For Jews, Yom Kippur—the Day of Atonement—is two months past. But Thanksgiving is days off, and all Americans might bear in mind a story from Torah that suggests we pay attention to atonement daily.

Jacob, the younger twin of Isaac and Rebecca, purchases his brother Esau’s birthright for a bowl of lentil stew. Deduct points from Esau. Later, Jacob, at Rebecca’s bidding, deceives Isaac and steals Esau’s blessing. Deduct big points from Jacob.

Esau determines to kill Jacob after Isaac’s death. Rebecca hears and sends Jacob, her favorite, to Padan Aram and the household of her brother Laban. Jacob tends Laban’s sheep and marries his two daughters. But Laban tricks the trickster. Leah (the elder), is substituted for Rachel, whom Jacob truly loves. Only after does Jacob marry Rachel.

Twenty years later Jacob, grown wealthy, leaves Laban to journey towards Isaac. He brings his wives, concubines, children and possessions. Informed that Esau is coming towards him with 400 men, he grows repentant. Jacob’s atonement takes place in three acts.

Act 1: Jacob confesses to God, “I am unworthy of all the kindness that You have so steadfastly shown Your servant…” (Genesis 32:11). This is a good first step—but only a first step.

Act 2: Jacob cannot complete his reconciliation with God until he reconciles with Esau. To do that, he must reconcile with himself. At night, before encountering Esau, Jacob wrestles with “a man.” This appears to be a malach, a messenger from God (“angel” from the Greek translation), perhaps also a manifestation of God. Before daybreak, the man, unable to defeat Jacob, wrenches Jacob’s hip at the socket. But Jacob will not let go unless he receives a blessing. The man renames Jacob Israel—one who has striven with God and humans, and prevailed—and blesses him. Jacob hobbles into the light of a new day.

Jacob’s injury suggests that atonement may injure our former self-perceptions. Yet while Jacob emerges wounded, his neshama (soul) emerges stronger in self-understanding. Jacob has wrestled with God and man—and himself—but his victory comes with a price. Now, his atonement story requires a conclusion.

Act 3: Jacob, fearing Esau, sends many gifts to his brother. Esau surprises him. “Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him and they wept” (Genesis 33:4). Jacob performs the final function of his atonement. He urges Esau to accept his gifts because, “to see your face is like seeing the face of God…” (Genesis 33:10). Flattery? I suggest not. Jacob finally sees Esau as also God’s handiwork. Esau accepts the gifts. The two brothers, reconciled, go their separate ways, later reuniting to bury Isaac.

Thanksgiving and the holidays that follow often bring families together. Many people dread these occasions. Old wounds arise, tensions turn joyous events intolerable. Some people choose to avoid family celebrations.

Jacob and Esau remind us that we all share a common humanity. Also, that we are imperfect. Atonement, asking for and granting forgiveness, can change our lives and those around us. 

Wrestling with God and ourselves may involve pain, but the process can leave us stronger and more connected with our world. That’s something for which we truly can be thankful.

Happy Thanksgiving! The blog will take off next Friday and return on December 3.

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