Second step
On names and naming

This week's portion: the Face of God

Here's the d'var Torah I offered this morning at my shul.

In this week's parsha, Vayishlach, Jacob wrestles with an angel all night until dawn. In return he receives the blessing of a new name: Israel, one who wrestles with God, for, as the angel tells him, "you have struggled with God and with human beings, and you have prevailed."

Having received a new name, Jacob bestows a new name: he names that place, that bend in the river, Peni'el, literally "the face of God," saying, "For I have seen God face-to-face, yet my life has been spared." In this place, he has an I-Thou encounter. He names this place the Face of God.

Immediately following these verses, Esau appears with his 400 men. Jacob and Esau, remember, have not seen one another since Jacob tricked Esau out of their father's blessing and then fled. The two twins meet and embrace, and they burst into tears.

Then Esau marvels at Jacob's wealth and good fortune. Jacob tries to give him some of what Jacob has, and Esau demurs, saying that he has plenty. But Jacob says --

No, please, if I have truly found favor in your sight, take the offering from my hand; for to see your face is like seeing the face of God.

As dawn was breaking, Jacob realized that the mysterious stranger with whom he had been struggling all night was, in fact, a face of God. That in his wrestle with the angel, he was wrestling with the divine. That's why he named that place Peni'el, the Face of God.

And now he is reunited with his brother, with whom he has struggled his entire life -- ever since they grappled with one another in the womb. And he looks at his brother, and he sees the face of God.

Before long, their old distance creeps between them again. Esau goes one way, and Jacob goes the other. But I like to imagine this as a truly transformative moment. Even if only temporarily, Jacob was able to look at his twin brother -- his lifelong wrestling partner -- and see him as a manifestation of the divine.

As we go through the rest of this Shabbat Vayishlach, I want to bless us that we be able to meet everyone we encounter as a face of God. Our Rabbis taught:

Adam, the first human being, was created as a single person to show forth the greatness of the Ruler Who is beyond all Rulers, the Blessed Holy One. For if a human ruler [like Caesar] mints many coins from one mold, they all carry the same image, they all look the same. But the Blessed Holy One shaped all human beings in the Divine Image, as Adam was shaped in the Divine Image [Gen. 1: 27], "btzelem elohim," "in the Image of God." And yet not one of them resembles another.

(Talmud; Sanhedrin 38a.) Each of us is a face of God; each of us is in the image of God; and not one of us is identical to another. If we are spiritually awake, we can see the face of God -- we can see the angelic presence -- in every messenger who comes our way.

I'll close this morning with a Torah poem from 70 faces.


When Esau saw him he came running.
They embraced and wept, each grateful
to see the profile he knew better than his own.

You didn't need to send gifts, Esau said
but Jacob introduced his wives and children,
his prosperity, and Esau acquiesced.

For one impossible moment Jacob reached out.
To see your face, he said, is like seeing
the face of God: brother, it is so good!

But when Esau replied, let us journey together
from this day forward as we have never done
and I will proceed at your pace, Jacob demurred.

The children are frail, and the flocks:
you go on ahead, he said, and I will follow
but he did not follow.

Once Esau headed out toward Seir
Jacob went the other way, to Shechem, where
his sons would slaughter an entire village.

And again the possibility
of inhabiting a different kind of story
vanished into the unforgiving air.