Jacob fools his father and steals his brother’s birthright. Esau swears to kill him. Decades pass. Jacob hears that Esau is coming with 400 men. Yet when they meet, instead of vengeance, they fall on each other’s necks and weep. Why?
My father pointed out to me many years ago that in the ancient world there were few if any mirrors. People did not see their own faces, except perhaps distorted in a pool of water. Suddenly both Jacob and Esau, who were twins, although not identical, see one another. What must they have felt?
I imagine that after all those years, at first each saw a stranger, then a brother, then saw himself. The Torah is teaching us how to look at other people. First someone appears a stranger; then as a sister or brother; then we realize that they are very much like ourselves. They share our dreams and pain. In a world of terror and fear of the other, the lesson is more powerful than ever. Stranger, sibling, self. If we could only learn that ancient lesson, we might save the world.
Rabbi David Wolpe is spiritual leader of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter: @RabbiWolpe. His latest book is “David: The Divided Heart” (Yale University Press).