A Taste of Torah: Weekly Commentary from the JTS Community
Parashat Va-yishlah 5766
Genesis 32:4 - 36:43
December 17, 2005 16 Kislev 5766
This week's commentary was written by Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz, Senior Rabbinic Fellow, JTS
The desire to see God and to know God intimately has been a spark for the spiritual quests of prophets and laypeople alike. Moses, the greatest of all Israelite prophets, comes close to God, but even he is denied the view he so desperately seeks. Moses pleads, "Oh, let me behold your Presence!" To which God responds, "I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the name Lord, and the grace that I grant and the compassion that I show. However, you cannot see My Face, for humans cannot see My Face and live" (Exodus 33:18—20). Conversely, Parashat Vayishlah presents a very different encounter of the divine. As Jacob is about to encounter his brother Esau, he wrestles with a mysterious assailant. Jacob then declares, "For I have seen God face to face and my soul has been preserved" (Genesis 32:30). Why does Jacob merit this great honor and live to tell the tale? Is Jacob's relationship with God qualitatively different? Or is God more open to intimacy in the generations of our earliest ancestors?
While on the surface, Jacob seems no more worthy of this honor than Moses — if anything, Jacob is less worthy in our eyes, given his record of exploitation and deceit — upon digging deeper, one uncovers a life-affirming message. Professor Ze'ev Falk z"l writes, "Seeing the face of God testifies to the clear conscience of Jacob . . . Jacob does not hide this experience [of seeing God] and he uses it both as a means of giving honor to his brother Esau and a way of expressing his fear: 'for having seen your [Esau's] face is like seeing the Face of God and you have accepted me' (Genesis 33:10). It also expresses his sense of security standing before his brother Esau" (Falk, Divrei Torah Ad Tumam, 75). After many years of alienation from Esau, Jacob finally makes peace with his nemesis. His wrestling in the night is an internal attempt to repair the broken relationship with Esau. More than that, Jacob has matured to a point where he desires to make peace with his brother, realizing that to experience the fullness of blessing, he must not only receive the blessing legitimately, but he must also be the beneficiary of Esau's blessing. This is the reason that Jacob merits to see God's face. The Torah seeks to convey a message concerning the potential for teshuvah (repentance) and the importance of peace between brothers. By wrestling with his deepest self, Jacob is given the honor of seeing God's face. And, appropriately, he recognizes that same image of God in his estranged brother.
Peace is even said to be a name of God: "Rabbi Joshua said, 'Great is peace, for the Holy Blessed One is called Peace, as it is said, "And he called it 'the Lord is Peace'" (Judges 6:24)" (Deuteronomy Rabbah 5:12). Jacob's pursuit of peace leads him to an intimate encounter with God.
May our own pursuits of peace, whether in our own families or between nations, lead us to merit this special name of God. And may we, like our ancestor Jacob, see God "face to face."
Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz