Parshat Vayishlach: Genesis 32:4-36:43; Obadiah 1:1-21.
This week’s portion begins with Jacob preparing to see his brother Esau after 20+ years apart. As you’ll recall, after stealing Isaac’s blessing intended for Esau, Jacob fled in order to avoid Esau’s wrath. Now, a few wives, a dozen children and massive amounts of property later, Jacob finally has to deal with his past, as he learns that Esau is coming toward his camp with 400 men (seemingly to attack).
Jacob sends gifts ahead hoping to quell Esau’s anger and then takes precautions by dividing his camp in two — hoping that if one half is attacked, the other will have time to escape.
The night before his meeting with Esau, we find the famous story of Jacob wrestling with an angel. After Jacob emerges victorious, the angel changes his name from Jacob to “Israel” (hence we’re the “Children of Israel”).
The next morning, Jacob and Esau finally meet; and to Jacob’s surprise, Esau is full of love for him.
In response, Jacob says to his brother: “To see your face is like seeing the face of God.”
How do we deal with this statement? Jacob had literally just wrestled with an angel the night before! You’d think that this kind of statement would have been reserved for the Divine Being he encountered rather than for his human brother. We learn in the Torah that humankind was created in God’s image. Perhaps Jacob’s encounter with the angel, juxtaposed with his reunion with Esau, revealed to him just how similar we really are to Divine beings?
Often lost in the hustle and bustle of the narrative is the reality that in addition to being a man who played favorites with his wives and children and who had some shady dealings with his uncle Laban, Jacob was a terrible brother. We could argue that it was his preordained destiny. God’s plan for him was to steal both Esau’s birthright and blessing. Ultimately, I can’t help but struggle with the fact that we’re the descendants of someone who would treat his own brother so poorly. With such a poor role model, is it any surprise that Jacob’s sons eventually have such hatred for their brother Joseph (Jacob’s favorite) that they sell him into slavery?
How do our actions change — specifically as they relate to how we treat others — if we can really begin to see ourselves as reflections of the Divine? Are we modeling how to treat others for those who observe our conduct?
Even if one doesn’t believe in God in the traditional sense (or at all), can we change how we look at other human beings in order to see each individual as unique, beautiful and worthy of our love?
This Shabbat, let’s examine how we treat others, committing to see the innate beauty and special energy that every human being possesses. Let’s bring particular energy and attention to our familial relationships. And let’s approach all of our relationships and interactions from a place of love and warmth, as if every human interaction is truly one between us and the Divine.
Rabbi Dan Horwitz is the founding director of The Well.