This week’s parashah, Vayishlach, is about “optics” – about how we see. At first “glance” the parashah describes Ya’akov’s reconciliation with his brother Esav. What we learn from his parashah is how a change in optics – from being seen to seeing – is a key to Ya’akov’s maturation as a leader.
As Ya’akov prepares to encounter his brother after 21 years, he 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 firstborn from his brother. In Ya’akov’s mind, Esav surely holds a grudge against him, one that could only have festered over the years. 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’s main concern is how his brother sees him; he has built up in his imagination a clear picture of this. How often do we do the same thing? Create in our own imaginations an image of how we are perceived by others, and work tirelessly to “find favour in the eyes” of the other. In the night, as he awaits his brother, Ya’akov encounters a mysterious figure with whom he wrestles. Ya’akov refuses to let the figure go until he receives from him a blessing. The figure’s identity remains a mystery– Esav’s guardian angel? Ya’akov’s own conscience? A dream concerning his relationship with his father?
What is clear is the wrestling match is a rite of passage through which Ya’akov gains strength and confidence that he is truly deserving of the blessing that he received previously through deceit. 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. Ya’akov then “raises his eyes” and sees Esav approaching. Against all anticipation, Esav embraces his brother and kisses him. All apparently has been forgiven. Ya’akov still insists on giving Esav his gifts, stating, “I see your face as one sees the face of God,” Ya’akov has transformed from one who was concerned with how his brother would see him, to one who is concerned with how he sees his brother. His way of seeing has gone from a narcissistic “concern with being seen,” to the responsibility of “seeing” another person in the image of God.
This Shabbat, may we all practice turning our energies away from concern with how we are seen by others, to be concerned instead with how we see others.