D'vrei Torah by Rabbi Ellie Shemtov
The Flip Side to Forgiveness is Resentments
The Christian theologian Lewis B. Smedes once said: To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you. Forgiveness is often defined as a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed you. But, forgiveness doesn’t mean you need to become friends with the person who harmed you or believe that what happened was ok. Instead, forgiveness means letting go of negative feelings and finding peace of mind.
Forgiveness is an important part of the 12-Step approach. Step 8 asks us to make a list of all persons we harmed and become willing to make amends to them all. Step 9 then directs us to make amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
At the end of last week’s Torah portion Vayeitzei, Jacob hears the sons of his father-in-law Laban speaking harshly about Jacob. After living with Laban for many years, Jacob now realizes how things have come to a head and God tells him it is time to return home, to the land where he was born.
As this week’s portion Vayishlach begins, Jacob and his family have left Laban and Jacob is fearful about his coming encounter with his brother Esau. After having been estranged from his brother for many years, Jacob is afraid Esau will seek revenge on him for stealing both his birthright and his father’s blessing. Jacob sends messengers ahead to let Esau know he is bringing gifts, hoping this will soften his brother’s heart.
As he spots Esau coming towards him, Jacob bows low to the ground seven times at which point:
וַיָּ֨רָץ עֵשָׂ֤ו לִקְרָאתוֹ֙ וַֽיְחַבְּקֵ֔הוּ וַיִּפֹּ֥ל עַל־צַוָּארָ֖ו וַיִּשָּׁקֵ֑הוּ וַיִּבְכּֽוּ:
Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and falling on his neck he kissed him. (Gen. 33:4)
The Life Recovery Bible remarks how returning to someone we have hurt is a scary thing, noting how the passing years, the lack of communication, and memories of anger and hateful emotional exchanges can all create tremendous anxiety. It’s easy to view Jacob as devious and perceive the gifts as a bribe, but it’s also easy to view the gifts as a gesture towards seeking forgiveness from his brother. No matter which way you look at it, it seems that at least Esau understands it is time to forgive because he knows the flip side to forgiveness is resentments.