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Ma’aseh avot siman l’vanim—“the forefather’s deed is a sign to the children”—say the Sages. Some commentators, most notably Ramban, criticize Yaakov for being too conciliatory toward his brother Eisav when they reunite in Parshat Vayishlach. Yaakov, Ramban avers, teaches future generations how not to deal with enemies. 

But there are very different lessons we can learn from the brothers’ reunion.

The timeless unwritten law of the Middle East has always been:  “If I am weak, how can I compromise?  If I am strong, why should I compromise?”  Breaking out of this trap—where neither strength nor weakness allows for the possibility of peace—is an essential first step in repairing the brothers’ relationship.

A second obstacle is the blessing which their father Yitzchak bestowed on Yaakov, intended for Eisav: “You shall be lord over your brother” (Gen. 27:29). Instead of mentioning it, Yaakov speaks of his prosperity as a gift from God which he will gladly share. Finally, rather than demonizing his brother, Yaakov tells Eisav, “Seeing your face is like seeing the face of God,” acknowledging his potential for self-transcendence.   

Slowly Eisav allows himself to be convinced.  No longer on the attack, he tells Yaakov, “Let what is yours remain yours.” Eventually he accepts Yaakov’s conciliatory offering and says, “Let’s get going and move on.”  Eisav prepares to travel along with Yaakov.

But Yaakov understands that the brothers’ reconciliation does not mean that they, and the tribes descending from them, can live together peacefully in the same land.  For Eisav also received a blessing from Yitzchak:  “You shall live by your sword.  You may have to serve your brother, but when your complaints mount up, you will throw his yoke off your neck” (Gen. 27:40).  They reconcile, but go their separate ways.

Ma’aseh avot siman l’vanim.

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