר־לָֽך I have enough my brother, you keep what is yours, Bereishit 33:9). Sometimes allowing the initial pain the time to heal is an important precursor to reconciliation.
  1. Let the aggrieved party speak first. Jacob sends his servants across the river ahead of him, laden with gifts, and under strict instructions:

Genesis 32:18-19:

…וַיְצַ֥ו אֶת־הָרִאשׁ֖וֹן לֵאמֹ֑ר כִּ֣י יִֽפְגָּשְׁךָ֞ עֵשָׂ֣ו אָחִ֗י וִשְׁאֵֽלְךָ֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר לְמִי־אַ֙תָּה֙ וְאָ֣נָה תֵלֵ֔ךְ וּלְמִ֖י אֵ֥לֶּה לְפָנֶֽיךָ׃ וְאָֽמַרְתָּ֙

And he commanded the foremost, saying: ‘When Esau my brother meets you, and asks you, saying: Whose are you? Where are you going? Whose are these before you? Then you should say…

Much like we do with a mourner, it makes sense to approach someone we’ve wronged without a preconceived notion of what we want them to feel or think. Yes, it is important to spend time formulating our thoughts and options of what we might say, but we need to let them speak first so that our apology can be in honest response to their needs as the wronged party. Jacob instructs his servants to speak only after Esau has started the conversation.

  1. Enter the conversation (as much as possible) without agenda. In Jacob’s first attempt, his ultimate goal of gaining Esau’s forgiveness is front and center. Even the second time around he is by no means able to leave this goal out entirely. When Esau asks what all the gifts are for, he answers honestly that it is to find favor in his eyes, but he does so only once he and Esau are already in dialogue. In the first attempt, he tells the angels to say this same line (לִמְצֹא־חֵ֖ן בְּעֵינֶֽיךָ) but here it has an entirely different effect when given as an answer to a question rather than as a precondition. To underscore the point, this time Jacob also sends his gift ahead of him, whereas with the angels he simply instructed them to list for Esau what might be his should he choose forgive Jacob. With this approach, Esau is more able to believe that Jacob wants to repay what he has taken, namely the blessing of wealth that Esau was supposed to have received, with no strings attached.
  1. Be prepared for a disappointing outcome. Jacob is appropriately fearful. He understands the heaviness of what he has done wrong and truly believes Esau may try to kill him. He awakes in the morning unsure whether he or any of his family will survive the day and it is possible that his wrestling match the night before is a process of coming to terms with this possibility. Jacob sends servants this time, not angels. He and his family prostrate themselves before Esau, a great gesture of submission and a position that offers no means of defense should Esau decide to attack. In a sense, Jacob has accepted that Esau may choose to attack him and is showing his acknowledgement that Esau has the right to do so. He thus gives Esau the space to freely decide whether he is ready to forgive.
  1. Don’t push it. Lastly, Jacob knows when enough is enough. Esau invites him to continue along with his camp, to essentially combine their lives. Yet Jacob is aware that when such a great wrong has been perpetrated and two lives have taken such different paths, even a moment of forgiveness cannot make everything whole again (see Radak and the Akeidat Yitzchak on 33:13). He essentially says: I will go my way, and you go yours, and that is okay.

The attempt of Shechem and Hamor to reconcile with Jacob and his sons looks much more like Jacob’s first attempt than his second:

Bereishit 34:8-12:

וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר חֲמ֖וֹר אִתָּ֣ם לֵאמֹ֑ר שְׁכֶ֣ם בְּנִ֗י חָֽשְׁקָ֤ה נַפְשׁוֹ֙ בְּבִתְּכֶ֔ם תְּנ֨וּ נָ֥א אֹתָ֛הּ ל֖וֹ לְאִשָּֽׁה׃ וְהִֽתְחַתְּנ֖וּ אֹתָ֑נוּ בְּנֹֽתֵיכֶם֙ תִּתְּנוּ־לָ֔נוּ וְאֶת־בְּנֹתֵ֖ינוּ תִּקְח֥וּ לָכֶֽם…וַיֹּ֤אמֶר שְׁכֶם֙ אֶל־אָבִ֣יה וְאֶל־אַחֶ֔יהָ אֶמְצָא־חֵ֖ן בְּעֵינֵיכֶ֑ם וַאֲשֶׁ֥ר תֹּאמְר֛וּ אֵלַ֖י אֶתֵּֽן׃ הַרְבּ֨וּ עָלַ֤י מְאֹד֙ מֹ֣הַר וּמַתָּ֔ן וְאֶ֨תְּנָ֔ה כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר תֹּאמְר֖וּ אֵלָ֑י וּתְנוּ־לִ֥י אֶת־הַֽנַּעֲרָ֖ לְאִשָּֽׁה׃

And Hamor spoke with them, saying ‘The soul of my son Shechem longeth for your daughter. I pray you give her unto him to wife. And make ye marriages with us; give your daughters unto us, and take our daughters unto you…And Shechem said unto her father and unto her brethren: ‘Let me find favour in your eyes, and what ye shall say unto me I will give. Ask me never so much dowry and gift, and I will give according as ye shall say unto me; but give me the damsel to wife.’

Father and son list their demands and give no acknowledgement of the wrong they have committed. In fact, they rub it in by suggesting that Jacob’s family give them more daughters to marry. They state their goal, again our phrase of finding favor in Jacob’s eyes, without stopping to notice how Jacob and his sons are feeling. Jacob has not said a word since he found out what happened to Dinah, perhaps out of grief or a feeling of helplessness, and his sons are murderously angry. If Shechem and Hamor had stopped to listen or consider how this family must be feeling, how could they have thought a compromise was possible at this moment?

Moments of anger, reconciliation and forgiveness intimately shape the lives of individuals and the course of history. They are pivotal opportunities to shift course and yet they are also fraught with strong emotions and it is incredibly difficult to go into them with the wisdom and insight that Jacob does in this parasha (in fact we see that he doesn’t get it right every time). It is an ideal to strive for, perhaps first in the little moments: moments of prayer, daily apologies to our friends and loved ones, discussions in our communities, so that when the big moments come we will be well practiced in the art of apology and forgiveness.

Jenna Englender (SBM 2015) is a first-year student at Yeshivat Maharat. She graduated cum laude from the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at NYU. Following college, she was the Communications Fellow for the Samuel Bronfman Foundation and spent two years managing recruitment for Pardes.

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