Teach us how to see

Our parsha this week, Vayetze, continues the story of Jacob. When we last left our hero, he was skipping town in order to escape the wrath of his brother Esau, on account of Jacob’s having stolen Esau’s blessing from Isaac, their father. This was just the latest bit of trickery between the two brothers, and the trickery will continue into this parsha, with Jacob getting some karmic payback from his Uncle Laban, who makes him work for seven years to “earn” his beloved Rachel and then pulls a switcheroo and sends Rachel’s sister Leah on the wedding night. But I get ahead of myself.

One of the opening images of Vayetze never fails to take my breath away. Jacob is running from Beersheva toward Haran and he stops for the night. He makes a bed of stone to sleep on and while he sleeps, he dreams of a ladder with angels going up and down. In the dream, G-d promises Jacob numerous children and the land where he lies. When Jacob wakes up he is transformed and says these beautiful words:

יש יי במקום הזה ואנוכי לא ידעתי

G-d was in this place and I didn’t know it.

This parsha glimmers with allusions to vision and perception, starting with the dream-vision of angels going up and down the original “stairway to heaven.” There are things that are clear in a moment (like Jacob’s interest in Rachel) and things that reveal themselves over time (like the ways in which Laban and Jacob try to get the better of each other and Rachel’s struggle with infertility). And Leah, who is described as having weak eyes is actually quite perceptive about her place in Jacob’s esteem. Even with her weak eyes, she sees quite clearly that he will never love her.

All these variations on the themes of vision and perception have got me thinking about what it means to see clearly. We live our lives, many of us, looking at most a few feet in front of ourselves. Our lives are mediated by screens of one kind and another, and much of what we think we see on those screens is curated, manufactured, or outright fabricated. Searching for the truth seems to get more and more difficult with each passing day. And even when we manage to break free of our screens — at dinner time, on Shabbat, or what have you — sometimes it’s our minds and hearts that get in the way. We focus on weather or logistics or petty disagreements and don’t find it easy to level up and see what is most important.

When I was in high school, literally in the last century, I committed to memory a line from the book, “The Little Prince,” a line that felt profound to my teenage self: On ne voit bien qu’avec le coeur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux. “We can only see clearly with the heart. The essential is invisible to the eyes.” As I studied and pondered the parsha this week in preparation, this beautiful little quote came back to me and with the experience of the intervening years, it felt perhaps even more profound than I’d realized. How often our perceptions change over time, as our hearts begin to see more clearly what is important! The more time and genuine presence we offer, the more clearly we begin to see. The uncooperative toddler begins to feel more like someone who is struggling to learn something new. We stop seeing our spouse as a collection of annoying habits topped off with a receding hairline and remember the kindness that made us fall in love in the first place. In these moments, our eyes get out of the way and our hearts do the work.

Now let’s go back a minute to those words Jacob utters when he wakes up from his dream. 

יש יי במקום הזה ואנוכי לא ידעתי

The phrase לא ידעתי means ‘I didn’t know it’ and within the word ידעתי is the word דעת. if you look up דעת in a dictionary it will say ‘knowledge or wisdom, but Rabbi Art Green taught me that it’s also used in Hassidic thought to refer to the mind of G-d. When Jacob awakens from his astounding dream, it is as if he has glimpsed the mind of G-d, or even more remarkable, he seems to have realized that his own awareness has something in common with the mind of G-d, that when he sees something amazing it is like peering into the mind of G-d.

In fact, in one of the blessings following the Sh’ma, G-d is referred to as the Rock of Jacob. I think that when Jacob sleeps on that rock, he is actually resting his mind with G-d’s, and just like the method of learning by osmosis by placing a book under your pillow, Jacob awakens with a clarity of vision that comes from having glimpsed the mind of the Holy One. 

We often go through life not realizing the holiness of what surrounds us. Whether we’re absorbed in work, or preoccupied with personal difficulties, or staring at a screen, it’s easy to go through the whole day — sometimes several days — without noticing that the sun rose and the world is pretty amazing. My wish for you this Shabbat is that you will go out from this service with a kavannah, an intention, of seeking and seeing more clearly all of the beauty and purpose that surrounds you. Perhaps if your eyes and your heart are truly open, you will even catch a glimpse of דעת, the mind of G-d. Shabbat shalom!

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