This week’s parashah Vayishlach is about “optics”—about how we see.
At first glance, it describes Ya’akov’s reconciliation with his brother Esav. This parshah teaches us how a change in optics—from being seen to seeing—is key to Ya’akov’s maturation as a leader.
After twenty-one years, Ya’akov prepares to encounter his brother and has in mind their conflicted childhood. Ya’akov took advantage of his older brother’s hunger to purchase his birthright for a bowl of soup. Then, through his mother’s handling, Ya’akov wrested the blessing of the first born from his brother. In Ya’akov’s mind, Esav surely holds a deep grudge against him. As he prepares to encounter Esav, he sends messengers with gifts and bounty hoping “to find favour” in his brother’s “eyes”—למצוא חן בעיניו.
Ya’akov is concerned with how his brother sees him; he has many preconceptions about how he appears in his eyes. How often do we do the same thing? Imagine how others perceive us and work tirelessly to “find favour in their eyes.”
At night, as Ya’akov awaits his brother, he encounters a mysterious figure. They wrestle, with Ya’akov refusing to let go until the figure blesses him. The figure’s identity remains a mystery—Esav’s guardian angel? Ya’akov’s own conscience? A dream about his paternal relationship?
The wrestling match is surely a rite of passage through which Ya’akov gains strength and confidence; he feels deserving of the blessing he has received.
As the figure departs, Ya’akov declares: “I will name this place Peniel (The Face of God) for I have seen Divinity face to face.” Then, he “raises his eyes” and sees Esav approaching. Against Ya’akov’s expectations, Esav embraces and kisses him. All has apparently been forgiven.
Yet Ya’akov still insists on giving Esav his gifts, stating: “I see your face as one sees the face of God.” Ya’akov is no longer concerned with how his brother sees him. Instead, he is concerned with how he sees his brother. His way of seeing has shifted from a narcissistic “concern with being seen” to a responsibility of “seeing” another person in the image of God.
This Shabbat, may we all practice redirecting our energies from concern with how we are seen by others to concern with how we see others.