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Guest-blogging at Best American Poetry

This week's portion: encounter

Edited to add: Typepad fixed the problem; the audio player is working again! Thanks, Typepad. Shabbat shalom, all!


When Esau saw him he came running.
They embraced and wept, each grateful
to see the profile he knew better than his own.

You didn't need to send gifts, Esau said
but Jacob introduced his wives and children,
his prosperity, and Esau acquiesced.

For one impossible moment Jacob reached out.
To see your face, he said, is like seeing
the face of God: brother, it is so good!

But when Esau replied, let us journey together
from this day forward as we have never done
and I will proceed at your pace, Jacob demurred.

The children are frail, and the flocks:
you go on ahead, he said, and I will follow
but he did not follow.

Once Esau headed out toward Seir
Jacob went the other way, to Shechem, where
his sons would slaughter an entire village.

And again the possibility
of inhabiting a different kind of story
vanished into the unforgiving air.

In this week's Torah portion, Vayishlach, Jacob prepares himself to meet his brother Esau again for the first time in many years. He sends his family on ahead and camps alone, during which time he has a vision or a dream or perhaps an actual experience of wrestling with an angel, who ultimately blesses him with a new name: no longer merely Jacob, now he is Israel, the Godwrestler. The next morning, still limping from his encounter, he meets his brother again.

There are voices in the tradition which read Esau's tears upon seeing Jacob, and his offer that they should travel together, as falsehoods. But the surface of the text tells us that Esau wept on his brother's neck; and "To see your face is like seeing the face of God" is a direct quote from Jacob. This year I'm reading the passage as a sign that the two brothers genuinely longed to reconcile -- but although Jacob was able to extend himself for a moment, once Esau reciprocated the outreach he withdrew, unable to follow through.

Or maybe Jacob just knew that his path lay elsewhere. Still, the direct path of the narrative leads us directly to the rape of Dinah and the massacre of Shechem...maybe the text's subtle way of hinting that turning away from one's kin inevitably has consequences which can ripple out into the world for generations.


Edited to add: this poem is now available in 70 faces, my collection of Torah poems, published by Phoenicia Publishing, 2011.

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