Fat Tuesday: The Devil You Know

Last week Jacob wrestled with an angle and emerged transformed, wounded (he walked with a limp forever more), but victorious. Many commentators understand that the angel was a supernatural representation of Esau, Jacob’s brother, who (at least the last time we saw him) believed Jacob to have stole both his birthright and his blessing.

So it’s understandable that Jacob was apprehensive about meeting Esau again. Even moreso when he heard his brother was coming to meet him with 400 armed men.

It is axiomatic that, in the course of our lives, we will have to re-acquaint ourselves with people, places, and situations that we once felt threatened by. Returning to an old workplace, meeting up with an “ex”, going back to school – these are all regular occurrences in many peoples lives. And the angst it might engender doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the emotions brought on when, God forbid, we have to face an abusive person or situation, or relive a traumatic experience from our past.

The word “trigger” is, these days, discounted too quickly. Dismissed as a term used only by the overly sensitive. Discarded as part of the PC, snowflake, #metoo culture.

But the reality is that a “trigger” is simply a situation or stimulus that causes a reaction in ourselves. A trigger can be positive – the smell of baby powder, or cookies coming out of the oven, or crayons, or fresh cut grass; the opening notes of our favorite song, or the words of a beloved bedtime story; the taste of our favorite food from childhood. All of these things and so many more can trigger powerful (and positive) emotions in us.

And what can be even more confusing is when we recognized intellectually that something which triggers positive emotions is also, conversely, bad for us. A pile of Halloween candy certainly brings back memories of childhood, but it may also bring back the stomachache (or worse) that followed. On a more adult level, to this day I cannot stand the smell of tequila, let alone the taste. It was gloriously wonderful at my bachelor party, but that moment also ruined it for me, likely for the rest of my life.

Which brings me to Jacob and Esau. Apprehension gives way to planning – Jacob splits his family up, so that part of his brood can make a run for it if one group is attacked. He sends lavish gifts, in the hope of assuaging any lingering resentment. He creates anticipation by arriving in the last group, with each group before having told Esau that “my Master is coming later”.

But when Jacob sees his twin brother, it’s impossible not to understand the love and genuine fondness.

“And Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him; and they wept.”

and later Jacob says,

“…Seeing you is like seeing the face of God…”

But just as quickly as the reunion begins, Jacob begins to make excuses for why he cannot stay in Esau’s presence. He blames it on how his children would walk too slowly, how the pregnant animals would only slow Esau and his men down. Despite repeated offers, Jacob politely declines. Eventually Esau gets the hint, and goes on his way. We are left to understand that the sons of Isaac never cross paths again.

I relate all of this because Thanksgiving is, for me on a diet this year, a day fraught with challenges and triggers.No matter how good I would be at holding to my new and healthy eating choices on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, I knew that Thursday would bring a table laden with the choicest of foods, and an extended family equally laden with expectations. “I made this for you, it’s your favorite” is a sentence that has destroyed the most disciplined of dieters.

And once again, Torah has the answer. First, to find joy and to fully experience it. To run into the arms of our family. To weep happy tears. To say, sincerely, that we can see the aspect of the Divine shining in their form.

But like Jacob we must also plan ahead. Have our reasons and our resolve in place ahead of time. To make our excuses politely but firmly.

And hopefully, to part ways at the end of the encounter with relationships in tact, even if there has been a little disappointment along the way.