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Vayishlah: Face to Face

Genesis 32:8–36:43

The Nobel laureate S.Y. Agnon is said to have compared reading a text in translation to kissing a bride through her veil. This week's Torah portion affords a good opportunity to look at some of what we may be missing through the veil of translation.

The story: Jacob and Esau are reunited after an interval that is approximated at fully 22 years in the Torah (further expanded by the Midrash to 36 years so as to allow an additional 14-year interval for study). Although he has grown in number and stature, and is now accompanied by an extended family and retinue, Jacob is still fearful of the upcoming encounter with his estranged brother. He adopts a three-part strategy: gifts for Esau, prayers to God, and, in a worst-case scenario, a plan to split his forces and cut his losses: "If Esau should come and destroy one camp, the remaining camp can escape" (32:8).

Dispatching his gifts, Jacob reveals his rationale to his servants (Genesis 32:21). Here is the Jewish Publication Society translation (1962):

I shall propitiate him with presents in advance, and then face him; perhaps he will show me favor.

The three italicized words, although accurately conveying the meaning of the original, obscure the fact that in each case the Torah uses a form of the Hebrew word panim, face. This is an instance of what the philosopher and Bible commentator Martin Buber called a "leitwort," German for a leading or thematic word. In their own German translation of the Torah, Buber and Franz Rosenzweig took pains to conserve such "leading words," and their example was followed in a later, English translation by Everett Fox (Schocken, 1983):

I will wipe [the anger from] his face with the gift that goes ahead of my face; afterward, when I see his face, perhaps he will lift up my face!

The appearance of the same word four times in a single verse is provocative enough, but that is not the end of it; panim reverberates throughout the entire reading. The very next verse (32:22) tells us that "The gift went on ahead" (literally: ahead of his face), "and he spent the night in camp." During that night, Jacob wrestles with "a man" (32:25) and, in the morning, coins the name of Peniel (literally: face of God) for the site of their struggle, declaring: "For I have seen God, face to face, and my life has been spared" (32:30). Later that same day, he is reunited with Esau. They embrace, kiss, and weep. Esau initially declines Jacob's presents, prompting Jacob to respond: "If I have found favor in your eyes, then take this present from my hand, for, after all, I have seen your face as one sees the face of God, and you have been gracious to me" (33:10).

So the face of Jacob's nocturnal opponent is a "face of God," and Esau's is likewise "a face of God." What does this mean?  That the otherwise anonymous opponent could have been Esau? The Midrash indeed identifies Jacob's opponent as Esau's angelic patron. But perhaps there is an alternative explanation.

Jacob and Esau were twins—most likely fraternal although a compelling argument can be made for identical. Thus, when his mother Rebecca suggests to Jacob that he impersonate his brother in order to wrest from Isaac the blessing (Hebrew: berakhah) owed to the elder son, Jacob worries aloud: "My brother Esau is a hairy man while I am smooth-skinned" (27:11). If this is the only salient physical difference that occurs to him, could it be that no other existed between the two boys? If so, one might speculate that Jacob's struggle that night (which according to Maimonides transpired only in a prophetic vision) was not with his identical twin Esau, and not with a mysterious third person, but with his own guilty conscience—as he himself would come finally to recognize the next day in his dramatic and long-postponed "faceoff" with his brother.

In that faceoff, Jacob suddenly utters what, to all appearances, amounts to a Freudian slip, albeit one that is undistinguishable in translation. Thus far, his gifts to Esau have been referred to five different times as a minhah (an offering); but now a significant change occurs, with the gifts becoming "my berakhah that has been brought to you" (33:11). Here, surely, the repressed voice of scruple is speaking. It is tantamount to Jacob declaring: "If you still harbor any grudge toward me on account of the blessing procured by chicanery—then, by all means, it is yours, take it back."

Having struggled with cunning Esau at birth, with his treacherous uncle Laban in Haran, and, lastly, with his own demons, Jacob may at last be ready to assume the burden of the name he had won scant hours earlier from his dream-adversary. No longer is he Yaakov the crooked but Yisrael the upright wrestler with God—the name borne by his people ever since.

Moshe Sokolow is professor of Jewish education at the Azrieli Graduate School of Yeshiva University.



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