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.