Not a day goes by that I don’t make mistakes. Luckily, most of them are small, and harmless, but others are big-time screw-ups. You all know that feeling- the pulse quickens, your stomach starts doing somersaults, the mind starts racing towards worse-case scenarios, and you already start worrying about being able to fall asleep. In an ideal world, these errors in judgment can be dealt with quickly with a heartfelt apology, but sometimes our mistakes are a little more serious than that.
Over the course of a lifetime, relationships have an ebb and flow. Inevitably we will have friends who at some point stop being our friends because something bad happens between us and them. Inevitably we will all do something, or write something, that hurts someone and causes them pain, and will cause them to be upset with us. The question then becomes how we deal with that situation.
This week’s parasha, VaYishlach has a similar theme. Years after his flight from Canaan to Haran, Jacob makes his plans to return home. Fearful of his brother, Esau, from whom he stole Isaac’s blessing and sneakily negotiated his birthright from for some red lentil soup, he sends (yishlach) a message to him in advance of their meeting. Hey, bro… I’m coming home. Please accept my generous peace-offering and come see me… I’m sorry for what happened.
How deep was Jacob’s fear of this reunion? The text tells us of Jacob separating his clan and possessions into two camps, so that there might be a chance for some of them to escape if Esau showed up with vengeance in mind. Having fled from Esau for fear of death, having not spoken in the interim, what could he expect from him now? Had time healed the wounds?
Luckily, the story has a happy ending– Esau greets Jacob, filled with forgiveness and love, they cry and embrace each other, and live happily ever after. (For a very, very entertaining take on this story, check out this viral video from two weeks ago that made the rounds on the blogs.)
The lesson from all of this? People make poor decisions. There are consequences. If you acknowledge mistake, if you own it, eventually there has to be resolution. This is a human story, and it’s certainly a Jewish story; at the high holidays every year we go through this exact process as a community, and Shabbat Shuvah gives us a chance to do it on an individual level.
As Jews, we are not meant to live with afflictive emotions, or carry the burden of our mistakes for the long-term. We are not meant to never forgive people who wrong us, nor are we meant to not admit our mistakes and say “I’m sorry.” There is always an opportunity to let go of bad things that have happened and to wipe the slate clean. Never say never– with the right intentions, even the really big mistakes we make can be forgiven.