Torah Thoughts — Panim El Panim

Parshat Vayishlach– GENESIS 32:3-36:43 

OVERVIEW OF PORTION (from A Torah Commentary for Our Times – Rabbi Harvey Fields)

Vayishlach means “and he sent” and refers to Jacob sending messengers to his brother Esau before their meeting after twenty years of separation. We are told of Jacob’s fears, of his division of his community into two camps, and of his wrestling with a man-angel who changes Jacob’s name to Israel.  Following that struggle, Jacob and Esau meet and part peacefully, each going his separate way.  After Jacob and his community settle in Shechem, Dinah, the daughter of Leah and Jacob, is raped by Shechem son of Hamor the Hivite.  Jacob’s sons take revenge by murdering all the males of Shechem and plundering the city.  Jacob is critical of his sons for what they have done.  Rachel dies giving birth to Benjamin and is buried near Bethlehem.  Isaac dies and is buried in Hebron near Abraham and Sarah.  The Torah portion concludes with the genealogy of Jacob and Esau.


“Jacob therefore named that place Peni’el–‘For I have seen God face-to-face (פנים-אל-פנים / Panim-El-Panim), yet my life has been spared” (Genesis 32:31)…

In Jacob’s struggling with an angel, he discovers two things:  that he can survive conflict, and that in struggle, he encounters God.  Moreover, this encounter is two way–he and God meet face to face, one does not see the other alone.  The encounter is by definition mutual.

Interestingly, Jacob is the only individual in the Torah whose encounter with God is described as such, panim-el-panim.  Abraham and God have dialogue, and Moses sees God’s backside, but neither of these figures meet God face to face.  Later in the Bible, Gideon encounters God face to face, Ezekiel speaks of the Israelites’ encounter with God in the wilderness as meeting them face to face, and Hosea makes a similar reference.  It seems to remain the case that an individual meeting God face to face is quite a special experience for Jacob, and later for Gideon as well.

We in our most ancient prayers seek after our forefather Jacob’s experience.  With the words of the priestly blessing, we pray “may the Eternal’s face shine upon you and be gracious with you, and may God’s face be lifted upon you, and grant you peace,” (Numbers 6:25-26).  When we pray our most sacred words, we express a deep longing, one that Jacob gave voice to after his encounter in this week’s Torah portion: that we may be blessed with an encounter with God, and that it may be face to face.

In that struggle with the Divine we may come to learn that through it we find life and all the more so survive.


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