Seeing the Image of God

Vayishlah By :  Matthew Berkowitz Director of Israel Programs Posted On Nov 12, 2013 / 5774

After a 20-year absence from home and family back in the Land of Israel, Jacob journeys home. And like any of us en route to the home of our family of origin, anxiety and uncertainty (along with anticipation and joy) play core roles in the experience. To what extent will “old patterns” of sibling rivalry and other family tensions repeat themselves? Will we be able to break free of past hurt to move toward a more hopeful and joyful future? Such is the mindset of our patriarch Jacob as he heads back home, on the verge of encountering his brother, Esau—the same brother from whom he stole the blessing, the same brother that clearly had murderous designs against him for the deep pain inflicted. There is an elaborate and delicate dance that unfolds as Jacob approaches Esau: he sends messengers ahead, utters a prayer to God, divides his family into two camps (lest one half be destroyed so there will be a remnant), and like any wise supplicant, he offers gifts. Notably, Jacob instructs his servants, “And you will add, ‘And your servant Jacob himself is right behind us.’” The verse goes on, “For Jacob reasoned, ‘If I propitiate him with presents in advance, then face him, perhaps he will show me favor” (Gen. 32:21). The Hebrew root connected to the word for “face” repeats itself four times in this verse. What is the implicit message of the text?

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains,

As panim, from p-n-h “to turn,” to take one’s direction towards somewhere, really means in general, the trend, the direction, that somebody is about to take towards an object, and only from that the conception of panim (face) originates—as being that part of the body in whose position, movement and glance is expressed . . . Here it means, “perhaps he will raise up my face which is now downcast. Let me look in the face again.” (Commentary on the Torah: Genesis, 502)

Faces reveal and conceal; faces invite closeness and suggest distance. It is much easier for Jacob to fix his countenance away from his brother, Esau. To do so is to ignore the other person—albeit not freeing one’s self from responsibility to the other. Jacob’s great challenge at this moment is about looking his estranged brother in the eye and realizing the burden and pain of the past. And to do this, Jacob must turn—precisely as Rabbi Samson Raphael suggests. His face must literally change its orientation at this moment. By doing so, his posture (both physical and emotional), will be transformed. Evidence of the import of this message is found immediately after Jacob’s encounter with his brother. Jacob urges Esau to accept his gift and movingly, powerfully declares, “For to see your face is like seeing the Face of God, and you have received me favorably” (Gen. 33:10). The Hebrew root for “face,” once again, repeats itself. And having wrestled with humans and divine beings, Jacob is now capable of shifting orientation.

This “face-to-face” encounter between Jacob and Esau is not only about reconciliation between brothers and becoming “Israel”—it is about seeing the image of God in an estranged loved one and moving a step closer toward peace. 

The publication and distribution of A Taste of Torah are made possible by a generous grant from Sam and Marilee Susi.