Face to Face

On Monday I chaperoned an 8th grade visit to the Holocaust Museum in DC. On Tuesday I learned of a bill that was introduced in the Israeli Parliament that, if made law, would make it illegal for women to wear a tallit at the Kotel, potentially alienating an enormous majority of Diaspora Jewry. On Wednesday I began re-reading VaYishlach in depth, and was struck by the Milah Manchah (leading word or key word repeated throughout the story) of the portion: Panim (Face).

In VaYishlach, Jacob finally has to come to terms with his past as he encounters his brother, Esav, after more than twenty years of separation. Though the classical commentaries are apologists for Jacob’s deceptive theft of his father’s blessing (claiming that his actions are justified by his destiny as a patriarch), a close reading of the text actually leans more towards an interpretation that casts Jacob in a darker light. It is clear from the way he approaches Esav so many years later that Jacob knows he wronged his brother and feels guilty. Personally, I’d rather read it that way, because then their reconciliation is so much more meaningful, and the soul-searching that Jacob does prior to seeing Esav reflects an individual truly wrestling with his own past.

It is during the night before he sees Esav that Jacob wrestles with a physical manifestation of the divine, and of course this is no coincidence – Jacob has to face his own past, and doing this kind of spiritual reflection is indeed a way of connecting to the divine. After his wrestling match he names the place Peniel (Face of G-d), recognizing that he has faced holiness. Later, when he finally sees Esav face to face, the connection is recognized directly in verse 33:10 of Breisheet:

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר יַעֲקֹ֗ב אַל־נָא֙ אִם־נָ֨א מָצָ֤אתִי חֵן֙ בְּעֵינֶ֔יךָ וְלָקַחְתָּ֥ מִנְחָתִ֖י מִיָּדִ֑י כִּ֣י עַל־כֵּ֞ן רָאִ֣יתִי פָנֶ֗יךָ כִּרְאֹ֛ת פְּנֵ֥י אֱלֹהִ֖ים וַתִּרְצֵֽנִי׃

And Jacob said, “Don’t. If I’ve found favor in your eyes, then you’ll take my offering from my hand, because on account of this I’ve seen your face— like seeing God’s face!— and you’ve accepted me.

Translation by Richard Elliott Friedman

One of the blessings of being part of a pluralistic Jewish community like Gesher is that all of us have the opportunity to practice face to face encounters every day. We learn from people who practice Judaism in ways that are both familiar and different. Through the practice of encountering “other,” we learn to flex the muscles tolerance and respect. Our adoption of Responsive Classroom addresses this kind of social-emotional learning directly. That, in turn, leads us to be able to do the spiritual work required to face our own mistakes, our past, ourselves, and ultimately each other.

My encounter on Monday with the horrors of the holocaust put me face to face with an enormous breach in human tolerance and respect. My discovery on Tuesday of the bill going through parliament, though of course nothing in comparison to the holocaust, was nevertheless a troubling example of a breach in Judaism in tolerance and respect. If we learn anything from Jacob and Esav, it is that finding a path forward together requires face to face encounters. I am proud to be part of the Jewish Day School movement that is teaching those skills to our children.

This Shabbat, I encourage you to talk to your children about a time when it was hard for you to face something. Something internal, another person with different approaches, a mistake from your past – help them understand how normal all of this is, and that resolution is reached through courage, not avoidance.

Shabbat Shalom,