Leadership Limmud: Vayishlach and Mindfulness

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Leadership Limmud is a bi-weekly blog post by the Schusterman Family Foundation Leadership and Talent team. It blends traditional Torah commentary with contemporary leadership lessons linked to that week's Torah parsha or upcoming holiday. We hope you enjoy!

Torah Portion Summary: The premise of Parshat Vayishlach is Jacob's return home to the Land of Israel. During his journey, Jacob gathered gifts and split his camp in two, fearing that his older brother Esau would kill everyone in retribution for Jacob stealing their father's blessing. Vayishlach also contains the story of Jacob wrestling with G-d's angel and his renaming of Israel. Once Jacob and his family returned home, we read of the terrible tragedy of the rape of Dinah and her brothers' revenge that leads to a massacre. The parsha ends with the death of Rachel, one of our matriarchs and one of Jacob's wives.

Torah Commentary: On Jacob's return to the Land of Israel, he re-establishes contact with Esau, years after deeply angering Esau because Jacob stole Esau's first-born birthright. Jacob presents his brother with various gifts and then said to Esau, “To see your face is like seeing the face of G-d, and you have received me favorably.” This comparison is both shocking and remarkable; Jacob compares greeting Esau to the honor of greeting G-d. The Ramban (Nachmanides) explains that just as one brings gifts to worship G-d, Jacob also brought gifts to honor and apologize to his older brother.

Rabbi Bradley Artson articulates that both the Torah and the Ramban emphasize the importance of not just relying on words in our communication. In order to most effectively communicate our genuine intentions, we must lead with our n'shamot (souls). When we greet one another with compassion, love and kindness, with gifts before words, we reflect an openness to accept one another where they are in that moment. This reflects the broader Jewish teaching of b'tzelem elohim, that we are all created in G-d's image. This openness reflects a greater desire by us to not just show up, but show up mindfully with intentional recognition of where the other currently is.

Let's get down to Tachlis (nuts and bolts): Jacob used intention and compassion to greet his brother Esau after wronging him many years before. Esau chose to accept his brother and welcomed Jacob back home. By greeting Esau with compassion, Jacob reinforces the idea of b'tzelem elohim, we are all created in G-d's image.

What this means for leaders: Dr. Amit Sood is a Professor of Medicine at Mayo Clinic College of Medicine, Rochester, Minnesota, currently serves as Chair of Mayo Mind Body Initiative and taught at the recent Mindful Leader Summit attended by members of the Leadership and Talent team. In the Stress Management and Resilience Training at the summit, Dr. Sood focused on how to address the most “fixable” stressor: lack of meaning. He taught that in order to find meaning, we must find happiness. Dr. Sood reminded that the happiest people are those seeking authentic emotions, not those that are always seeking positive emotions. Additionally, research shows that the best way to feel personally happy is to create happiness for someone else, just as Jacob greeted Esau with a genuine intention to create a happy reunion.

With this focus on cultivating genuine happiness, Dr. Sood aims to reframe mindfulness in a manner that provides meaning and intention in the following ways:

  • Presence: Rather than forcing ourselves to focus on the current moment, Dr. Sood teaches that solidifying an intention of our presence is more important. We thrive when we mindfully provide intention about where we are and where we want to go.
  • Attitude: Mindfulness teaches us to embody a non-judgmental attitude, but Dr. Sood argues that it must go further than that, we must embody compassion. By proactively acting with compassion, we grow our ability to believe in others and provide meaningful intention when we show up.
  • How we use it: True mindfulness cannot be a practice, something we sometimes use. Mindfulness must be a way of life, a means to seek meaning and happiness.
  • Anchor: To root ourselves in mindfulness, Dr. Sood wants us to fill our minds with courage, hope and inspiration, instead of trying to empty our minds. These feelings provide a sense of purpose, meaning and fulfillment that we desperately crave and lead to foundations of happiness.

In order to practice mindfulness, we need frequent activities that provide our brain with a meaningful break. One recommended activity is morning gratitude. After you wake up, before you leave bed, think of a few people who are important to you and send them silent gratitude. Dr. Sood recommends (metaphorically) looking into their eyes and focusing on specific details of these individuals (or pets). Think to yourself why you are grateful for them, maybe it is something that they have said or done in the past few days (recent is better). Dr. Sood taught that waking up is a transition time. This can be seen in the parsha when, for the second parsha in a row, Jacob experiences a divine intervention during his sleep. As he did in the previous parsha, he wakes up and immediately names the place where he slept, as a form of gratitude to G-d. This becomes a morning gratitude activity that Jacob repeats. We see this morning gratitude lead to a more mindful and intentional presence when he greets Esau. As demonstrated by Jacob and Dr. Sood, by igniting gratitude and compassion, we are giving ourselves the best way to start our day.