Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:40)

According to the psychologist Arthur Aron, “Four minutes of contact brings people closer together than anything else.” Look Beyond Borders is a short film that was made this past year bringing Europeans and refugees together to look into each other’s eyes for four minutes. “People from different continents who have literally never set eyes on each other before come away feeling an amazing connection,” says Draginja Nadażdin, Director of Amnesty International Poland.

Perhaps it is because really seeing each other can create an intense experience that we have many different patters for eye contact depending on our relationship, what kind of attention we want from someone or want to give someone. I wonder what happens between Esau and Jacob when they reunite after so many years apart following a betrayal.

What does it feel like to look into the eyes of the brother who you betrayed? Or the eyes of the brother who betrayed you? What million emotions must be running through each of them as they see each other for the first time? How vulnerable they must feel to stand, look and be seen by each other if even for just a moment.

The Torah narrative doesn’t describe emotions or detail the eyes in this moment. What it gives us is a verbal exchange about gifts which has other clues for us. Jacob says, “Take this gift from my hands.” Why “take” from my hands? Why not “here is a gift?”

Why doesn’t the Torah narrate the exchange with the verb “give?” Not only is it the verb “take”, but very specifically, “from my hands.” I hear this specific direction as an emphasis on the receiving of the gift over the giving of the gift. Instead of passively receiving that which is handed to the receiver, the one receiving the gift must actively “take.”

Especially at this time of the year, that seemed quite noteworthy to me. We hear a lot of language about “Getting gifts for…” or what we are going to “give” someone. We might hear about what we hope to “get.” But, we never talk about what we will “Take” from someone. We don’t have language or conversation to describe how we will act or feel when we receive the gifts from those who love and care for us.

Perhaps it is because to give a gift, we look at the gift as we hand it over, but to ask someone to take something from us, we can look at the person, as we let them know the gift is designated for them. Then the receiver has to engage in the act of receiving, not only looking and taking, but the act of letting in the offer of connection and caring that comes with it. Imagine what can be communicated between two people with just eye contact while giving and receiving from each other.

I’d like to think that when Jacob then adds the reason why Esau should accept his gifts, “Because I have seen your face which is like seeing the face of God (my translation)” he is commenting on what it feels like to really see Esau, to see his eyes, to see into his humanity, to feel the lost family member, and remorse for the tricks he played on his brother.

The brothers will part again and go separate ways. But, perhaps in this moment of exchange, they are like the subjects in the video who come together to see each other, who through a short interval of looking at each others eyes build a new connection that will stay with them as they go about their separate lives.

This year, let’s not only think about the objects we will exchange with each other, but the act of giving and receiving, and how we might give and receive connection in those moments as well.

Vayetze

My name is Leah. There is a music to the sound that I have grown to like, and I have come to associate my name with my individual qualities. But, it wasn’t always that way. When I was in preschool, around age 4, the children in my neighborhood made fun of my name.

As an elementary school aged child, I associated my name with the way it made me feel when my mother was trying to get me to do things, or stop doing things. I have a distinct memory of standing in one of my dance classes and thinking that the girls who had the name Stacy or Jennifer were lucky because that was more “normal” and sounded better than Leah.

I also internalized some of what I learned about Jacob, Leah and Rachel whose story is told in this week’s Torah portion. Leah was the one with the “weak eyes.” Rachel was the beautiful one who Jacob loved. “Not Leah” is what I heard. Who was beautiful? “Not Leah.” Who was loved? “Not Leah.”

This seemed to go with the way I felt about myself in my Jewish day school where we learned this story. “Not Leah” seemed to fit the way I felt among my classmates. I was different, set apart in some way. While I still felt somewhat at home in my school, I felt like an outsider elsewhere. Other names could be found in personalized items in the toy store. “Not Leah.” Other friends seemed to have certain kinds of toys or games. “Not Leah.” Other friends when trick or treating on Halloween. “Not Leah.” Every time I was corrected or criticized which to me seemed incessant, it reinforced the feeling of “Not Leah.” Who is worthy, deserving of praise? “Not Leah.”

It was spending time with extended family that gave me some appreciation of my name. I was named for my great grandmother who had been the first matriarch to live in the family bungalow where we spent summers with extended family. I heard lots of stories of “Grandma Leah” and the name came alive in a special way. “This is what Grandma Leah” used to do, this was “Grandma Leah’s”, etc. Even my dad’s voice softened when he talked about his grandmother. Grandma Leah was so beloved there were two of us named for her!

Over many years, I have reframed the way I see the world, shed the little judges who sat on my shoulders correcting and criticizing with the words I’d heard from teachers and parents. As I carved a path for myself as an adult, doing the things that were meaningful for me, shedding external expectations and living more and more according to how I felt myself to be in the world, I grew to like my name more. I heard Leah, and I heard the love in my husband’s voice. I heard “Leah,” and I heard the love and respect that elementary school children have for their teacher. I grew to associate my name with what I gave to the world instead for what it seemed to think of me.

The more I have oriented myself to thinking of others and sharing in the world, the more I have concentrated on all who are “Not Leah” the sweeter the sound of my name to me.

I wonder if the Biblical Leah could have learned to see herself by what she had to offer the world, through what she could give and contribute to the world, and not through the lens of competition with her sister, or the lens of “Not Leah” how her story might have changed.  Now when I think of Leah in the Torah, I feel compassion for my namesake and wish I could share my life lessons with her.

Toldot (Genesis 25:19-28:9)

How often do we build a case against someone who is playing the antagonist in our life story? What would change if we could approach that antagonist with more empathy?

This week we are introduced to two brothers very different from each other. Esau is the hairy, outdoorsy male, and Jacob the clean shaven, gentle, studious type. While the rabbis give us a lot of commentary judging Esau and proving him undeserving of the blessing that Jacob wins through deception, the Torah itself does not judge Esau and in fact gives voice to Esau’s sense of loss when he discovered that he has been deceived. The Midrash tells us that from the beginning that Jacob was a man of God and the Torah, Esau was course and a worshipper of idols. They do so in order to elevate Jacob and to diminish Esau, thus justifying Rebecca and Jacob’s deception of Isaac.

This year I am struck by the contrast between the rabbis’ demeaning description of Esau and the empathy the Torah narrative provides for Esau. I read Esau’s interaction with Isaac, and feel his disappointment, his loss when “V’yitzak tza’akah g’dolah”, “he cried out a big cry.” His words to his father after hearing that Jacob has received the blessing meant for him, “Have you not a blessing reserved for me?” touch my heart. The empathy in the narrative for Esau moves me. Esau will become an enemy of Jacob, Jacob will be the hero of our story. Yet, the Torah exposes Esau’s humanity to us and asks us to confront the consequence of Jacob’s actions.

How often do we build a case against someone who is playing the antagonist in our life story?

When someone is against us, or seems to favor an opponent, how often do we work to build our own case while diminishing the other person?

What would change in our lives if instead of proving ourselves right and the other person wrong, we accepted our own truth, but allowed empathy for that other person as well?

What might change in the way we treat each other if we could find a little more room in our own hearts to be touched by their “big cries?”

From the way the Torah tells this narrative, I learn that even when someone is our opposite, our opponent, our enemy, our foil, we need to see the humanity in that person and find empathy for him.

Maybe the Torah wants to remind us that though we may favor certain heroes in our own life stories, that we should always save some empathy for the people who challenge us and remember to see the humanity in their stories as well.