This week’s Torah portion always gets me in the gut. It’s the story of Jacob returning to his long-estranged brother Esau, from whom he fled 20 years beforehand after betraying Esau by stealing his birthright and blessing. Now, so much time has passed, Jacob doesn’t even know Esau anymore. We can tell this because Jacob takes great pains to send gifts ahead, to prepare for Esau’s wrath but hope for his forgiveness, to plan for any eventual outcome. Jacob can’t anticipate Esau’s reaction. Despite Jacob’s worry that Esau’s still violently mad about the betrayal when the brothers meet, they embrace, and Esau kisses Jacob on the neck.
It’s a powerful story of asking for and granting forgiveness after a long absence. Returning to make something right, knowing that part of what went wrong was the absence itself. I’ve been thinking a lot about this since Rosh Hashanah when in Canada, it started to feel like we could take a breath on the pandemic. What is needed to be able to reconstitute our relationships, our social networks, our communities?
Over this time, my world of relationships has shrunk, and with it, the number of opportunities to interact, let alone wrong someone, has also shrunk. But maybe the biggest thing we in common need to ask forgiveness for and to forgive is the simplest: Absence. The yawning blankness where we weren’t.
We’ve all had to shrink down to the relationships at the core of our lives and let the others fall away, for now, just to make it through all this. As vaccinations for children aged 5-11 have become available in the U.S. and soon in Canada, more and more households are now able to safely interact with one another.
We hope and pray that we are seeing the long denouement of this chapter, the beginning of the end of the pandemic as we have experienced it thus far. In addition to the grateful tears we’ve shed when receiving a vaccine, the joyful park play dates, and porch drinks we’ve finally been able to share, I have to say: We need to do a bit of work to, G-d-willing, leave this behind.
I don’t think we can coast out of it.
I want to call what we need right now, “The Great Forgiving.” What we’re all in together is a murky soup of friendship failures and social confusion. We have all been hurting. We have all suffered. And now that we are reopening our world, it is not a return. We have gone forward. And we’ve messed up; we’ve not been able to maintain relationships we might have wanted to; we’ve said hurtful, clunky things because we forgot how to be in polite society; we’ve pushed people away because we were full of fear. We’ve let the time elapse, and now, for some of our relationships, we barely know each other anymore.
We need a Great Forgiving of each other to be able to close this chapter and walk into, G-d-willing, the next one. Let’s take inspiration from Jacob and Esau. Sometimes, even after a long absence, reconciliation is possible. But we do need to get to know one another again.
Rabbi Julia Appel is Clal’s Senior Director of Innovation, helping Jewish professionals and lay leaders revitalize their communities by serving their people better. She is passionate about creating Jewish community that meets the challenges of the 21st century – in which Jewish identity is a choice, not an obligation. Her writing has been featured in such publications as The Forward, The Globe and Mail, and The Canadian Jewish News, among others.