And so the gift (mincha) went on ahead, while [Jacob] remained in the camp (machaneh) that night. (Genesis 32:22)
And [Esau] asked, “What do you mean by all this company [machane] which I have met?” [Jacob] answered, “To gain my lord’s favor (chen).” Esau said, “I have enough, my brother; let what you have remain yours.” But Jacob said, “No, I pray you; if I have found favor (chen) with you, accept from me this gift (minchati)…” (Gen. 33:8-10)
The two most common words in this week’s parasha, Vayishlach (Gen. 32:4-36:43), are anagrams of one another: mincha, meaning gift, offering, or sacrifice, and machane, meaning camp, company, or troop. A third, smaller word, formed from two of their letters, chen, meaning grace or favor, is also recurrent. The intense wordplay and sonic similitude provide us with a sense of action and allure as Jacob confronts his estranged twin brother, Esav.
Soundplay also suffuses the scene in which Jacob wrestles with an unnamed angel in the evening interval between his preparation to meet Esav and his actual encounter. “Let me go” (lit. “send me away”), says the angel, as day begins to break. The Hebrew word shalcheni contains our leitwort, chen, in it.
Whatever we make of these connections, the words and sounds guide us to a realization that hiding and meeting, conflict and reconciliation, turn on the issues of grace and favor, gift and offering, company and troop.
The first time mincha appears in the Torah is in Genesis 4:3. Cain offers a (rejected) sacrifice, a gift-offering to God. But it is in this week’s parasha that machane/camp first appears. The word will become more familiar as we head into the Torah’s remaining four books, especially that of Leviticus and Numbers. In Genesis 50, Joseph’s extended family are described as a machane when they descend to Egypt, settling in the land of Goshen. A camp conjures a sense of military might, a categorical leap from a cluster of folks or a cohesive band to a proto-nation. Camp, in the later books, connotes a topographical site. But fundamentally, it’s an ontological category. A machane is a group that has scaled. According to rabbinic interpretation, the meeting between Jacob and Esau is a world-historical encounter, a compressed sign of all that is to come in the conflict between Jerusalem and Rome.
Jacob hides in his machaneh, be it real or affected. Afraid of his brother, he seeks to flex a sense of strength in his numerical mass, in his posse. He sends gifts ahead to Esav to create a sense of distance, a sense of importance. Both the camp and the gift allow Jacob to mediate his relationship. His gifts are a power move, a gambit of realpolitik. His camp helps him feel safe. Of course, we know, Jacob is insecure. Jacob’s craftiness is layered.
But this time, Esav doesn’t fall for it. “What is all of this?” We sense that Esav senses that Jacob is up to something. Jacob’s answer is deeply ambiguous, as is this entire scene. “I’m doing this,” he says, “to gain your favor.” Does Jacob really believe this? In the culminating moment, Jacob and Esav haggle over a gift. But in contrast to an earlier moment in their relationship, in which Jacob tricks Esav out of his birthright or steals his blessing, this time Jacob insists that Esav take what is his. Take the blessing back! Is it too good to be true. Esav nearly rejects it. But in the end, his acceptance of Jacob’s mincha means that Jacob has won his chen, his favor.
On a surface level, it’s a tale about reparations. Jacob needs Esav to accept his guilt payment so as to wipe his past slate clean. In some sense, Esav might be duped again, to the extent that accepting reparations betrays a kind of short-sightedness, given the extent of Jacob’s theft. On another level, though, nothing has been stolen to begin with, and the exchange of gifts serves a purely symbolic and cathartic function: In Jacob’s giving the gift and Esav’s accepting it, both experience a chen, a grace—the freedom from competition and rivalry, the realization that they are each gifted, each tasked for different endeavors. The blessing was never scarce to begin with.
The tense scene allows for two possible readings. On one, the reconciliation is genuine, as the brothers move from a sense of zero-sum hostility to a sense of common cause. On another, the reconciliation is apparent, but unsustainable. Thus, the sages read Esav’s “kissing” of Jacob as really a bite. The kiss only occurred because Esav’s attempt to sink his teeth into his brother was thwarted by a small miracle, says the Midrash.
On a historical plane, both readings have their appeal. There is the clash of civilizations narrative, the narrative of geopolitical bipolarity, in which if one is on top, the other is subservient. But there is also the narrative of harmony, an end of history, in which each brother becomes like the other and elevates the other. Jacob becomes tough, like his brother, the hunter. And Esav becomes tender, like his brother, the tent-dweller. In one, political life is fundamentally antagonistic and unstable. In the other, it is a process of betterment, arriving towards perfection. On a textual level, these possibilities are grounded in a simple question: do Jacob and Esau mean what they say, or are they engaging in “esoteric” communication? Is Jacob, as it were, a Straussian?
Rabbinic commentators have long noted Jacob’s speech as duplicitous and coded from the simple fact that he refers to his brother as “my Lord” (Adoni). The ingratiating term has an element of irony to it, and also suggests that Jacob is is speaking less to his brother, than through him, to God. On this reading, certainly born of bitter experience, Jacob is engaging in a kind of crypto-resistance. He appears to be deferring to his older brother all while demonstrating to us that he is the one in control. The servant compliments the master, all while maintaining an internal sense of superiority.
But going by the text itself, it seems that Esav and Jacob do reconcile. Esav accepts Jacob’s gifts even though he has enough, which is to say that he does Jacob the kindness of letting him give. If Jacob has a guilty conscience, Esav is generous in allowing Jacob the thief and deceiver to be and feel generous. Esav graces Jacob and Jacob graces Esav, and both find grace in one another’s eyes, which means they find grace in their own eyes and in the eyes of God. Grace is the mechanism that neutralizes rivalry and envy. If there will be an end of history, if people and nations will come to harmony, it will be because of grace, and it will be a beautiful thing.
There are two ways that we can go astray in our self-evaluations and in our presentations. We can rely upon our gifts and talents (minchateinu), our offerings, for our sense of self-esteem. This is Cain’s error. He conflates his self worth with his creative capacity. Many who do this eventually burn out. The tale is cliched. The chess player comes to love winning more than chess and loses interest in the game, either through boredom or anxiety. On the other side, we can rely on our armory, our power, to shield us from the bothers of inner life. If we just have enough of a camp to surround ourselves with, we don’t need to confront our existential tumult. The camp, be it social life, or be it the status we accrue through external validation, blocks us from our fundamental vulnerability. It prevents us from wrestling with ourselves. Beneath the facade of every big shot is a scared child, a Jacob on the run. The camp, the nation, peoplehood, no amount of solidarity or belonging can save us from the nameless angel who comes to challenge us in the middle of the night.
Grace—chen—the small word concealed in the bluster of talent and the stability of fortification, is the way out. It is also a word that means beauty. And it is a word that recurs obliquely in the upcoming holiday of Channukah. To end the bitter strife of brothers, to pacify the conflict between the deceiver and the hunter, requires a shift from a focus on power to an appreciation of beauty. War is an endless when the goal is domination. Peace dwells on those who are guided by beauty, who know their own beauty, and can find beauty in those around them. Kabbalistic typology connects all of these attributes, peace, harmony, and beauty, to Jacob, whom it calls Tiferet. If politics is war by other means (von Clausewitz), aesthetics is peace by other means.
To make peace in this world, find what is graceful in yourself, and in others, and allow the world’s gracious eyes to look upon you.
Zohar Atkins @Etz Hasadeh
Etz Hasadeh is a Center for Existential Torah Study.
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Also, there is surely no better time of year than Thanksgiving to dwell on the grace of accepted gifts!
I am reminded of Paul Celan's gloss on Shakespeare's Sonnet 105-- it's perhaps not coincidental that Celan's version captures better than Shakespeare's original the need to *act* to join the beautiful and the good:
"Schon, gut und treu" so oft getrennt, geschieden.
In einem will ich drei zusammenschmieden.